Friday, May 22, 2009


There's a fairly substantial culinary mythology surrounding beaten biscuits. I'm sure that academic culinary historians know the true story, but it's pretty clear that most of what you read on the Internet is third-hand information written by people who've never actually eaten, let alone made, a beaten biscuit. And, really, there's nothing wrong with that because, these days anyway, the beaten biscuit is either entirely or almost entirely a mythical creature. Some of the information I've seen suggests that they're still common, or at least available, in Kentucky and Maryland, but I grew up in Maryland, and no one has ever served me a beaten biscuit. They may be a creature of the deeper south, but when I was a child, my family often traveled as far south as Georgia and Alabama to visit relatives, and I never saw any beaten biscuits there, either. (On the other hand, when I was in college, I knew a young woman from Kentucky who mentioned in passing that, as a child, she had been served beaten biscuits by an elderly woman. At the time, I didn't know enough about them to follow up with an appropriate level of curiosity and/or skepticism, but I believe we have at least one credible account of beaten biscuits having survived into the 1970s.)

Not that any of that is surprising. My best sense, from what I've read, is that the beaten biscuit is a creature arising from the ready availability of free (i.e., slave) labor and the not-yet-createdness of commercial baking powder.

My first encounter with the notion of beaten biscuits came from reading the original version of Joy of Cooking, where the process is described by the Rombauers, who, I can't help but believe, likely never actually followed the recipe. They describe it as something that requires both labor and time, but they also have the breezy you-can-do-it-ness of those DIY hosts who tell you that you can lay your own hardwood flooring. I have laid my own hardwood flooring, and I am here to tell you: you can't do it. YOU CAN'T DO IT. Leave it to the professionals.

Anyway, somewhere in my store of never-used cookbooks, I have a variation on a Junior League cookbook produced by some woman's group or other in Kentucky, and it includes a food processor version of beaten biscuits. But I can't find that cookbook. I received it as a gift many years ago from my then-sister-in-law, and while it was somewhat entertaining, it didn't seem very useful, aside from the beaten biscuit recipe, which, I may just have mentioned, I can no longer find. But the ideas that a) beaten biscuits are something worth trying, at least once, and b) they can be accomplished with the help of a machine (in fact, they were, apparently, often made with something called a "biscuit brake," and Joy of Cooking says you can also prepare the dough by passing it ten times through the coarsest blade of your meat grinder) have stuck in my head lo these many years.

I'm also planning to serve salmon mousse at an upcoming church fundraiser, and I had originally thought to serve it on relatively thin, relatively small baking powder biscuits. I was going to add dill to the dough, then slice the biscuits in half and make a mini sandwich of the salmon mousse plus a very thin slice of English cucumber. But then I thought, "Hey! Why not try beaten biscuits?" So the other night I decided to try a test batch. I halved and slightly modified the JoC recipe. I made a fairly stiff dough in the food processor. Then I folded it over and whacked it a couple of times, just to be able to say I'd beaten it, then I put it in the KitchenAid with the paddle attachment for five minutes, then I rolled it out a couple of times, then I wondered whether the whole notion of breaking down the gluten even makes any sense, then I pulled the dough into pieces and ran it through the food processor for a minute until it came back together, then I did that exact same thing four more times, then I rolled it out as thin as I could, then I cut it into small rounds, then I pricked the rounds with a fork, and then I baked it.

And I have to say that the results were pleasing. But I also have to say that they tasted a lot like a slightly puffier version of a water cracker and that baking powder biscuits, which are immensely less work, are a lot better. I will say that the reported keeping qualities of beaten biscuits are true. A baking powder biscuit needs to be eaten very soon after baking or there's not much point. A full twenty-four hours later, the beaten biscuits still tasted the same. But, then, so do water crackers.

Of course, it's possible that I just didn't execute them properly. For one thing, I rolled them a lot thinner than is usual, but I was going for something to serve salmon mousse on. Perhaps, given enough time and 500 whacks with an axe handle, I would have gotten something revelatory rather than just tasty, but I don't think so. I think that, like many myths, beaten biscuits improve by being dreamed about rather than by being realized.

Anyway, here's the recipe.

Beatenish Biscuits

2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. baking powder
1 t. dried dill
1 T. vegetable shortening, frozen
1 T. butter
1/4 c. cold milk
ice water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and dill in the food processor and whirl briefly to combine. Add the shortening and butter and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse meal (you know, like you're making biscuits). With the motor running, add the milk. Then slowly add the water until the dough forms into a ball. Knead it briefly, fold it up a few times, roll it out, beat it, tear it to bits, put it back in the food processor, and abuse it in whatever way seems like a good idea at the time. Eventually, the dough should be nice and smooth or whatever, so roll it out, cut out the biscuits, put them on a baking sheet, prick them well with a fork, and bake them for about thirty-five minutes, or until they're barely browned.

