I love biscuits. Who doesn’t? So buttery, soft and feathery on the inside, crisp and flaky on the outside. Scrumptious. I don’t like jam or even honey on my biscuits, I like them that much. Just the pure flavors of flour, butter and heaven.
Biscuits have the magical ability to make any plain old boring meal instantly divine. Soup. Ho hum. And biscuits? Oh my! Fried eggs. Again. And biscuits? Alright! But if that’s not enough, try this: scrounge your fridge for some leftovers that everyone’s tired of. Just about anything can work. Scoop it out into a pie dish and cover with a thin layer of biscuit dough. Bake until everyone piles into the kitchen, nose first. Mmmm, what that? No one really cares what’s underneath when there’s pot pie on the table.
And how about this. Add 2 Tablespoons of sugar and these biscuits become ‘shortcake.’ Not that nasty angel food business they put next to the strawberries at the grocery store, but real shortcake. Layered with strawberries and cream, this has got to be one of my 5 favorite foods ever.
The basic recipe is nothing new, this is just my whole wheat version of the very same Joy of Cooking recipe my mom always made. What makes these perfect is the method. The entirety of success is how you incorporate the butter.
I like flaky biscuits. I’ve heard there are folks who like fluffy biscuits, and that’s fine. To each their own, but this recipe is not for you. To make flakes of biscuit, you need to have flakes of butter, which is to say thin sheets of cohesive butter in the dough. To make thin sheets of butter without the butter absorbing into the dough, you need to keep your dough cold. The colder the better. In Alaska I used to get away without this step, but here where our house is a perpetual 81 F (cooled to 81!) I have taken to using the freezer to cool the half pinched butter chunks before further working. Makes all the difference.
Calamity’s Perfect Whole Grain Biscuits, if I do say so myself
1 1/3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cups white bread flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt (depending on how salty you like food)
5-6 Tablespoons cold butter **see note below
1/2 + cup whole milk
Put the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly. Take your butter out of the fridge and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. Toss cubes into the flour and, working quickly with your fingertips, squinch the chunks up into the flour, so that each cube is a flatfish, flour-covered chunk. Put the bowl into the freezer for about ten minutes while you clear a space on the counter to roll out the dough and deal with any kiddy troubles. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
When you’re ready, take the bowl out and continue the squinching business until most of the butter pieces are like big flakes of paint. There will be lots of smaller pieces too, and that’s okay, but you don’t want to work it so much that it looks like “meal” as I’ve often read in cookbooks. At least, not if you want flaky biscuits.
Now pour in the 1/2 cup of cold milk. Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold the milk into the butter flakes until it starts to look like a dough. You might need a few more tablespoons of milk, but add them one at a time. Too much liquid will make the biscuits gummy. You want just enough milk to make a workable dough, I find it often looks right but when I stick my finger in it feels wet and sticky, and conversely when it is right it looks too dry. Squeeze a bit in your fingers to check.
Don’t stir too much, but do make sure most of the flour has been incorporated. Then dump the lot out onto a lightly floured countertop. Pat into a round, gathering all the crumbs up on top. Using a sharp knife, cut the round into quarters, then stack one on top of the other. Pat the stack into a semi-cohesive mound, then roll out to 3/4 inch thick (about finger width) adding another sprinkling of flour as necessary. Watch for sneaky baby fingers.
I used canning jar rings to cut biscuits for the longest time, then finally last year bought myself a real biscuit cutter. It does make a difference, the sharp edge cuts instead of pinching the dough and makes for a higher rise. I can’t believe I waited through 15 years of biscuit making to spend that two dollars and ninety-five motherfucking cents. What a cheap skate. That said, until you’re a confirmed biscuit maker, jar rings or just an upturned glass work fine.
For the highest rise, push straight down (don’t twist) and make sure that your biscuits are cut all the way around, meaning don’t consider the edge of the dough to be the edge of your biscuits. This means you will only get four or five biscuits in the first cutting, but you can take all those leftover scraps, pile them up, pat out again and cut out one or two more biscuits. After that second cut though, I just pile the remaining scraps into one big chunky biscuit and call it good.
Place biscuits on an ungreased cookie sheet and pop right into the very hot oven. Don’t open the oven for ten minutes, then check and see how they look. You want them to get toasty brown on top, but not at the expense of getting dusty dry in the middle. If they’re still not brown after 15 minutes, take them out anyway (and bake at a hotter temp next time). Crack one open just to make sure it’s cooked through, then take those piping hot beauties straight to the table.
Lastly, two essential notes on whole grain baking in general:
- Pastry flour, pastry flour, pastry flour! Whole wheat pastry flour is milled from soft white wheat, and has much less strong wheaty flavor. Also it has less gluten. This is perfect for cakes and muffins, but after many years of making mealy whole wheat biscuits and pie crusts I finally realized that some gluten is important to get the flakiness I desired. I mix whole wheat pastry flour 2:1 or 3:1 with white bread flour to arrive at a homemade all-purpose with just the right amount of gluten for flaky baked goods. If you want to use 100% whole wheat pastry flour, try adding in a Tablespoon or two of pure gluten flour.
- Butter, butter, butter! There’s no overemphasizing this perfect ingredient. Chefs all agree butter is queen of the kitchen, but what I’ve slowly realized it how it is even more important for whole grain baking. It tames the sometimes sharp, slightly bitter flavor of whole grain flours, but just as importantly it helps to lighten otherwise heavy whole grain doughs. The original Joy recipe calls for just 4 Tablespoons of butter, but I’ve started using 5 Tablespoons in general and 6 for company. It’s worth it. If you’re worried about looking like Julia Child, just go take a long walk afterwards.