Biscuits (and Dumplings) By S. John Ross ©1998, 1999

A note for readers outside the United States: Here in the U.S., "biscuits" are fluffy little white quickbreads, an unsweetened pastry usually served up hot with butter and jam, or as a kind of open-faced sandwich, smothered in sausage gravy. We think of them as breakfast food, for the most part, but our southern states popularized putting them on the supper table, too (they're great with fried chicken).

A note for readers inside the United States: Just about everywhere else, "biscuits" are cookies. Many years ago, the term meant both - pretty much any little lump of baked goods (including a variety of porcelain!) was a "biscuit." Ah, things were simpler then. Here's the recipe:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 rounded tsp baking powder
  • 4 tbsp (1/2 stick) Imperial Margarine
  • 3/4 cup ice-cold milk or buttermilk
  • additional flour for board

All ingredients should be carefully measured, and chilled. Preheat the oven to 450º (unless you're making dumplings).

Sift salt and baking powder into the flour, then cut in the margarine, blending until the margarine is in largish, pea-sized lumps. Add milk, mixing with a case knife until a dough is formed (a few seconds at most). Avoid overblending - the margarine should retain its lumpiness, and the gluten shouldn't be allowed to develop (if that happens, you get tougher, chewier biscuits).

  • For Biscuits: Sprinkle four teaspoons of flour on the board or countertop. Knead the dough for no more than 20 seconds. First, turn carefully to cover the moist dough with flour, then quickly fold and flatten the dough to create layers. Roll to 1/2" thick and cut into biscuits (using an old baking-powder can, a biscuit-cutter, a drinking glass, or a knife). Place them close together on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush tops with melted butter, if desired. Bake in a 450º oven for about 10 minutes (if the oven is electric, place the broiling pan on the rack under the biscuits to act as a diffuser). Serve hot from the oven.
  • For Dumplings: Drop by the tablespoonful into boiling broth, soup, or gravy. Cover and let simmer for 10 minutes before serving.

If the shortening used is a margarine other than Imperial, make certain it is at least 60% vegetable oil for best results. Other forms of shorterning, either butter or vegetable shortening (Crisco and the like) can be substituted, as well; each give biscuits a fairly different texture, so experiment! When you're making dumplings, the choice of shortening is much less important.

Note that traditional buttermilk biscuits use baking soda, rather than baking powder, for leavening - the buttermilk has sufficient acidity to activate the soda. I find that I prefer powder-baking for all varieties, but again, it's worth experimenting to find what you enjoy.

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