There’s a snap in the air–goodbye nectarines, hello apples. And tun the oven back on!
UNC Press’ Savor the South cookbook series gets to the heart of Southern cooking with books on Pecans, Tomatoes, Peaches, and Buttermilk. But they may have hit the soul with their two latest books, Biscuits and Bourbon.
Biscuits live as a mystery and a blessing. The mystery is the special touch of bakers who don’t measure and pat them gently to life. The blessing is their warm presence at the table. As Belinda Ellis writes in her introduction, our love of biscuits is “a sacred relationship” that “embodies a memory of place and family.”
If you fell unequal to the mystery, count on Ellis to be your guide. She’s crossed the country for White Lily Flour, teaching secrets and gathering recipes. She’s not known as “the biscuit lady” for nothing. And take comfort that her own first efforts were “terrible.” She includes detailed instructions and photographs, but it’s basically, “don’t play with the dough.” A light touch equals light biscuits.
The biscuits we love are light and flaky, never mind that the word comes from the French for twice-cooked. The recipe began as a hardtack that would keep on long sea voyages and evolved into the cracker-like Maryland beaten biscuit. But with baking soda and buttermilk, they evolved into the bready pillows we love.
And like all simple things, ingredients are important. She recommends a soft wheat flour (like White Lily) or pastry flour. Baking powder should be paired with acidic buttermilk to get a light rise and subtle tang. As for fat, that comes from family tradition as much as from the desired results. Butter, lard, shortening (I sometimes supplement with a spoonful of bacon drippings), as long as it’s solid at room temperature.
And that’s where more technique comes in. Keep your ingredients and tools cool. You can mix in the fat with your fingers, but they will melt it, so use a cool pastry blender.
Much of the book is classic biscuit recipes—and yes there are many classic ways to make biscuits. Pinched into shape, dropped rather than rolled, biscuits with cream and a little sugar, angel biscuits made with yeast, biscuits folded and layered, biscuits made in the food processor, and big cat head biscuits.
Once you’ve got the basics down Ellis has ideas to flavor biscuits, build a meal around them, and use them in desserts that go beyond strawberry shortcake.
As with biscuits, Bourbon is an essential basic that can be varied with skill and taste. It is also “uniquely American and essentially Southern.”
George Washington distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon and by the 1790s it was an established business. When, as president, Washington imposed a tax on distillers, Kentucky refused to collect it. Distillers moved in and shipped from Bourbon County.
Even though Bourbon began with rebellion, there are rules. It must include corn, must be aged at least two years, and in new American oak barrels. Purvis shares this history and the knowledge gained from a field visit to the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort.
She also shares the recipes, starting with drinks, naturally. She includes the classics—Mint Julep, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, but then plays with bourbon—infusing with the flavors of smoke or bacon. And she lives dangerously, making real, raw-egg eggnog.
She also uses Bourbon to add a round, earthy flavor to pimento cheese, beef stew, and baked beans. Bourbon performs admirably in Eugene Walter’s Coffee Break Pie, made with those other all-American ingredients—pudding mix, Graham Crackers, and Cool Whip.
If you’re up for a bit more work, face down a Lane Cake layered with a bourbon-spiked custard and frosted with a boiled sugar-syrup buttercream.
Or just sit, swirl, and sip.