by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
I love biscuits. I have a real thing for a biscuits, and if it's not made right, I'm gonna come down hard on somebody.
— Johnny Iuzzini
The need for nutritious, easy-to-store, easy-to-carry, and long-lasting foods on long journeys, particularly at sea, was eventually solved with the introduction of processed cereal baking—including the creation of flour—which provided a more reliable source of food. Egyptian sailors carried a flat, brittle loaf of millet bread called dhourra cake while the Romans had a biscuit called buccellum. Roman cookbook Apicius describes: "a thick paste of fine wheat flour was boiled and spread out on a plate. When it had dried and hardened, it was cut up and then fried until crisp, then served with honey and pepper."
Hard biscuits soften as they age. To solve this problem, early bakers attempted to create the hardest biscuit possible by a twofold process: first baked and then dried out in a slow oven. That's where the word came from ... the Old French word bescuit is derived from the Latin words bis (twice) and coquere (to cook), hence, "twice-cooked." This term was then adapted into English in the 14th century during the Middle Ages in the Middle English word bisquite, to represent a hard, twice-baked product.
Because it was so hard and dry, if properly stored and transported, it could be kept without spoiling for years as long as it was kept dry. To soften it for eating, it was often dunked in brine, coffee, or some other liquid or cooked into a skillet meal. When continental Europeans began to emigrate to colonial North America, the term began to clash with a small leavened bread popular in the United States, particularly the South. In the pre-Civil-War South the leavened biscuit was regarded as a delicacy and usually reserved for Sunday dinner, which was very different from the biscuit that was baked twice. That was called hardtack to differentiate it from the leavened product.
Cathead biscuits was born out of necessity—they had to get things done quickly, so the biscuit dough was made and then huge clumps of the buttery dough were pulled and dropped onto a baking sheet. When flour was hard to come by, sweet potatoes, abundant in the South, were often used as a flour substitute. Modern day biscuits take great care in not beating the dough too much because it makes for a tough biscuit, but there was a time when that was done, in order to last all day in a lunch pail. They would even put a beaten biscuit into overall pockets to be carried all day, so it had to be durable.
What happened to the original twice-baked biscuit? The word cracker became the word of choice to mean those hard, baked products. This sense is at the root of the name of the United States' most prominent maker of cookies and crackers, the National Biscuit Company, now called Nabisco.
In terms of making a biscuit correctly, you know the old saying, "the simplest things can be the hardest to do." Perhaps there is not simpler recipe than that for the ubiquitous biscuit, but actually making a biscuit is almost an art-form. It's all in the technique, so here are a few tidbits to help make the perfect biscuit:
When cutting in the shortening, don't overmix. It should look like fine crumbs. The little bits of shortening is what makes the biscuit flaky.
When mixing, use the "well" method. Make an indentation in the dry mixture and add liquid all at once. Stir with a fork only until the dough leaves the side of the bowl. Stirring too much will make the biscuits tough.
Knead the dough, but do so gently. This combines all the ingredients thoroughly.
When rolling out the dough, make it even—about 1/2-inch thick. Biscuits will double in height while baking.
When cutting the biscuits out of the dough, use a floured cookie cutter. Cut the biscuits close together so there is less dough to re-roll, which, when doing so, do gently. Too much re-rolling over-mixes the dough.
Bake on a shiny, lightly greased baking sheet for a golden crust. For soft sides, place biscuits close together. For crusty sides, place further apart—about 1 inch.
2 cups sifted self-rising flour
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup milk
Preheat oven to 450˚
Cut shortening into flour. Add milk and stir with a fork. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board or pastry cloth. Knead just until smooth.
Roll out dough and cut with a floured cutter. Place on lightly greased baking sheet.
Bake 10-12 minute. Makes 12-14 biscuits.
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