In the town where I grew up, there’s this café that makes biscuits. Sure, they make other things too, like creamy grits, and spicy home fries, a myriad of omelettes, and beignets so sweet and pillowy you don’t even notice all the powdered sugar you’re wearing until you’re done devouring them. When I was a kid, my dad and I would go there almost every weekend in the summer, like a pilgrimage. I think he went in a valiant effort to try to eat and learn everything on the menu. But I went for those biscuits.
Tall and imposing, with a firm, browned top perfectly shaped for drizzling with jam or honey, these café biscuits give way in the middle to a buttery interior which opens into perfect halves, served still steaming. They’re unapologetically rich, a buttermilk-based dough baked in a pan covered with melted butter, and they lend themselves well to sweet or savory pairings.
My love affair with these biscuits started innocently enough. I would smother them with butter, or drizzle them with honey, and munch on them happily as an appetizer. Or breakfast. Or lunch.
After a rigorous investigation however, I discovered that adding the café’s signature blend of cayenne, oregano, garlic, onion powder, and pepper* to my biscuits was the best way kid me could think to have them.
As I got older, they became the first meal I wanted to grab when I came home for school break or on work vacation. This year, before COVID hit, they were at the top of my list of “must eat” foods when I had planned to visit my parents in the fall.
My love of these biscuits eventually translated into trying to bake them at home. But there I learned, as I have so many times, that loving a food does not necessarily result in being able to replicate it in your own kitchen.
I found my footing slowly with cooking, and even more so with baking. I cook all the time now, but baking is still a medium which gives me pause. These biscuits in particular though, have thwarted me every time. I’ve overworked them. I’ve underworked them. I’ve added too much butter, or not enough. I’ve forgotten to preheat the oven. I’ve forgotten the biscuits in the oven. I’ve forgotten the baking powder. I’ve used the wrong flour. The list goes on and on, far eclipsing the learning curve of any kitchen project I’ve given myself in the past. I have made mistakes while making these biscuits that I learned how to avoid in some of my earliest cookery lessons.
In my attempts to make edible biscuits of any kind, I succeeded almost accidentally, by trying a recipe for making laminated dough biscuits, a very, very different breed of biscuit than the ones I originally fell in love with.
The biscuits I described earlier are made by combining flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and buttermilk in a mixer, and then coaxing the resulting batter into a pan, where it is scored and then lovingly bathed in melted butter. When the dough heats in the oven, it expands, soaking up the butter.** The scoring encourages the dough to rise into regular shapes. In the café, when the biscuits emerge from the oven, all of the butter has been absorbed and the biscuits loom over their pan like a small mountain range, just waiting to be snatched and gobbled up by hungry dragon children. This has never been a state I have managed to achieve when baking these biscuits at home.
The laminated biscuits I learned to bake are made by combining flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, yogurt and half and half in a bowl, and adding thinly-sliced or shaved butter. You freeze the butter for thirty minutes beforehand. When incorporating the ingredients, you use chilled utensils, and avoid touching the dough with your hands. You let the dough rest in the refrigerator after incorporation. You let it rest again after you’ve finished cutting the biscuits. You do all of these things to keep the butter from melting, so that when your proto-biscuits hit the oven, the dough expands, lofting into a biscuit two or three times its pre-bake height.
Lamination requires placing the dough on a floured surface and roughly flattening it out with your fingers until you’ve made a rectangle. Then, you grab one half of the rectangle and fold the dough on top of itself, like a book. You repeat the flattening process (by hand; avoid a rolling pin) and then you fold the dough on top of itself again. You flatten it out into a large rectangle once more, and then cut it into circles (some use biscuit cutters, but you can also use an inverted pint glass). You place the laminated proto-biscuits onto a greased baking sheet, and then you put them right back into the refrigerator for one final rest, lest your butter start melting before it bakes.
Compared to those biscuits from my childhood, which are full of hidden pitfalls and old mistakes, these new biscuits, a discovery made during quarantine, have been much easier to bake. I haven’t mastered them yet: lamination, and in particular ensuring consistency without a rolling pin, remains a task I must perform with vigilance, lest my inattention lead to smushed or uneven pastry.
But I can see my mistakes in the biscuits I make now. I know when my dough needs more moisture. I know when it needs more flour. I know when I haven’t laminated enough. I know when I’ve flattened the dough unevenly. I have gained confidence in baking them, and that success has spurred me to try other recipes I’ve previously judged “too complicated” to attempt in my tiny postcard of an apartment kitchen.
My dad called recently to inform me that he found the recipe for my childhood biscuits, and has recreated them successfully. I will go back to them some day, and try again. But for now, I’m going to spread my jam on a laminated biscuit.
* Plus some other delightful herbs and spices I haven’t been able to determine after more than ten years of sporadic attempts to replicate this delightful blend.
** Some might say that slathering even more butter on top (or in the middle) of one of these already butter-laden biscuits is redundant, but this was not among my concerns as a young diner.