14 October 2011


I'm taking a well-earned rest today.

The past two weeks of work have been maddening, but the madness ended yesterday! For the next couple months, my life will be unmitigated insanity, but very little of that will be coming from work.

Will that result in this blog getting a bit lively again? Only time will tell. Over the past several months it has been a source of guilt more than joy, as I've made all sorts of food that hasn't made it on here. Some of it will probably appear in future years (it's not exactly the time to share recipes for plum cake or curried corn fritters); some of it will probably trickle to the back of my mind and be lost forever.

In the meantime, though, we have biscuits. Who could complain about that?

biscuits with jam

I've been making biscuits for years. They're simple—flour, salt, butter, buttermilk, and leavening—and fast. You can bake them in a jiffy to go with stews and soups (I particularly like them with split pea or lentil-sausage stew), or eat them for breakfast stuffed with eggs and sausage. A little dry ham and cheese, and you can make great little two-bite sandwiches. Biscuits are also perfect with all manner of sweet accompaniments, from jam & butter to macerated strawberries and whipped cream; it's not necessary, but I usually add a bit of sugar to the dough, as well.

For years, I made the exact same biscuits. It was the basic biscuits that most people have made at some point over the years, almost verbatim from The Joy of Cooking: rub some cold butter into flour, salt, and leavening, moisten with buttermilk, and pop into a hot oven. Eventually, though, I started fiddling with things, looking at the many variations in my different cookbooks. I started playing with flour (all cake flour wasn't sturdy enough; only A-P flour didn't have enough tenderness) and leavening (a combination of baking powder and soda seems to work best with buttermilk). All in all, I thought, I made a pretty darned good biscuit.

with butter and jam

And then. And then. A few weeks ago, sitting on the floor surrounded by a pile of cookbooks and magazines, I noticed the biscuit recipe in Michael Ruhlman's Ratio. After the first basic steps and a rest in the fridge, Ruhlman gives the dough the puff pastry treatment, rolling it and folding it into thirds several times. This results in extreme layers and extra tall biscuits, and it is entirely worth the extra work.

flaky layers

Extra Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits
Adapted from Michael Ruhlman's fascinating and useful book "Ratio".

If you're using these for dessert, I recommend adding a tablespoon of sugar to the dry ingredients, though it's certainly not necessary. And in a strawberry shortcake sort of application, I wouldn't do the extra rolling, as I prefer a less flaky biscuit. I've really started to embrace my kitchen scale for dry ingredients, and I highly recommend you do the same; the volume measurements are estimates in case you don't have a scale.

7 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1¾ cups)
2 ounces cake flour (about ¼ cup)
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces very cold butter, cut into pieces (6 tablespoons)
¾ cup cold buttermilk

Measure both flours into a mixing bowl set on your scale. Add the baking powder, soda, and salt and stir well to mix. Add the cold butter, toss to coat, and quickly rub the butter into the flour (if you naturally have very warm hands, you may want to rinse them in very cold water and dry them before starting - or use a pastry cutter or a pair of knives). The biggest pieces of flour should be no bigger than peas, and the mixture as a whole should look rather crumbly, kind of like oats. Pour in the buttermilk and stir quickly just to combine.

Empty the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap; if you have some troublesome flour at the bottom of your bowl, just toss it on top. Use the plastic wrap, if needed, to turn the dough a few times until any dry bits are combined, then press into a 1 inch thick rectangle and wrap tightly. Transfer to the refrigerator for about half an hour or the freezer about 10 minutes.

Unwrap the dough and either dust with flour or top with another piece of plastic wrap. Roll the dough out to approximately an 8- by 10-inch rectangle. Fold it into thirds, roll out again, fold into thirds one more time, and roll out about ½ inch thick. Rewrap and return to the fridge for about 20 minutes. (Note: if your home is very warm, you may wish to refrigerate it for a few minutes between folds, as you don't want the butter, which is very thin at this point, to melt or soften).

While the dough chills, heat the oven to 400ºF.

Remove the dough from the fridge and transfer to a cutting board. Using a very sharp knife, trim the edges from the rectangle, then cut the dough into 6-10 rectangles. Transfer to an ungreased baking sheet and bake until tall and golden brown, 16-18 minutes for very small biscuits, a few minutes longer for larger ones.

Makes 10-12 little biscuits (about 2 ½ by 2 inches)

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