My mother, although a great cook herself, never actually taught me to cook. I think she loved to cook so much that perhaps it was just easier and more enjoyable to do it herself rather than bother with me. On the other hand, I don't think I really cared to learn. Oh, Mother would buy the occasional Chef Boyardee Spaghetti kit that I might make for supper for the two of us when she got home from work (Daddy worked nights), but that's about the extent of it.
In the seventh grade I took my one and only course of Home Economics. The only thing I actually got out of the class was how to make baking powder biscuits, which nobody in my north Missouri clan, on either side of the family, ever made, to my knowledge.
It was probably a couple of years later that my parents and I went home for dinner with a couple from church; the lady, named Goldie, made biscuits with some sort of subtle difference in them: They tasted better than mine, but I didn't know why. When we went home I mentioned it to my mom, who said she hadn't seen the lady do anything out of the ordinary to those biscuits. Remember, though, that as far as I know my mother never made baking powder biscuits in her life.
In 1962 I got an apartment and was on my own. I bought a Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and learned to make cookies and cakes and breads. Once in awhile I'd make baking powder biscuits, and did a pretty good job of it. Of course, when you live alone, you aren't in need of a lot of biscuits. There were a couple of other times, though, that I tasted biscuits with that subtle difference, that "something better", and each time the cook was from the south, anywhere from southern Missouri to the deep south. What did they do, I wondered, to make something so simple that much better?
In 1966 I got married. Now I lived with a man who appreciated biscuits, light rolls, cake... any sort of thing that came out of the oven! Later on, both my children were bread-lovers too. I discovered Bisquick, which makes some dang good biscuits, not to mention pancakes, and for years I actually forgot that somewhere in the south, there were cooks who had found biscuit nirvana.
In the past several years, having plenty of idle time and access to the Internet, I remembered that, even though everybody loved my biscuits-and-gravy, somewhere there were better biscuits to be made. I Googled and pored over recipes: The chief difference in the ingredients found in southern recipes seemed to be the use of buttermilk and self-rising flour. After some experimentation, I decided that Gold Medal or Pillsbury self-rising flour made slightly better biscuits than the store brands.
My biscuits still didn't have that pure southern magic, but using the recipe on the bag of self-rising flour, they were getting closer.
Recently I tried a different recipe that used no shortening; it was from an Arkansas cook whose recipes I've used several times, so I tried them. Cliff and I, however, agreed that we liked mine better. There were two things in that recipe, though, that I decided to add to my own: She added 1/4 a teaspoon of baking soda to the flour (something that's already included in self-rising flour) and brushed the tops of the biscuits with melted bacon grease, butter, or shortening. Next time I made biscuits I added these steps. Cliff couldn't tell any difference, but I was pretty sure I could.
Last week I made biscuits using my new knowledge. Cora was here and distracted me while they were in the oven, so I went to attend to her needs. On returning to the kitchen I exclaimed, "Oh, my biscuits! I'll bet they're burnt!"
But they weren't. They were darker than usual, but those biscuits were the best I had ever made, and they tasted exactly like those I'd had at Melvin and Goldie's, back when I was fifteen or so. I repeated the same steps this week, and once again, we had perfect southern biscuits, ones that are almost as good cold, left-over, as they are fresh out of the oven.
I've reached biscuit nirvana! But now, of course, I'm craving biscuits. And Cliff and I really shouldn't be eating biscuits all the time.
By the way, I can still make plain old baking powder biscuits in a pinch, and I'm probably the only one (except maybe Cliff) who notices the difference. Yes, the difference is that subtle.
I'm adding this note over a year later: After this blog entry, someone gave me a tip that turned out to be the crowning glory for my biscuits: Melt butter in a cast-iron skillet, put the biscuits one by one into the skillet, sides touching, making sure to turn them over in the butter so both sides are buttery. Yes, it took this final step to find actual biscuit nirvana. What a journey this was, but so worth the effort!
I also learned to add a scant 1/4 teaspoon or so of baking soda, even though the flour is self-rising. Seems to make a slight difference, when I don't forget it.