Curious Cook: Victory in the pastry wars

BY DEBBIE MATTHEWS, The Curious Cook
Posted 5/26/21

It took forever and at times seemed like a futile pursuit, but I finally did it.

After many years, and many tears,

I produced a batch of biscuits that would make any little old Southern lady …

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Curious Cook: Victory in the pastry wars

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Posted

It took forever and at times seemed like a futile pursuit, but I finally did it.

After many years, and many tears,

I produced a batch of biscuits that would make any little old Southern lady proud.

They were flaky. They were yummy. The insides were tender and soft as a cloud. The crust was crispy, buttery and a little bit chewy, with a dusting of toasted flour on top. They were gorgeous and golden.

It hasn’t been an easy road. But as a food writer in the South, I felt like my street cred was at risk if I couldn’t go into a kitchen and produce a pan of the culinary calling card of any Southern cook; from random grandmothers to food virtuosos like Ashley Christenson and the late, great Mildred Council — or as the world knew her, Mama Dip.

But every darn biscuit I made had a fatal flaw.

Flat was a very frequent defect. This was solved in two ways.

First, I found the correct amount of leavening. Enough for lift, but not so much that tainted the taste.

Secondly, I used a method I’ve never tried:

Folding.

That’s it. For rise and flakiness, roll or pat the dough into a rough rectangle, then fold it into thirds, flatten again and refold.

In pastry lingo, this is known as lamination. With laminated doughs like croissants, this is done hundreds of times (for large output, a machine called a sheeter is used). For biscuits, folding five or so times is good.

Another problem that comes with pastry is developing the gluten in the flour which results in a stretchy, elastic product. Which is great and extremely desirable in making a sourdough boule, it’s murder for biscuits . It’s handling which produces gluten. After adding the buttermilk you can only manipulate it so much before it becomes tough and rubbery — so take care.

My biscuits were made with butter. Early in the day, I retrieved cold butter from the fridge, and grated it. That gave me very small bits. Then I put it into the freezer for a few hours. That gave me very cold bits. About 90 minutes before I baked off the biscuits, I sifted together the dry ingredients. I took the butter out of the freezer and rubbed it into the flour until it looked like coarse corn meal. Then I put it back in the fridge until I was ready to finish making the dough and bake. Intact fat produces lightness and flakiness when the water in the butter turns to steam in the oven.

I haven’t been so proud of making something since The Kid was born.

Later, after seeing it on a cooking show, I decided to use the recipe and technique to make one of Petey’s favorite sweets: cinnamon buns. They’re usually made with a yeast dough, but the biscuit dough gives them a singular flaky buttery-ness that yeasy dough just can’t reproduce.

I won’t lie to you. Not only does this take practice and patience, it is a singularly messy enterprise. My hands look like I’d dipped them in cement when I’m done, and I don’t even want to talk about the state of my kitchen counter.

Maybe I should wear latex gloves…and maybe a plastic poncho.

Too much?

Nah, no sacrifice is too much for the perfect biscuit.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at dm@bullcity.mom.

Triumph biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour + more for kneading and rolling

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Big pinch of sugar

7 tablespoons butter, grated and frozen

1 cup cold buttermilk

Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and baking soda together into bowl.

Cut frozen, grated butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Refrigerate for 90 minutes.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 425.

Pour buttermilk into butter and flour mixture. Mix in buttermilk just until there’s no liquid in the bowl. It will still need to come together more, but you’ll do this on the counter with very gentle kneading.

Turn onto a floured surface, and mix by hand until it becomes a rough-ish dough, using only as much flour you need. Shape into rectangle.

Fold the rectangle in thirds. Flatten back down and refold. Do this 3 or 4 more times.

Roll dough on a floured surface to about ½ inch thick. Cut out 12 biscuits using a 2 ½-inch biscuit cutter.

Transfer biscuits to parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown, rotating pan 180 degrees midway through.

Buttermilk Biscuit Cinnamon Rolls

Make the Triumph biscuits to the point of having a half-inch thick rectangle, then fold in thirds once more and roll it into a ¼ inch thick rectangle about 18X10 inches.

Preheat oven to 400°.

Mix together filling:

1 cup toasted pecans, finely chopped

½ cup brown sugar

½ teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

Melt one stick (1/2 cup) butter, and let cool slightly

Paint the ¼ inch thick rectangle with the melted butter, then sprinkle an even layer of filling, leaving ½ inch of one edge of the long end free of filling mixture.

Starting at the end with filling, roll long end tightly without pulling or ripping. Once rolled, reposition so that seam is on the bottom.

Chill for thirty minutes, then cut into 1 ½ inch slices. Place on a cookie sheet and chill for 30 minutes.

Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown and puffed. Let rest for 10 minutes then glaze.

Glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons he heyavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pinch Chinese five-spice powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

Whisk together and spread onto warm biscuits.

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