Monday, May 28, 2012


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I don't know what it is with me and Southern cooking this month.  Early in May it was spoon bread, last week it was South Carolina Gold BBQ Sauce, now biscuits. Oh, well-- go with the flow!

Actually, I've been on a quest for what I consider the perfect biscuit for years, off and on. When my kids were small I favored the Tassajara Flakey Biscuit recipe (half whole wheat), but it was very rich and contained eggs, strangely enough. I also made a quick drop biscuit called "Pull-Apart Biscuits" (enriched with wheat germ). My mother never made biscuits, that I can recall, so I was on my own. Over the years  I've eaten and made many good ones, but some mysterious element was was always missing and the quest went on.  

In the last two weeks or so, I got the bug again, and I decided to concentrate on Southern recipes, since biscuits are so integral to Southern cooking.  Southern biscuits are pretty much always buttermilk biscuits, even if the title of the recipe doesn't say so. (If they don't contain  buttermilk, they are called "Sweet Milk Biscuits").  So, after trying a few recipes (veganized) and being disappointed at the results, I decided to be mildly "scientific" about it and made chart noting the amounts of all the ingredients for the same size recipe from various sources.

But first of all, why was I disappointed?  The first and most important was that I could taste baking powder in most of them, and you shouldn't be able to taste the baking powder.  It should do it's work and the taste should disappear in the process.  I believe that many cooks think the more baking powder, the higher the rise.  But that's only true up to a point!  I did some research on this way back in 1980-81 when I was associate editor for La Leche League International's official cookbook "Whole Foods for the Whole Family" (in pre-vegan days). (The book was re-issued in 1993, but I didn't have anything to do with that and have actually not seen a copy of it.)  I concluded that the correct ratio was 1 teaspoon baking powder OR 1/2 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour (of course if you use baking soda, you have to use an acidic ingredient to get it to work).

Another thing that disappointed me was too much fat. Most recipes called for 1/2 cup of fat for 2 1/2 cups flour, though a few were a bit less than that. Next on the list was that I grew tired of the white, white flour!  Yes, it seemed necessary for a light, layered texture, and I hadn't had all that much success with whole wheat flour biscuits, but I was determined to reach some sort of compromise.

And then there was some unnecessary "fiddling" with some of the recipes-- the worst was the Fine Cooking recipe (and, don't get me wrong!  I really like that magazine!), which contained (for 5 cups flour) 1 1/4 cups butter, 5 tablespoons (!) of baking powder, and required that your butter be frozen, and that your bowl and implements (including rolling pin and food processor bowl) be frozen for a certain amount of time.  I thought the whole point of biscuits (a "quick bread", after all) was you could make them quickly and easily on the spur of the moment, but apparently not.

My chart of biscuit recipe ingredients (including recipes from 3 editions of "Joy of Cooking"-- 1946, 1973 and 1997, and one from the New York Times) showed me that the recipes using the least  baking powder and soda were from actual Southern cooks, Bill Neal (author of "Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie" (1990 and 2003) and Edna Lewis.  

They both also called specifically for a low-gluten (about 9%) flour (White Lily is the favored Southern brand), and higher cooking temperature than the rest.  So, as a template, I decided to use the renowned and respected late Southern chef/author Edna Lewis' recipe, which appeared in the book "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Ms. Lewis and Scott Peacock.  Here's the original recipe online. I warn you-- she used lard. But, she used the smallest amount of fat of any recipe I had seen, and, I figured, she's been doing this for more years than I've been alive, so that amount must work well!

Of course, I used my palm-oil-free vegan butter instead of lard (UPDATE: you can also use my homemade palm oil-free shortening OR frozen extra-virgin olive oil, which I freeze in ice cube trays for baking-- 2 T. per cube and they freeze solid!), and made "buttermilk" with soymilk (or hemp milk ,or coconut milk beverage, or homemade nut milk) curdled with lemon juice. However, I did use her homemade baking powder (recipe below; easy to mix up and the same recipe is all over the internet).  At the last minute, I decided to try using whole wheat pastry flour (a lower-gluten wheat flour, as she specified), but with most of the bran sifted out (and saved for baking and cereal), so that I would have some of the nutty taste and goodness of whole wheat flour without the rough texture.  I used my own home-ground pastry flour, made from soft white whole wheat kernels, but a good brand of commercial whole wheat pastry flour would work just fine. (UPDATE: You can also make these with half white pastry flour and half [unsifted] wholewheat pastry flour, if you don't want to do the sifting thing.)

I give the directions for sifting the bran out of the flour at the top of the recipe. Here is a photo of the resulting flour and bran:
 Here is the bran, close-up.
Well, these turned out to be some of the very best biscuits I've ever had, and the flavor made them worth the extra step of sifting. They rose well, and layered nicely, were crunchy on the outside, and had nary a touch of any lingering chemical-y baking powder flavor. (If you plan to make these often, you could sift a whole bunch of flour and freeze it for spur of the moment biscuit binges!) 

