Monday, November 10, 2008

The real reason my father lives with me

Egg & Biscuits

It's my mother's biscuits. Those of you who have been following my blog know that my 88 year old father, although he has Alzheimer's, is just too adventurous and lively to go to an assisted living center.  However, I think it must actually be because he wants to still enjoy the taste of my mother's biscuits on occasion. (Probably more often that I gather myself together to make them).  These biscuits have quite a history.  My mother told me this recipe was handed down for many generations, and as far back as she could trace, it came from our maternal line from a Pennsylvania Dutch great -something - grandma.

Sifting the flour

My mother never minded giving this recipe out, because the secret is in the feel, and the proportions are approximated.  None of her friends could replicate it even with the 'recipe'.  The first important thing is that you get the right flour. The original recipe calls for a soft wheat flour, one that is suitable for quick breads.  Now, mom (and later I) have experimented with various other flours, mostly as adds to the flour in some proportion, with varying results.  My mother even used hard winter wheat sometimes, with much crunchier results, but she liked the higher protein levels.  She also often added a little soy flour for the same reason.  The flour isn't actually measured, she just kept a big bowl of flour and made only biscuits in it.  So the first step is to sift the flour in your big, high-sided bowl.

Make a well

Then you create a well in the bowl of flour, making the sides relatively thick.  You'll be adding the wet and dry ingredients into the well, and then gradually incorporating flour from the sides and bottom into the mix.  

Buttermilk first

When I was about six, we moved into a house with an old wood burning stove in the kitchen.  I think my mother chose the house for that stove!  She said that nothing, especially biscuits, tasted as good as out of one of these very old fashioned stoves.  I think she was right, but it took a lot of experience to get the stove at the right temperature and maintain it througout the cooking cycle. Another critical thing for making these biscuits taste their best is using REAL old-fashioned buttermilk. You can really taste a huge difference based on the quality of the buttermilk that goes in.  For this batch I used Berkeley Farms Bulgarian Cultured Buttermilk.  You pour one cup carefully into the well as the starting point.

Ingredients topping buttermilk

Then you add the dry and wet ingredients into the well, soda, salt, baking powder, sugar and oil.  I use my mother's old beaten up aluminum measuring spoon set for luck.  My mother swore by Clabber Girl baking soda, and wouldn't have any other in the house.  I used extra virgin olive oil in this batch, simply because it was the one I had open and fresh.  It doesn't seem to affect the taste.  My mother usually used corn, saffola or canola oil, which have less obvious flavor.

Gently mix

From here you mix the ingredients gently in the buttermilk, and start slowly incorporating the flour from around the edges. It is important to do this gently, beating will make for tough biscuits.  To continue with the biscuit history, when I was a senior in high school, my mother's first husband Jim became ill and eventually died of cancer.  He lived in Seattle, and wanted to see my mother again, and since my mother didn't drive, I drove her to see him a week or so before his passing.  When he saw her, I witnessed his last request of her - to bake him a batch of those biscuits!

form a soft ball

Now this is where the 'feel' comes in.  You have to continue stirring in the flour until it 'feels right'.  Now another secret is that the amount of flour that eventually ends up in the biscuits has a lot to do with the kind of flour, the age of the flour and the weather conditions!  So all you need to do is include enough of the flour to get the right feel at the finishing point.  I have to admit, I'm still a bit of a chicken and tend to stop on the soft side which makes more of a drop biscuit. But they still taste good!  The photo above is still too soft.  My mother used to incorporate just enough so she could almost 'spin' these into little biscuit rounds and place on the baking sheet. 

Drop on baking pan

I dropped mine rather haphazardly on the baking sheet sprayed with Pam.  These go into a preheated 'hot' over for 11-15 minutes.  My mother's definition of hot was 500F, no kidding.  She put them into a normal large sized oven at this temperature.  This temperature doesn't work well with the smaller one in my range.  (I have a small one on top, and a normal one beneath).  I bake mine at 400F in the smaller oven.  Now for some more story, my mother's last words to my father before she collapsed of a stroke were, "I'm sorry Charles, I don't think I will be able to cook for you any more".  According to my father, she'd just taken out a batch of biscuits from the oven.  With this long history of biscuits in my family, I have to wonder what events these have been associated with in years past!

Baked biscuits

And here are the ones I took out of the oven.  And what prompted the biscuit baking this time? I heard from my niece Erika, that my 11 year old great-niece, Collette asked her yesterday if she would make "Auntie Anna's" biscuits and strawberry jam for breakfast when she returned home from her Dad's.  I showed Erika and the twins how to bake them this summer, and so we have a new generation of biscuit makers in the family.

This is my mother's 'standard' recipe that I transcribed when I was in college.  "Hot oven" did mean 500F to my mother, but I find success with 400F.

And this is one in my mother's hand, a variation that she particularly liked. She had some spelling issues, but the results are good just the same.


cookiecrumb said...

Weep, weep!
This is the sweetest thing I've ever read on your blog. Brava.
I heartily approve of your choice of Berkeley Farms Bulgarian buttermilk; my favorite.
And the method of stirring in only as much flour as needed? Just like making pasta.
Lucky dad.

Daniel Gray said...

Biscuits. Yum... Your recipe looks amazing and thank you for the touching story.

namastenancy said...

There is no substitute for homemade buttermilk biscuits. I have made my grandmother's biscuits on occasion but they are never as good as her's. You have got all the fine points down to an art.

Anna Haight said...

Thanks for your comments! This one made me feel all vulnerable to post. Glad you enjoyed it.