A kind of unfermented bread, formed into flat cakes, and baked. — Webster, 1882
At suppertime the light shone through the clear glass onto the red-checked tablecloth and the white biscuits, the warmed up potatoes, and the platter of fried salt pork. – Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter, Chapter 33, “Christmas in May”
Did you ever notice that the Little House books don’t mention biscuits until the Ingalls family is living in Dakota Territory? They’re not in the Pioneer Girl manuscript until then, either. But suddenly Ma is whipping up light, white, or sour-dough biscuits all the time. Since it took me until the past year to figure out how to make light and fluffy biscuits, maybe it took Ma from Pepin to De Smet to learn how, but I doubt it. Still, why no biscuits in the earlier books?
I remember Laura’s friend, Neta Seal, talking about life during the Great Depression and how a person wouldn’t starve if they only had flour and some sort of grease with which to whip up an early-day staple, biscuits and gravy. Esther Allen Howland’s The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (1845) defines biscuits as “baked dough that contains a leavening agent such as baking powder, as opposed to a dough leavened with yeast.” Minus a commercial leavening agent, one could always use sour dough for natural leavening, as Ma sometimes did.
Light Biscuits. Made from only a few ingredients, you’d think that biscuits would be a breeze to make. An early recipe for biscuits reads: “Take two pounds of flour, a pint of buttermilk, half a tea-spoonful of saleratus and a bit of salt; put into the buttermilk a small piece of butter or lard rubbed into the flour; make it about the consistency of bread before baking in a hot oven.” For the cook who likes to measure their ingredients, mix 2 cups flour with 1 teaspoon salt and 2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder. Cut in 1/3 to 1/2 cup butter or other shortening, and then add 2/3 cup milk or buttermilk. Mix, roll, cut, and bake in 425 degree oven for 12-15 minutes, until golden.
White-flour biscuits. These are biscuits made with all white flour instead of using whole wheat flour for all or part of the flour in any recipe.
Using today’s self-rising flour, which contains the leavening and salt, you can simplify a biscuit recipe to just three ingredients: 2 cups self-rising flour, 1/3 cup butter, 2/3 cups buttermilk. Turns out that it’s not the ingredients that are hard, though; it’s how you handle them that causes problems. Unless you want a biscuit that is better for playing checkers with than eating, you also need the following: cold ingredients, a hot oven, and a very light touch.
I credit THIS video with finally teaching me how to make proper biscuits. My husband is very grateful. P.S. That’s my “Pa’s Cottonwood” in the background of the photo above. And I learned something while looking for biscuit mentions for this entry. In Pioneer Girl, Laura wrote that Ma didn’t just make biscuits with the wheat ground in the coffee grinder. She also made mush!
biscuit (SSL 9, 20-23, 29-30; TLW 11, 14, 31; LTP 20; THGY 15; PG)
biscuit crust for pie (LTP 31)
light (SSL 9, 29)
sour dough / sour-dough / sourdough (SSL 21, 23, 29; TLW 27; PG), see sour dough
white-flour / white (TLW 31, 33)