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February 15, 1996|JOAN DRAKE

Biscuits picked up at fast-food restaurants or popped out of cans and baked have become so popular that many cooks no longer make them from scratch. But if you need a particular size, say a 1-inch biscuit 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. And they taste better than the convenience foods.

In most quick breads, the fat is melted before kneading, but in biscuits it's used in solid form, cut into the flour-baking powder-salt mixture with a pastry blender. This helps to produce a flaky texture, much different from that of 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 in 10 to 12 strokes. Knead by folding the dough in half and pressing lightly in a rhythmic motion with the heel of your hand.

Kneading distributes the moisture and makes the biscuits more flaky. If the dough is under-kneaded, the biscuits will not rise properly and the undissolved or poorly distributed baking powder will produce brown "freckles" on the crust; on the other hand, over-kneading results in tough biscuits.

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 that their sides touch.

BAKING POWDER BISCUITS

2 cups flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons shortening

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk

Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Place shortening on top; 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 floured biscuit cutter. Reroll dough and cut again.

Place biscuits on ungreased baking sheet. Brush with remaining tablespoon milk.

Bake at 425 degrees until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.

Makes 8 to 10 (1 1/2-inch) biscuits.

Each of 8 biscuits contains about:

188 calories; 370 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.09 gram fiber.

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