I sat down after dinner to catch up on some reading tonight, something I rarely get to do anymore.
In the July 24 Sunday New York Times Magazine was a piece by Sam Sifton on the art of biscuit making, and how you are probably doing it wrong.
Makes sense. The humble American biscuit (as opposed to the English biscuit, which, as Sifton and my English ex both note, is more like a cookie,) is one of those regional foods that folks have fierce loyalties to. Everyone has their own recipe, their own way of preparing, their own special ingredient that makes it the best biscuit in the world. If you’re from the American south in particular, nobody makes a biscuit like your Grandma, and to suggest otherwise is cause for a donnybrook.
I am a second-generation los Angeleno. An Anglo Los Angeleno, even sadder. That means I come from virtually no tradition. There are no memories of snow-bound Christmases or rowdy Feasts of San Gennaro. I have to stand quietly while Mexican American friends argue over whose abuelita make the best tamale. My own Irish grandmother taught me how to wink and pour a beer, but I can’t remember her ever turning on her stove for anything other than boiling water for instant coffee. There is nothing for me to follow in the way of antecedents when attempting anything in the kitchen. Not unless you want a demonstration of my mad microwaving skillz.
Which means, of course, that I’m free to concoct my own traditions. Re-creating yourself is one of the primary draws of California, you know. It’s why Richard Alpert can become Ram Dass and Norma Jean Baker can become Marilyn Monroe. And since I was born here, shucks, it’s essentially my birthright to just make stuff up as I go along.
Plus, biscuits really aren’t all that hard. Even I can make them. Especially when they come out of a roll from the freezer section of your favorite supermarket. Trader Joe’s makes a good one, of course
Seriously, I’ve made buttermilk biscuits from scratch before, and they’ve turned out! Naturally I tap Mark Bittman.
Ah! But in perusing my cookbooks tonight, I came across this Irish recipe for white soda scones from Forgotten Skills of Cooking, by Darina Allen, a cookbook I bought a while back because I figured it would be good to know how to bake soda bread and pluck a chicken, like my ancestors did back in fair Eire (although I’m told they were school teachers and not farmers).
Some would argue that a scone is not a biscuit. I’m going to argue that if this is what they made for breakfast back in the Old Country, who am I to quibble?
Here’s the recipe:
1 lb all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
Sift the dry ingredients together into a large bowl. make a well in the center and pour most of the buttermilk in at once. Mix together with much vigor and adding the rest of the buttermilk if necessary. The dough should be softish and not too wet and sticky. When it’s come together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface. Wash your hands now, darlin.’
“Tidy up” the dough and flip it over gently. Pat it into a round about 1 inch thick and cut a deep cross on it, which, according to Irish folklore, is done in order to let the faeries out. I imagine this is very important, so if you get any of this right, make the cross cut and make sure it goes across the entire dough. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Cut into scone shapes (I use the brim of a glass). Place on a baking sheet and cook for 20 minutes at 450. The tops can be washed in egg and dipped in grated Cheddar cheese or a mixture of seeds and grains like sesame or sunflower. Or left unadorned. I would let them sit and cool just a minute, then serve with jam and clotted cream. Or maybe just even butter.
I’m going to try this tomorrow morning, because the jet-lag has me waking up at 5 a.m still. And I’ll report back.
It might just be the start of a new family tradition.