Monday, January 30, 2012

Worth the Extra Step

In this world of instant gratification and fast fixes for everything from planting a garden to enjoying a hard-boiled egg, the true art and care of doing these simple tasks is often shoved to the side. Why bother to remember a fabric softener sheet to your dryer loads when now there's a product you toss in for a whole season, or send a gift by regular mail when an instant e-card with an online gift certificate will do?

At the very least, the art of cooking like Grandma is waning in popularity, especially with the high demand for fast (and often figure-friendly) foods. Don't get me wrong - I'm all for convenience and speed in the kitchen, just not for the junky tags that come along with so much of those pre-fabricated products. Canned beans and tomatoes, dried pasta, ground spices and rolled oats are all in my pantry. I have bottled lemon juice and ketchup in my fridge.  But some things, if you're going to do them at all, are just worth doing right. For me, those things are the simple and inexpensive classics: bread, muffins, cookies and biscuits.

I know - it's an ideal scenario to have the time, patience and ability to pull a picture-perfect pan of anything baked out of the oven. Box mixes, frozen or refrigerated dough and even pre-sliced, pre-garlic buttered bread is pretty much foolproof, and in a time or ingredient crunch with demandingly hungry (or picky) audiences I use them with abandon. I have never been able to justify the refrigerated biscuits, however. My grandma's buttermilk biscuits, using shortening and without the need for finicky butter, chilling and careful rolling, were just so simple and fast to whip up - 15 minutes and I had a dozen sitting in a bread basket. But even I can learn how to take a little extra time, an extra step, and perfect the flaky morsels my family and I love so much. Peter Reinhart's method not only uses chilled, cubed butter, but then letter folds the dough three times before cutting it and baking (no pre-chilling, thankfully!).


Is it worth it? Well, if your goal is puff pastry-like, buttery layers, a hint of crispness to the crust and an interior that needs no adornment (although jam would find a welcome home in the crannies), then the answer is undoubtedly, unequivocally yes. That said, am I making these for every Saturday morning brunch or Sunday supper? To put it mildly - BWAHAHAHAHA, no. But really, if you're having biscuits that often, you probably have other things in your diet to worry about.  

What things do you always (or almost always) make from scratch, or value most when you know they're homemade?

My Best Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes 10 biscuits
5 oz all purpose flour, plus some for shaping
3 oz Kamut flour (or other whole grain flour)
1 tbsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp raw sugar
2 oz well chilled butter, cubed
¾ cup well-chilled buttermilk, plus extra for brushing
  1. Heat the oven to 500°F and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.
  2. Whisk flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add the butter cubes and, using your fingers, break them up into the flour until the mixture is filled with pea-sized bits (you should have definite “butter” pieces). Don’t work the butter too hard, it will melt the butter.
  4. Add the buttermilk and stir until all or most of the flour is absorbed by the buttermilk and the dough forms a coarse, slightly sticky lump.
  5. Turn out the dough on a well-floured surface.
  6. With floured hands, press the dough into a ½”-thick rectangle.
  7. Starting from the shorter ends, letter-fold the dough. Rotate 90°.
  8. Press out again into a ½”-thick rectangle and repeat the letter-folding (again from the “new” short ends).
  9. Turn dough 90°, press out and fold one more time. You will have folded a total of three times.
  10. Press out into a ¾”-thick rectangle.
  11. Use a sharp knife to cut the rectangle into 10 even pieces. Do not “saw” the dough. If using a glass or biscuit cutter, don’t twist down – it seals all the edges.
  12. If you are using a cutter, you’ll be able to re-press the scraps about two more times with similar flakiness.
  13. Place biscuits on the sheet, brush with buttermilk and place in the oven.
  14. Immediately drop the temperature to 450°F and bake 8 minutes.
  15. Rotate the pan 180° and bake a further 6 minutes.
  16. Immediately place biscuits on a wire rack to cool.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 131.2
Total Fat: 5.0 g
Cholesterol: 13.0 mg
Sodium: 52.6 mg
Total Carbs: 13.1 g
Dietary Fiber: 0.6 g
Protein: 2.1 g