Week Forty: One More Time
When I embarked on my biscuit adventure some weeks ago, I neglected to remember one important detail: I didn’t own any round biscuit cutters. Bunny shape, check. Bone shape, check. Halloween cat and ghost shapes, check. But round? It had never seemed a crucial item to purchase; after all, I had plenty of drinking glasses and a couple of tin cans opened at both ends. I had better things to spend my money on than proper round cutters.
And normally, I would agree with myself. In many cases, a tin can or drinking glass will amply suffice in place of a round cutter. But for biscuits, my tin cans were, at over 3 inches across, just too big. I was going for biscuits, not tiny loaves of biscuity bread. And the problem with drinking glasses is their bluntness.
You see, biscuits are a sort of laminated dough, that is, layers of fat and dough. Use too blunt a cutting instrument, and you pinch the edges flat. This prevents the sides of your dough from rising properly, and prohibits the entire thing from becoming as tall and fluffy as it potentially could.
By using drinking glasses to cut out my biscuits, I was shooting myself in the foot. After all the care and effort put into crafting the dough so that it would be the flakiest thing possible and create biscuits so fluffy you have to nail them down lest they float away, I hamfistedly smushed the edges flat, making domed and slightly dense things instead. They tasted just fine, but I was a little displeased with the texture, if this perfectionist may be honest.
It was then that I decided to pull the trigger on a set of round cutters. I couldn’t seriously expect to continue with my head held high otherwise, now could I? Proper cutting utensils in hand, I turned my attention to angel biscuits. The other biscuits made that week were either not harmed much by the inferior shaping, or too much trouble to fool with this week, quite frankly. Also, that was the first time I’d ever made these yeast-risen biscuits, and I was intrigued enough to try them again.
This time around, the cutters made a noticable difference. The cut edges definitely rose taller than previously. My usual trick of placing biscuits on the baking pan so that they touch, rising taller by climbing up each other, also helped loads. But this time, I gave the biscuits a rise before baking, until they were puffy, but not doubled like a typical yeast bread. This meant that the butter in the dough softened, and therefore didn’t provide much lift in the oven. The finished biscuits weren’t much taller than when they went risen into the oven, but the effect was quite acceptable.
In retrospect, I understand why the vast majority of angel biscuit recipes use shortening as the only fat — I had made the executive decision to use half butter for better flavor — it is because of this softening due to the rising time. Most shortening will stay m ore solid at room temperature, unlike butter, which sinks into a slightly soupy mess.
And so, in final judgement, angel biscuits made entirely with shortening are truly excellent for a biscuit beginner, justly earning their nickname, “Bride’s Biscuits”. But if you’ve got a dozen or so batches under your belt, and have gotten the hang of the whole “cutting in the fat” bit, you may want to graduate, and give regular all-butter, non-yeasted biscuits a go. In my humble opinion, they’re worth all the effort (and worth all the calories).
Angel Biscuits, One More Time
Makes about 15
1/4 cup chilled vegetable shortening
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter
10 ounces (2 1/2 cups) cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold buttermilk, plus extra for brushing biscuits
All-purpose or bread flour, for dusting and rolling out
1. Cut the butter and shortening into as small pieces as possible. Pile loosely on a small plate and freeze while preparing remaining ingredients.
2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, yeast, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add partly-frozen butter and shortening. Moving quickly, toss and pinch butter and shortening into flour with fingertips, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Large flakes or pea-sized lumps are just fine.
3. Add the buttermilk to the flour mixture, and fold quickly but gently with a fork or nonstick spatula until all dry ingredients are moistened and a rough dough forms.
4. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. With floured hands, press the dough together into a cohesive mass. Liberally dust the top with flour, and fold the dough in half (you may need to use a bench scraper to help with this). At this point, the dough may be refrigerated, wrapped in plastic wrap, at least 8 hours and up to 2 days. Let come to room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before proceeding.
5. Grease a large baking sheet, or line with parchment paper.Using a rolling pin, and dusting with flour as needed to prevent sticking, gently roll the dough out to about 1/2 inch thick. Using a round cutter, and cutting decisively, cut as many biscuits as you can, cutting each out as closely as possible to the next one. Do not twist the cutter. Transfer the biscuits to the prepared baking sheet, placing them so they just touch.
6. Gather scraps together by gathering in from the sides, pressing the cut sides together. Do not re-knead or re-roll for the best results. Form biscuits from scraps either by hand-shaping or by cutting. Transfer scrap biscuits to the prepared baking sheet, placing them so they just touch. (Cut-out biscuits can be frozen at this point, for up to a few weeks. Do not thaw before baking.) Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for 1 to 1½ hours, or until puffy and lightly risen. Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425° F.
7. Bake biscuits at 425° F for 10 to 15 minutes (15 to 20 minutes if frozen), or until lightly browned on top. Let cool on the pan for a minute or so, then transfer biscuits to a wire rack to finish cooling. Serve warm.
1. Cooked biscuits can be stored at room temperature, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, for 6 to 8 hours. Before serving, rewarm in a 350° F oven for 5 minutes. If not eating within that time, freeze, wrapped in foil. To serve, bake unthawed and unwrapped, for 10 minutes at 350° F.