Well, not her first biscuits. According to Scott Family legend, perpetuated by my father in frequent and gleeful detail, my mother’s first attempt at baking powder biscuits ended up being buried by the dog.
History seemed to genetically repeat itself years later: another burial of another batch of biscuits occurred when my sister inadvertently omitted, uh, the baking powder. It even happened to a friend of mine early in her marriage, when she taught her husband never again to disparage her biscuit-baking skills by never again baking biscuits!
Despite her inauspicious biscuit debut, however, my mother rebounded nicely. Her baking powder biscuits eventually became the stuff of delicious family legend for which I am currently hungering: hot, flaky cylinders baked with a crispy exterior and a soft, butter-melting, mouth-watering interior. Oops, I must pause a moment to drool…
When she determined to bake biscuits for supper or Sunday lunch, the creature of habit she was pulled out that one mixing bowl she always used as well as her bible of all things culinary: her Betty Crocker cookbook. She rarely pre-assembled her ingredients and tools as promoted by Ms. Crocker. Rather she commenced an oft-performed ballet during which she moved around the kitchen, pulling cooking supplies and implements as needed from various cabinets and drawers.
It makes perfect sense that Mother would choose biscuits over her equally-scrumptious cloverleaf rolls for routine evening meals. Biscuits are, after all, members of the quick bread genre. She was unknowingly following the customs of our 19th century ancestors who developed bread recipes back when the cheaply-produced leavening agent of baking powder was preferred over the more expensive yeast that was difficult to store and whose dough-making included a delay for rising or proofing.
She was a measurer and a sifter. Into her traditional biscuit bowl she sifted the requisite amounts of flour, baking powder, and salt – each of which she had leveled off in their respective measuring cups and spoons with her traditional table knife set aside for that express purpose. By the way, she had already pre-sifted the flour onto a sheet of waxed paper before ever measuring it.
I never heard Mother mention anything explanatory about the flour she used. Perhaps she did not realize that flour made from the soft winter wheat grown in Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas contained less protein, better suiting it to quick breads – as opposed to the flour milled from the hard spring wheat produced in the fields of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. She just used Gold Medal flour, named for the color of medal it received in an 1880 international exhibition in Cincinnati.
Her next step was to cut in the called-for amount of fat in the form of butter or shortening. I remember only the can of Crisco and the silver-toned measuring cups from which she rubber-scrapered every last bit of the white cooking substance. She then pushed her wooden-handled pastry blender expertly around the bowl, pulverizing its contents into a crumble of pea-sized, flour-covered shortening balls.
Another clarifying tidbit of biscuit history: early American settlers made a rudimentary rendition of biscuits which could be warmed by the gravy eaten with them; and anyway, biscuits kept their shape better than bread slices during the whole gravy-sopping process. As it turned out, however, our family preferred melting butter over sopping gravy.
After stirring in the milk, she turned the resulting soft dough out onto her cloth-covered pastry board. Following a couple of floury turns, she used her cloth-covered rolling pin to flatten the mass to ½ inch, which she often measured with a ruler. She used her baking-powder-biscuit cutter to form the rounds and patted the remaining dough scraps into a final bumpy, misshapen runt of a biscuit.
To be sure, there are lots of alternate biscuit forms and methods of creating them. Interestingly enough, Ballard & Ballard patented the first refrigerator biscuits in 1931, the same year Bisquick became available at the grocery. I have made the occasional crusty drop biscuit, which hardly seems worth the effort. And a couple of casual-dining chicken restaurants make a passable biscuit. I have even seen cookbook pictures of baking powder biscuits pressed together in a round baking pan and others that are fried/baked in bacon drippings on top of the stove in a cast iron skillet.
Ten or twelve minutes later, she pulled her baking sheet – the one with slightly darkened circles indicating past biscuit placement – from the hot oven and slid them onto a plate to be transferred to the kitchen table, where family members ravenously awaited the baked goodies.
Mother also made a larger, sweeter version of her biscuits, perfect for soaking up juice and cream during strawberry season. My sister insists day-old baking powder biscuits slathered in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar are well worth the ten microwave seconds and the resulting addictive qualities of said biscuits. Me? I am more than satisfied with a cold, next-morning biscuit dabbed at with jelly.
But, in the end it is just the pure, fresh-from-the-oven concoction of basic ingredients that I crave, the piping hot delicacy that still mystifies me with its dividing line at the halfway point showing me where to split it open. And it is also watching my mother create her biscuits – on River Road or later on Ford Road – that I crave just as much…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.