Mastering the Biscuit

Southerners just love a good, homemade biscuit. Most have a favorite recipe or a funny account of a failed attempt at making them. Jackie Garvin has plenty of both. The retired nurse and former Mobilian writes a popular food blog, Syrup and Biscuits, and has just authored her first cookbook, “Biscuits: Sweet and Savory Southern Recipes for the All-American Kitchen.” 

Tell us about growing up in Mobile. 
At age 8, I moved to Mobile and went to Morningside Elementary. That was when lunchroom ladies cooked home-style meals, and they cost 25 cents! In 1973, I graduated from B.C. Rain where I met my husband, Sam. I also attended University of South Alabama. 

What do you miss most about Mobile?
Definitely Mardi Gras. We had some serious withdrawals after we moved to Tampa. Mobile is truly a Southern city and displays it through culture and attitude. We also miss our friends and family that still live there.

What is your favorite Bay-area food?
Blue crab claws! We can’t get them in Tampa. Anytime we’re near Mobile, we order them.

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After decades of botching biscuits, how did you turn the corner? 
Oh, my heavenly days! I’ve had biscuits fail every way possible: too hard, too soggy, too doughy, burned, greasy and flat as a flitter. By the time I got old enough to be interested in biscuit baking, my Granny had discovered the wonderment of canned biscuits. After baking from scratch for most of her life, she wasn’t interested in teaching me; she wanted shortcuts. So, I turned to Bisquick. The directions were right on the package, and I felt I could cheat a little and feel like I was making homemade biscuits. After a few years, I discovered really good frozen biscuits. They worked just fine. Technically, I was baking the biscuits when I put the frozen biscuits on a sheet pan and placed them in the oven, right?

Finally, my competitive nature got the best of me. I was determined to win this battle. I launched a scholarly undertaking and read everything I could about biscuit baking. Then I set out to make good scratch biscuits using all my research. I put the first batch in the oven and sat on the floor so I could watch as they baked. As soon as the rise started, I almost fainted! Those biscuits turned out beautifully; they were tasty and fluffy and flaky and everything else a biscuit should be. I haven’t had a failure since that day. Taking the time to understand what makes them good was responsible for my ultimate success.  

What is the secret to biscuit baking? 
Develop a touch for the dough. Don’t let a recipe tell you the correct ratio of wet to dry ingredients. I don’t include the exact amount of flour needed for my recipes. Instead, I start with a measured amount and then say to add flour as needed until the dough is no longer sticky and holds its shape. Several factors affect the exact amount of additional flour needed: type of flour, type of fat, type of liquid and the weather. Since I can’t be in the kitchen with readers, I want them to develop the touch. Remember to have faith and pray for grace, and you will develop that feel.

Best tips for newbies or notoriously bad bakers?
Products matter. Use soft winter wheat flour (I prefer White Lily). Have your fats and liquids cold and your oven hot. Use my instructions. I’ve failed every way possible. I know the right way to do it now. Of course, the way your Mama and Granny did it is the real right way. But if they are no longer able to teach you to make biscuits, I can help!

What is your favorite recipe in your new cookbook?
Honestly, it’s the first recipe in the book: Buttermilk Biscuits (see below). That recipe really rocked my world! After I perfected it, I transformed from a biscuit failure to a biscuit maven.

Buttermilk Biscuits

If you want to perfect one biscuit recipe for your collection, this is it. Buttermilk contains a mild acid that tenderizes the already tender southern winter wheat flour.

2 cups soft winter wheat self-rising flour
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1 cup buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, add flour and butter. Rub in butter, grabbing small amounts of flour between your thumb and fingers. Quickly continue the process until all the flour looks like a coarse corn meal. Pea-sized pieces of butter will remain.
3. Stir in buttermilk with a wooden spoon. Dough will be wet and sticky.
4. Turn out dough onto a tea towel that has been sprinkled with flour. Sprinkle dough with flour and gently knead, adding additional flour as needed until dough is no longer sticky and holds its shape.
5. Roll dough out until it is 1/4 inch thick, long ways on the towel. Make sure enough flour is under the dough to prevent sticking.
6. To create puff-pastry style layers, grab the right side of the towel and fold the right third of the dough toward the center. Grab the left side of the towel and fold the left third of the dough toward the center. Grab the top of the towel and fold the dough in half from top to bottom. Grab the top of the towel and fold dough in half bottom to top.
7. Lightly roll out folded dough until it is 1 inch thick. Cut out biscuits using a 2-1/2-inch biscuit cutter dipped in flour. Cut straight down; do not twist. Cut as many biscuits as possible. Then gather scraps, gently press together and continue to cut more.
8. On a greased baking sheet, place biscuits touching side by side. Brush tops of biscuits with cooking oil. Bake for 15 minutes or until tops are golden brown. Yields 12 – 15 (2–1/2–inch) biscuits.

