By SAM SIFTON
Hanna Raskin is the restaurant critic for The Seattle Weekly, but in 1998 she was a greenhorn reporter at The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Miss. Oprah Winfrey was jobbing around the country that year doing publicity for “Beloved,” a film she had commissioned and starred in with Danny Glover. News came that Winfrey was holding a screening in Attala County, where she was born, and Raskin’s editor sent her across the state to watch it with the hometown fans.“Beloved,” based on Toni Morrison’s novel, takes as its subject the impact of slavery on the human soul. Mystery, violence, sex and supernatural apparition are all part of the story.
There is also a brief sequence in which Sethe, Winfrey’s character, makes biscuits in her dark little farmhouse.
Biscuits are what take us into the kitchen today to cook: fat, flaky mounds of quick bread, golden brown, with a significant crumb. Composed of flour, baking powder, fat and a liquid, then baked in a hot oven, they are an excellent sop for sorghum syrup, molasses or honey. They are marvelous layered with country ham or smothered in white sausage gravy, with eggs, with grits. Biscuits are easy to make.
When the film ended, Raskin said in a recent e-mail, Winfrey took to the front of the theater to take questions about race, gender, oppression and literature.
It did not work out that way. Raskin: “The first audience member to speak said something like: ‘Oprah, y’all made your biscuits wrong. Don’t you remember how we make our biscuits round here?’ I believe the biscuit-making scene lasted about 20 seconds, but the roar of the crowd suggested the speaker wasn’t alone in her outrage.”
Biscuits are like that. You need to make them right or not make them at all, and most people will tell you most of the time that however you are making biscuits, you are making them wrong. This is true especially if you are not from the South or if you are from England, where biscuits are hard and dry and sit on the dividing line between cookie and cracker.
Some people mix their biscuits in a wooden bowl handed down from Grandmother. Some drop biscuits onto a cooking sheet, rather than cutting them out. Some people use lard as the fat, others butter. For some, a biscuit must be huge. Others say small. There are people who beat their biscuits or add salt to them and others who press sugar cubes into the dough. Liquids added to biscuit flour may include buttermilk, heavy cream, flat beer, sour cream or cola. Cream of tartar can make an appearance in a biscuit recipe, as can baking soda.
For Yankees, the principal biscuit issue is flour. Proper Southern biscuits (as proper Southerners will tell you) are made with soft red winter wheat flour, low in protein and gluten — traditionally White Lily brand or Southern Biscuit brand. These are only sporadically and expensively available in the North and West of the country, where the more traditional all-purpose flour is made from sterner spring wheat, with more protein and gluten in it, better for making yeast breads than tender, flaky biscuits.
Some Southerners believe that it is not possible to make a good biscuit north of the Mason-Dixon line. Nathalie Dupree, a biscuit doyenne out of Charleston, S.C., whose “Southern Biscuits” cookbook provides enough biscuit recipes to fill a lifetime, disagrees. “Any biscuit is possible for a Yankee,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Extensive testing in Brooklyn bears her statement out. Cake flour, a low-protein flour that is available in supermarkets from Boston to Chicago, north to Seattle and down to Los Angeles, makes a fine biscuit. Standard Northern all-purpose flour does as well, especially if you allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes or so before cutting it out and baking.
What follows are two simple recipes for biscuits, one made with cake flour and lard; the other with all-purpose flour and butter. The first results in a biscuit with a delicate, silken texture that does well with syrups and runny fried eggs. The second provides a crumbier result, with a density appropriate to the flour, that is marvelous with thick, creamy sausage gravy, heavy on the sage and black pepper.
Neither takes long to put together. Christopher Kimball, the professorial leader of Cook’s Illustrated, Cook’s Country and television’s “America’s Test Kitchen,” said in an interview that this feature is crucial to biscuit excellence. “The secret of biscuits is that they are dead simple, and you should be able to make them in your sleep or even in the midst of a blind-drunk hangover,” he said. “To hell with the gourmet stuff.”
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