Remove the biscuits from the oven, let them cool, pour yourself a glass of wine, sit down, and rest your arms. Eat a biscuit, then put the remaining cooled biscuits in a tin, as evidence. Tell everyone you know that you made beaten biscuits, and then lose the recipe. Experience profound gratitude for the advent of commercial baking powder.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I realize that I haven't posted in forever, but I try to think that I haven't lost all my readers: I've instead gained a great deal of privacy. This could come in handy. In just under two weeks, there's a fundraiser for the music program at church, and I'm doing substantially all of the food preparation. (People offered to help, but asking people to make specific things would require a level of organization that I just don't have. A few people will show up on the afternoon of the fundraiser to help assemble things, and a bunch of other people will carry trays around.) So I can put my recipes here, for my own reference, and when attendees ask me for any of my recipes, I can say, "Oh, I just found it online. I can't remember exactly where." And this will have elements of truth (while being, in substance, a complete lie, which makes it even better) since each recipe is stored in its own post, and I certainly don't memorize the URLs for individual posts. I will, of course, be happy to give any of my recipes to anyone who makes a suitable donation to the music fund. Yeah, I know, but it's for a good cause.

Anyway, the hoped-for scale of the evening combined with my personal desire to serve a large variety of nibbles, means that I need to prepare things that can be fully or nearly completed either well in advance (and preferably frozen) or with relatively little effort. (It also means that at some point I have to become organized, because I'm also singing, and frazzled is really not a good mood in which to perform "La Vie en Rose." Mme. Piaf certainly had more than her share of troubles, but she appears to have been at one of her high points when she wrote the lyrics, and, in any case, one doubts that she was ever frazzled.) This chilled tomato soup meets both criteria. It can certainly be prepared several (probably many, but why push it?) days in advance and left in the refrigerator, and it's a snap. That's because its main ingredient is a bottle of V8. Sue me.

My doctor has recently encouraged me to limit my sodium intake, so I used a bottle of low sodium V8 for the test batch, which is now in my refrigerator, and which I am working my way through eight or so ounces at a time. And it's good, but it needs salt, so I'll probably use regular V8 when I prepare the final batch. Or perhaps I'll use one bottle of each, since I'll probably need a double batch. Also, the amount of horseradish in the recipe is the amount I think would likely be good. I thought I had horseradish in the refrigerator, but when I got home, the bottle was very nearly empty, so I only got a little less than a teaspoon, and the soup definitely needs more. You can adjust to taste, of course.

Also, dill isn't the only way to go here. If I find some nice basil next week, I might finish the soup with that. Cilantro would also be good. The dried dill works pretty well, but fresh would probably be a better idea. I used nonfat Greek style yogurt because there's already going to be a lot of very heavy food at the fundraiser, so I thought something light would be a wise choice. But either whole milk yogurt or sour cream would also be yummy.

I haven't worked the recipe out yet, but I'm going to serve small amounts of the soup in tiny cups and make some sort of cheddar cheese straws/wafers as a companion piece. That way it'll be sort of like communion. (The addition of the onions and, especially, the yogurt make the color not quite right, but the room will be dark, probably.) I may not make the communion inspiration explicit to the guests: most Unitarian Universalists are as fond of sacrilege as I am, but there are some who wouldn't appreciate me telling them to take a body-of-Christ-cheddar-cheese wafer and follow it with a blood-of-Christ shot of tomato soup. Chacun a son gout, I reckon.

Chilled Tomato Soup

2 T. butter
1 c. chopped sweet onion
1 T. flour
A 64-ounce bottle of V-8
Freshly ground black pepper
1 T. prepared horseradish
1 c. Greek style yogurt (nonfat or whole milk, as you prefer)
1 T. dried dill

Melt the butter in the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the onion, cover, and cook until very lightly browned. Add the flour, stir well, and cook for another three to five minutes.

Add 2 cups of the V-8 and the ground pepper (to taste). Bring to a boil, then simmer for three or four minutes. Turn off the heat. Let the mixture cool to a temperature that your blender can handle (or use an immersion blender if your mother didn't break yours). Add the horseradish, blend until smooth, then return to the pot. Add the remainder of the V-8, whisk in the yogurt until smooth, and stir in the dill. Adjust the seasoning. Chill thoroughly.

Since cold soups typically require more seasoning than soups to be served hot, it's a good idea to put a teacup or small soup bowl in the freezer when you start cooking. Then when you've added the cool and cold ingredients, you can put a small amount of the soup in the cold teacup, put the whole thing back in the freezer, and taste it five minutes later to get an idea of how it's going to taste when it's served.