16 March 2009

Biscuit Perfection

I have my dad to thank for my addiction to breakfast. I can't imagine heading out the door for the day without sitting down to at least a bowl of cold cereal. As a kid, I used to sit down at the table with Dad to enjoy our breakfasts while I often read the back of the cereal box and he read the paper. My older sister was part of this ritual until she reached junior high, and my mom was usually headed home from working the night shift as a nurse when we were eating breakfast. As my mom's jobs changed and my sister moved out, Dad and I were still sitting down together in the mornings to enjoy breakfast.

I still can't manage a day without breakfast, and when I married Seth he worked a swing shift. That meant those morning meals were our only time together. So, we started our own tradition of a hearty breakfast. These days I prefer oatmeal or a simple fried egg on top of a piece of toast, one of Dad's dishes.

On weekends, though, we typically have a bigger breakfast. Many of those mornings include Seth making some scrambled eggs while I bake biscuits. It's hard to beat the salty, flaky, buttery taste of a great biscuit. When a friend finds out about my biscuit passion, they usually assume it was something I was raised on -- a country girl from Oklahoma probably had lots of biscuit breakfasts. It's true, my mom did make biscuits a lot. But, just like a lot of moms, she made the Bisquick variety. In fact, I remember disliking the canned version most of my friend's moms made. The Bisquick version was the standard in my book.

Somewhere along the line I stopped buying Bisquick myself. I found a recipe in my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that I liked. My early attempts at biscuit-making weren't necessarily great, but I could tell that I should strive for a new standard. Lots of biscuits out there, including Bisquick's, bake up a little stiff and end up with the crumb of a cake doughnut. To me, a biscuit should be a soft, pillowy bread with buttery layers that flake apart with the ease of a fork. My mom taught me that: A good biscuit is fork split -- no knife required.

After much practice, I can usually turn out a biscuit I think is pretty darn good. Much like making any pastry, though, the recipe can only get you so far. Technique is important. You don't want all the butter to melt before baking because it's that process that creates those lovely layers as the melting butter creates steam pockets in the toasty oven. And also like may other pastries, biscuits need a dab of butter on top to help them brown.

There are several things I've learned along the way that help make a better biscuit such as popping the unbaked dough in the freezer for a few minutes before baking will help them rise better because the butter will be good and cold. And don't turn your biscuit cutter, just press it straight down and pull it back up. Turning causes one side to fall. And after cutting your biscuit rounds, dip both sides in melted butter for a lovely golden crispness. The unbaked biscuits of this recipe even freeze well, so bake up what you want and throw the remaining in an airtight container for a quick baking later.

I think once you have one of these biscuits, you could find a reason to make breakfast a habit in your house, too. They're great on their own or split 'em open and make a little biscuit, bacon and egg sandwich. That is a breakfast worth repeating!

Flaky Biscuits
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for working with dough

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, cold, cubed
2/3 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter, melted

In a food processor combine dry ingredients and cubed butter. Mix, pulsing until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. If you do not have a food processor, use a pastry blender to combine ingredients. Dump flour and butter mixture into a mixing bowl and add milk. Combine with a spoon. Turn out dough onto well-floured surface. Work dough into a ball and use a rolling pin to roll dough out to about 3/4 of inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter to cut rounds, or using a knife cut square biscuits. Dip cut biscuit tops and bottoms in melted butter and transfer to baking sheet. Place biscuits in freezer for at least five minutes (I place the entire baking sheet in there). Bake biscuits in 450 oven for about 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown.

Variation: Add two teaspoons of sugar to dry mixture and zest of one lemon or orange. In cut dough, make a thumb print and put a teaspoon of berry jam into each depression. Make a glaze with citrus juice and powdered sugar to brush on the top of baked biscuits.

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