Thank you Edna Lewis and your expertise!  This will now be my go-to biscuit recipe!
I used my Low-Fat "Corn Butter" spread on these biscuits


Servings: 12

Yield: 12/ 2-inch or 9/ 2 1/4-inch biscuits

TO MAKE YOUR OWN SIFTED WHOLE WHEAT PASTRY FLOUR for this recipe, start with about 3 cups of the flour, either home-ground or store-bought, and sift it through a fairly fine sieve, stirring it with a spoon against the bottom of the sieve and shaking it occasionally, until you can’t get any more flour coming through the sieve. Store the bran airtight for using in baking, cereals, etc., and then measure your flour for the recipe.(UPDATE: You can also make these with half white pastry flour and half [unsifted] wholewheat pastry flour, if you don't want to do the sifting thing.)
2 1/2 cups SIFTED whole wheat pastry flour (bran removed and saved for use in baking, cereal, etc.; see Note above)—you can use home-ground soft wheat flour; the white soft wheat is a good choice         
1 3/4 tsp Homemade Baking Powder (see recipe below)     
3/4 tsp fine sea salt     
1/4 cup vegan butter, such as my palm oil-free Buttah, frozen (see my recipe here(UPDATE: you can also use my homemade palm oil-free shorteningOR use frozen extra-virgin olive oil, which I freeze in ice cube trays for baking-- 2 T. per cube and they freeze solid!)
9 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon soy milk, hemp milk, or coconut milk beverage, or homemade nut milk
2 tsp lemon juice        
2 tablespoons melted vegan butter for brushing the tops   

Preheat the oven to 500ºF.

In a medium bowl mix together the sifted whole wheat pastry flour, the Homemade Baking Powder, and salt with a whisk.

Cut the vegan butter into 1/2-inch chunks (approximately).Add the frozen vegan butter chunks and work with your fingers until about half of the vegan butter is finely blended with the flour and the other half is in pea-sized pieces. In a cup, mix together the non-dairy milk and lemon juice. The mixture should curdle immediately. Pour into the flour/vegan butter mixture and stir quickly just until it all comes together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface—a silicone baking mat is good, or even a piece of baking parchment. Pat the dough out into a rectangle about 1/2-inch thick. fold the ends over towards the middle, pat out again and fold again. Repeat once more. Pat it out once more, evenly this time) to about 3/4-inch thick. Cut biscuits close together with a 2 to 2 1/4-inch round biscuit cutter, without twisting the cutter in the dough. Place them just barely touching on a baking sheet (I use a dark one for more crust on the bottom; you can line it with baking parchment if you like).

I don’t exactly re-roll the scraps. I kind of push the edges of them together so that they sort of fit together like a puzzle.  Then I fold the mass over itself once and pat or roll gently to 3/4-inch thick and get a couple more biscuits out of it, but they always look a bit raggedy!  Other people just bake the scraps (sometimes brushed with melted vegan butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar) around the edge of the pan for the kids (or the cook!) to munch on.

You can see that the 2 on the Left in front were the ones made with the pushed-together scraps!
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Check partway through and turn the pan around if they aren’t baking evenly. They should be golden. Brush the tops with the melted vegan butter. Serve hot with your favorite accompaniments—jam, marmalade, agave nectar, vegan butter, citrus curd—and don’t forget that gravy is also a possibility!

NOTE: If you keep some until later in the day or the next day (I wouldn't recommend any more than that; and keep them in a paper bag, not plastic) heat them quickly in a 400 ºF oven to crisp them up—do not microwave!

 Nutrition Facts (An abbreviated version: I don’t have the stats on home-sifted whole wheat pastry flour, so I have omitted the fiber, carbohydrate and protein content.)
Nutrition (per one 2-inch biscuit): 198.6 calories; 28% calories from fat; 6.5g total fat; 0.0mg cholesterol; 296.5mg sodium.

Makes 6 tablespoons
This is a very common recipe online. Some people add a bit of cornstarch or arrowroot, but I didn't bother.

Mix together well and store in a tightly covered dry jar or container:

1/4 cup cream of tartar
2 tablespoons baking soda

Simple as that!

I hope you enjoy this recipe!


Anonymous said...

wow those look great! congrats on your quest:) thanks for sharing your biscuit wisdom:)

KovasP said...

I love biscuits - I've had some success with the recipe for drop biscuits from Joy of Cooking, substituting soymilk and vegetable oils, but the results are inconsistent. Your recipe sounds great!

Cooking Accessories said...

My daughters are very much fond of biscuits. Although we are not vegan, I have been trying to introduce small changes into our diets. This will be perfect! We love buttermilk biscuits.