Skillet-toasted Biscuits with Herb Cream Cheese and Country Tomato Relish

As much as we love our biscuits, some are bound to be left over. Skillet toasting is a way to make use of a biscuit after it’s lost its freshness. Herb cream cheese topped with a country tomato relish adds wonderful texture and rich flavor as well.

6 slices uncooked bacon
8 leftover biscuits, split open
Herb Cream Cheese,  see recipe below
Country Tomato Relish,  see recipe below

1. Cook bacon in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Remove when crispy and drain on paper towels. Reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings for Country Tomato Relish. Crumble bacon and set aside.
2. While the skillet is still hot, put in the biscuits cut-side down. When toasted brown, flip over and repeat on the other side. You may need to cook in batches.
3. Spread cut side of toasted biscuits with Herb Cream Cheese spread. Top with a dollop of Country Tomato Relish. Crumble bacon over top. Yields 16 biscuit halves.

Herb Cream Cheese

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh dill,  finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh chives,  finely chopped

1. In a bowl, add all four ingredients.  Stir to combine.

Country Tomato Relish

2 tablespoons reserved bacon drippings
1 medium sweet onion,  finely chopped
1 (14-1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh basil,  roughly chopped
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons pickled jalapeño slices, finely chopped
salt and pepper, to taste

1. Add reserved bacon drippings back to medium-sized cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until tender and translucent, about 15 minutes.
2. Add tomatoes and their juice. Continue cooking over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated.
3. Stir in basil, honey and pickled jalapeños. Cook until basil has wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sweet Potato Biscuits with Cinnamon Honey Butter

3 cups self-rising soft winter wheat flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup unsalted butter,  cubed and chilled
1 average-sized sweet potato, baked, cooled and peeled
1 cup half-and-half
Cinnamon Honey Butter, see below

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Mix flour and next four ingredients. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse ground meal.
3. Add sweet potato to dry ingredients.
4. Pour in half-and-half and mix, with spoon or hands, until incorporated. Dough will be wet and sticky.
5. Turn out onto a well-floured surface. Sprinkle flour on dough until no longer sticky and holds its shape. Roll out until it is 1 inch thick. Cut with 2-1/2-inch biscuit cutter dipped in flour.
6. Place 1 inch apart on a sheet pan sprayed with nonstick spray. Brush tops with cooking oil or butter.
7. Bake for 12 – 15 minutes or until tops are golden brown. Serve with Cinnamon Honey Butter. Yields 2 dozen (2-1/2-inch) biscuits

Cinnamon Honey Butter

1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. In a bowl, stir together all ingredients until thoroughly combined.

Bacon Cathead Biscuits

You can always put slices of bacon on your biscuit; however, working bacon into the dough is absolute bliss.

4 slices bacon
2 cups self-rising soft winter wheat flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons of bacon drippings, reserved from bacon

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. In an 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet, fry bacon until crispy. Reserve 2 tablespoons of drippings and set aside. Dice bacon into bits. Set pan aside, leaving a thin coat of bacon drippings on the bottom of the skillet.
3. In a bowl, add flour and cut or rub in butter until flour resembles coarse meal. Stir in diced bacon.
4. Form a well in flour and pour in buttermilk. Stir with a wooden spoon until dough is wet.
5. If dough is too sticky to handle, sprinkle flour on top and work in until it’s no longer sticky. Separate the dough into 8 equal portions and roll each into a ball with your hands.
6. Place the dough pieces into the cast-iron skillet. Press down the dough with the back of your fingers until  it covers the bottom of the skillet. Brush tops with reserved 2 tablespoons of bacon drippings.
7. Bake for 15 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Yields 8 biscuits.

text by Sallye Irvine • photos courtesy of Jackie Garvin

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