Monday, February 28, 2005

And the best quick bread goes to...

We were eating our pre-Oscars dinner last night when our guest offhandedly mentioned that if he had leftover ham, he'd have ham on biscuits the next morning at brunch. The s.o. and I exchanged meaningful glances.

"Thanks," the s.o. said to him, smiling.

The idea percolated in my head later that evening as we were eating zabaglione and engaging in a Marsala-fueled critique of the nominees' and presenters' clothing, acting skills, speeches, etc. The boys tore into the ham again during the wee hours, but they still left plenty for biscuits, and for a bevy of split-pea soups and the like in the future.

I make great biscuits. I came by it honestly--I had to work at it. There was a time when my biscuits sucked and weren't worth eating. But over time I've learned that biscuit dough is a little like pie dough. There is a certain very specific way it has to be handled, and if you do exactly that, you'll have excellent results every time.

My biscuits are squarish, which the s.o. jokingly says is "wrong, just wrong." There's a reason for it, though, which is that I don't own a good round biscuit cutter. Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot simply stamp out biscuits with an upended drinking glass; the dull edge will crimp down the sides of the biscuits and they'll end up flat. Your biscuit cutter must be knife-sharp so it frees up the layers, and that's why I use one of those big rectangular kitchen scrapers with a sharpened edge to cut mine.

My biscuits are also half whole-wheat flour, which I suppose is wrong in some people's view, too. I certainly wouldn't make strawberry-shortcake biscuits that way. But I like my regular breakfast biscuits to have some nutritional value to them. And I promise you they are just as delicious and fluffy as white biscuits.

Although we do live near Athens, Ga., my biscuits are not made from the Grit's famous whole-wheat biscuit recipe. The recipe they printed in their cookbook is either missing some crucial secret ingredient or is too persnickety to be executed successfully by most mortals. Even at the restaurant, the biscuits are only really transcendent when a guy named Chuck is in the kitchen. He has the touch.

So here's how to do it. And in case you were wondering, we decided that the worst gown of the night was Hilary Swank's Guy Laroche, which looked like a choir robe held tight to the front of her neck by rubber bands. (It was almost as bad as Diane Kruger's Marchesa horror from the Golden Globes.) On the other hand, we thought Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet looked especially nice.

1 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for the countertop
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 c. buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and, with a pastry blender or two knives, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk and stir with a fork just until the batter pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Flour the counter lightly with all-purpose flour. Flour your hands. Lift out the wad of dough and, without messing with it too much, pat it into a squarish shape about an inch thick. Pick up the end of the square that's closest to you and fold it to the top. Pat it to flatten it slightly, then turn the resulting rectangle 90 degrees and fold it over exactly once more. (If you know how to make croissants, you'll recognize this as being a similar technique, although much simplified; you're doing this to align the butter into layers.)
Now pat and adjust the dough into a neat rectangle about 3/4 inch thick. Again, don't mess with it too much. The less you work it, the better.
Cut the dough into 12 or 16 biscuits. If you are using a scraper to cut them, feel free to razor off the sloppy edges so your biscuits will be more aesthetically pleasing.
Place the biscuits close to each other, but not touching, on a nonstick baking sheet. Bake 15 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and just cooked through. Remove from the baking sheet immediately so they don't overbake.