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Memory

May 31, 2010


My mother’s mother’s mother reportedly made the best biscuits in southern Maine.  When it came time for a church supper, Grange dinner, or any other community event, there wasn’t any question of who would make the biscuits – the task was always deferred to Nanny O.  Her biscuits were buttery, flakey pillows of melt-in-your-mouth.  Delicious with a smear of butter, or a slather of jam, you could easily sit down to have one or two, only to suddenly find the entire pan gone and crumbs all down your shirt.  If you managed to have any left the next day, they were great with a piece of cheese or sliver of ham tucked in the middle.  And of course, they made an exquisite base for strawberry shortcake.

Nanny O. taught her children the recipe, and also some of her grandchildren.  My mother was lucky enough to learn at her elbow.  When Nanny passed away the one item loveymom asked for was Nanny’s biscuit cutter – a who-knows-how-old cheese sauce can (about the size of a current day small tomato paste can).  Those of us not fortunate enough to possess the sacred can use a biscuit cutter, between 2 and 2.5 inches across.

Both my mother and my grandmother gave me Nanny’s biscuit recipe, but I had problems.  Either they’d be hard little rocks instead of light fluffy clouds, or they’d be undercooked in the middle – there was always something that just wasn’t right.  Frustrating.  I knew what they were *supposed* to taste like, why couldn’t I replicate them?  Finally, I thought to compare the two versions side by side, and realized there were significant differences between the two.  Measurements, temperatures, and times were all different.  So back to square one I went – over to loveymom’s house to make a batch together and write it all down step by step on a flourescent yellow piece of paper that I can quickly identify as the proper version.

It’s been several years since that day, and by now I’m pretty darn consistent.  I still have issues every once in a while if I overwork the dough, but for the most part my results are good, and getting better all the time.  I brought a quadruple batch to a family cookout this weekend, and was secretly tickled when the biscuits were getting as many (if not more) compliments as the cookies I also brought.  For now, I’ll keep working on bringing piles of biscuits to family events.  And some day when I’ve really earned it, I just might gain possession of that darn can.

NANNY’S BISCUITS

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons Bakewell Cream (or cream of tartar, if you’re not from New England)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 ‘gob’ of shortening (about the size of a jumbo egg, approx 1/4 cup)

1 cup milk

  • Heat oven to 450F
  • Mix together dry ingredients.
  • Add shortening and blend into the flour with a pastry blender.  Should feel like pea-sized grains of shortening in the flour.
  • Slowly add milk and stir just until combined – do NOT overwork, or you will end up with tough, hard biscuits.  Dough will be incredibly sticky.
  • Turn dough out onto floured surface, and roll to between 1/2 and 3/4 inch thick.  Do not overroll.
  • Cut biscuits and put in baking pan (2 9-inch cake pans work beautifully) with edges touching.
  • Dot tops with soft butter.
  • Bake 12-15 minutes until tops are just starting to turn golden.
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