Sunday, December 19, 2004

Wishing for biscuits 

This morning I made preserves again. The Cranberry Cherry Almond Conserve with Orange Liqueur that I made last Sunday was so good that it called for repeating. As I was going about the process of ladling the conserve into jars, I accidentally knocked over a full but uncapped jar. While it did not escape onto the floor, the lovely contents spilled onto the dish towel on which the jars were sitting. Oh, happy accident! As I could not put that 1/2 cup or so of (perhaps contaminated!) conserve back into a jar, I scooped it up into a bowl, and set it aside. And then, when the jars were boiling in the canner, I pulled out a small spoon, took it and the bowl of conserve to the kitchen table, and ate it while I read the NY Times Sunday Magazine.

While I was savoring the conserve, I found myself wishing for biscuits. And I remembered that, shortly after Thanksgiving, a friend of ours asked for the recipe for the biscuits that we served at a Thanksgiving dinner a while back. Since I'm typing out the recipe, I'll share it, as these biscuits are remarkably good with everything from a turkey dinner to homemade jam.

Angel biscuits are a raised biscuit, meaning that they are leavened with both baking powder and yeast. While yeast rolls, like yeast breads, rise twice before baking (once after making the dough, the second time in the pan prior to baking) these raised biscuits are baked with only a short single rise or no rising time at all.

As I've never known anyone outside of my family who makes angel biscuits, I've always thought of them as a family recipe. I thought the same thing of the raw cranberry orange relish that is one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving dinner, until I saw the recipe on the back of a bag of cranberries. (Oh, the things we learn as we grow older!) It turns our that there are many recipes for angel biscuits available at Internet recipe sites, so clearly other people have been making them for a while, too.

My fifteen minutes of research suggests that angel biscuits are a traditional Southern recipe. (My mother's people have been Southerners since they arrived from the British Isles, so that fits.) The name "angel" supposedly comes from their light texture; because the addition of yeast makes them almost foolproof, they are also known as "bride's biscuits." (That name, suggestive of brides who moved from their parents' home directly to their husband's at such a young age that they had not yet mastered the art of the traditional baking powder biscuit, is amusing to one who married at 37.) While the ingredients are almost identical in all recipes, there are some small variations in their proportions: a little less sugar here, a little more flour there. One recipe has 2 packages of yeast. However, the greatest variations are in preparation; more on those later. First, here is my family's recipe:
Angel Biscuits

5 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
1 package yeast
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups buttermilk (room temperature)
Melted butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Dissolve yeast in warm water, set aside. Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in shortening until coarse crumb texture. Add yeast and buttermilk to dry ingredients, mix well. Turn out onto a floured board, and roll out to 1/4" thick. Cut with a biscuit cutter. Dip in melted butter, fold gently in half. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned. Makes approx. 3 1/2 dozen. This recipe can be halved, although the amounts of yeast and warm water will stay the same.

So, that's our recipe, and it produces a lovely, light, slightly yeasty biscuit. Due to the folding, the biscuits have a distinctive appearance. They look a little like a pair of folded wings, and I've always I thought that's why they were called angel biscuits. I have sometimes used a heart-shaped cookie cutter for cutting the biscuits, because the folded heart bears a stronger resemblance to wings. However, I learned today that this is the one aspect of our recipe that is unusual. None of the other recipes I found for angel biscuits involved either dipping the cut dough in melted butter or folding the biscuits in half.

The variations in other recipes fell into several categories:

1) Chilling the dough: After mixing the dough, some recipes say to cover and chill for at least an hour. One recipe states that the dough should be prepared the day before the biscuits are baked. Some recipes state that the dough may be kept in the refrigerator for up to 10 days, so that biscuits may be made in small quantities as desired. Imagine! Angel biscuits on a weekday morning! This seems almost too good to be true, but I'm willing to give it a try.

2)Rolling the dough: All of the other (unfolded) recipes I found call for rolling the dough out to 1/2" thick. Of course, if you fold 1/4" thick biscuits in half, as per my family's recipe, well, you do the math.

3) Rising: Some recipes call for immediate baking. Others call for covering the cut biscuits with a dishcloth/waxed paper/plastic wrap and allowing them rise for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. (Two hours? If they're going to take that long, why not make yeast rolls? That's taking the "quick" out of quick bread!) Recipes suggest that, after the specified amount of rising time, the biscuit dough should be "puffy" or "almost doubled in size." Most recipes also call for lightly greasing the baking sheet; it should go without saying that dunking the whole biscuit in melted butter obviates the need for greasing.

4)Baking time and temperature: specified temperatures varied between 400 and 450 degrees, and times varied between 10 and 20 minutes. Obviously, "until browned" means different things to different people.

As I have only used my family recipe, I can't speak to the results that you'd get from any of the above variations. However, I'm planning to try some of them, especially the refrigerator biscuit version. (I still can't get over the idea that I could have angel biscuits on a weekday, before going to work!)

There you have it: all I know about Angel Biscuits. Oh, just one more thing: they don't keep well, so eat 'em up while they're fresh. I promise you won't find that at all hard to do.