Biscuits picked up at fast-food restaurants or popped out of cans found in supermarket refrigerated cases and simply baked have become so popular that many cooks no longer make these quick breads from scratch. However, if you need a particular size, such as 1-inch for appetizers, or want to make cheese or herb variations, it's surprisingly quick and easy to turn out a batch of baking powder biscuits.
In most quick breads the fat is melted, but in biscuits it's used in the solid form, cut into the flour-baking powder-salt mixture with a pastry blender. This helps to produce a flaky texture, much different from muffins.
The liquid is added all at once and stirred in with a fork just until the mixture holds together. Then the dough is turned out onto a lightly floured surface and gently kneaded 10 to 12 strokes. Knead by folding the dough in half and pressing lightly in a rhythmic motion with the heel of the hand (Step 1).
Kneading distributes the moisture and makes the biscuits more flaky. If the dough is underkneaded, the biscuits will not rise properly and the undissolved or poorly distributed baking powder will produce brown "freckles" on the crust; overkneading results in tough biscuits.
Rolling Is Best
Roll or pat the kneaded dough out to a thickness about half the desired height of the baked biscuits. Using a sharp biscuit cutter dipped in flour, press straight down through the dough (Step 2). It's important not to twist the cutter or the biscuits will be lopsided. Biscuits from the first rolling will be better shaped and more tender than those cut from rerollings.
To produce crisp-sided biscuits, place them at least an inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. For softer sides, position the unbaked biscuits so their sides touch. By brushing the tops lightly with milk (Step 3), the surface will develop a shiny, golden brown crust free of the freckles previously described.
Bake at 425 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Biscuits are best served hot from the oven (Step 4), perhaps with butter and jam. If they must be reheated, wrap in foil and bake at 350 degrees about 10 minutes.
In "Professional Baking" (John Wiley & Sons Inc.: 1985) author Wayne Gisslen sums things up by saying, "The ideal biscuit is uniform in shape, with straight sides and a level top, and has doubled its height during baking. The crust is crisp, tender and golden brown, with lighter sides. The crumb is generally creamy white and fine grained, and pulls off in flaky sheets."
BAKING POWDER BISCUITS
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons shortening
Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Place shortening on top, then using pastry blender, cut shortening into flour mixture until particles are about size of small peas or coarse meal. Use relaxed flick of wrist to keep dough mixture from becoming compact mass. If necessary, run finger across inside arc of pastry blender to release shortening.
Pour in 3/4 cup milk all at once. Stir just until mixture holds together. Turn out onto floured work surface and knead lightly 10 to 12 times.
Roll or pat dough to thickness of 1/2 to 3/4 inch. Cut with desired size floured biscuit cutter. Reroll dough and cut again.
For crustier sides, place biscuits about 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheet. For softer sides, place biscuits with sides touching or 1/4 inch apart. Brush with milk.
Bake at 425 degrees 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 8 to 10 (1 1/2-inch) biscuits.
Suggestions for column topics may be sent to Back to Basics, Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.