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riff (noun) 2. a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring;especially: one that is part of a comic performance.

I really need to make some biscuits.

For my British readers, what you call a “biscuit” is what we Americans call a “cookie.”  But I’m not sure British scones are equivalent to the American biscuit.  Most of the recipes for scones that I’ve seen call for eggs, butter and sugar, so it seems to me scones would be more like our muffins than our biscuits.  American biscuits are just flour, baking powder, milk, salt and some kind of shortening (butter, lard, bacon “grease” or other meat renderings).  Another difference is how the dough is treated for baking.   Judging from what I’ve seen,  scones are “dropped” — spoonfuls of dough are dropped onto a flat baking sheet (what we call a “cookie sheet”), or else into the wells of muffin tins, whereas for American biscuits, the dough is rolled or pressed flat, the biscuits are cut out using a circular biscuit cutter and baked on a flat baking sheet.   American biscuits are typically served with a meal as a bread equivalent.  A good biscuit is light and flaky, and can be pulled open easily with the fingers.  Biscuits can also be made using sourdough as leavening agent instead of baking soda.

Biscuits are classic pioneer food.  Unlike yeast, baking soda can be stored indefinitely in a jar or tin.  If you don’t have access to a milk cow, you can make them with water and use bacon grease for the shortening instead of butter. In the days before refrigeration, bacon was smoked or cured, and typical trail rations would include a hunk of bacon (“fat back”), dried beans, flour, salt, baking soda and coffee — all of which could be carried by pack horse. Cowboys out on the range would have a chuck wagon along to carry their bedding and food, and the camp cook would make biscuits in a dutch oven for every meal.  (A dutch oven was an essential piece of pioneer equipment.  No covered wagon or log cabin should be without one!)

Biscuits are an important part of “Deep South” (Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the Gulf coast of Texas ) cuisine.  They can be served at any meal (usually all of them) and are often made using buttermilk instead of whole milk, since real buttermilk could be kept without refrigeration, and whole milk can’t — an important consideration in a hot, often humid climate.

Biscuits fit very neatly into Southern cuisine, which includes many varieties of pan-fried meat, which is rarely served without gravy — the “pot licker” (liquor) — what we call “grease” or “fat” — left in the pan after the meat has cooked is used to make gravy. (Waste not, want not!) Brown gravy is made by browning flour in the hot grease, adding milk or water and a little salt and pepper, and simmering for several minutes to thicken it.  White gravy is made by shaking flour and milk (or water) together inside a lidded jar to make a “rue” (roux), adding the mixture and a little salt and pepper to the hot grease and simmering it until it thickens.  It is essential to stir the gravy frequently during cooking —  Burning the gravy is a cardinal sin!  Gravy is typically served either over the meat, or over boiled (and cut up or mashed) potatoes or over biscuit halves. Biscuits and gravy can be a meal in themselves.

Biscuits are also eaten with butter (lunch and supper), and with butter and jelly, jam or honey (breakfast).  Usually the biscuits are halved, top and bottom; one half is buttered (or put in the plate and gravy ladled over it), and the other half used as a “pusher” to herd food like peas or beans onto the fork or spoon — soaking up juice and gravy in the process. (If the edge of the biscuit gets soppy to the point where the biscuit is about to fall apart, you bite that part off.)  At the end of the meal, this half of the biscuit is used to “sop” (soak) up any remaining food juices, egg yolk (from fried eggs) or gravy. If you are in “polite company,” you put it into the plate, cut it in pieces with a knife and fork, and use your fork to push the pieces around and eat them. If it’s “just folks,” you don’t bother with a knife and fork.  You just push the biscuit around the plate, biting off the soppy edge, until there’s no more biscuit.  This is what we call “cleaning your plate.”

In the 1930’s some genius thought up a product called “Bisquick” that combines all the dry ingredients and shortening together, so that all you need to make biscuits is a box of Bisquick and some milk.  (You can also make pancakes, waffles, muffins, etc., with it.)  But, to a hard-core southern cook, Bisquick is “cheating.”  Being able to make biscuits “from scratch” is as essential a skill for a good southern cook as making good gravy.  A cook who can make good biscuits will make good pie crust, too, as both involve cutting the shortening into the dry ingredients, which is an art.

My dad’s mother made the best “from scratch” biscuits.   My dad learned to cook from her, and he made excellent biscuits as well.   He used a store-bought biscuit cutter (as any man will tell you, it’s important to have the right tools for the job!), but my granny always used a drinking glass.  I loved watching her cut out the biscuits.  When she pressed the glass down into the dough, it made a little foof! of flour as air was pushed out from inside the glass.  A biscuit cutter has a thin metal edge, so when you lift the cutter, the circle of dough comes out easily.  But the rim of a drinking glass is thicker and has a smooth, rounded edge, so when you lift the glass up, the circle of dough usually comes up with it because of the suction from inside the glass, and because the rim of the glass actually mashes the dough in two rather than cutting it, so the dough tends to stick to it.   My granny had this technique, honed from long practice, where she lifted the glass — dough and all — tilted the glass to the side, rapped the outside of the glass sharply against her curled fingers, and the dough would just fall out into her hand. The glasses I have that are the right diameter are all made of thick glass and don’t work well for this purpose, but a tin can with both lids cut off works just fine. So does a china teacup. However, no matter what you use to cut out your biscuits, you press it straight down into the dough and give it a little twist before you let up on the pressure.

When I do decide to perform biscuits, I’ll keep the camera handy.

Baking Powder Biscuits
(from a 1933 Recipe)
Ingredients:
2 cups sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
4 tablespoons butter or shortening
1/2 tsp. salt
about 3/4 cup milk

Sift Flour once, measure, add baking powder and salt, and sift again. Cut in shortening or butter.  Add milk gradually, stirring until soft dough is formed. Turn out on slightly floured board and lightly “knead” for 30 seconds, enough to shape. Roll 1/2 inch thick and cut with 2 inch floured biscuit cutter. Bake on ungreased sheet in a 400 degree oven for 12-15 minutes. Makes 12 biscuits.

Whole Wheat Biscuits
2 cups whole wheat flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup cold unsalted butter
1 cup milk (any kind)

In a medium sized bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix well with whisk or fork. Cut the ½ stick butter into little pea sized pieces and then mix the pieces into the flour mixture. Using a fork, try to mash the butter pieces as you mix it together with the flour until it resembles coarse crumbs. It is okay if the outcome just looks like the same pea sized pieces of butter covered with flour. Then pour in the milk and mix it all together. Knead the dough with your hands 8 to 10 times and then turn out onto a counter or cutting board. Pat it out flat with your hands until the dough is a somewhat even ¾-inch thickness (sprinkle with a little flour if necessary).  Put them on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 10 – 12 minutes or until lightly browned.  Yield: 8 – 10 biscuits

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