Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Southern Biscuits and a Slew of Cookbooks

On a recent trip to Charleston, Nathalie Dupree, my mentor and close friend, met my husband for the first time. We have been married nearly 10 years, but the two of them had never laid eyes on each other. For years, I’ve tried to describe her vivaciousness, tell-it-like-it-is, incredibly welcoming in any situation, and incomparable personality. He liked her immediately.
It was in 1998 that I started working for Nathalie as an apprentice. I cooked on most days at Nathalie’s house, but the looming cookbook library always drew me into the hall in between recipes. It was this enormous collection of cookbooks that desperately needed to be catalogued and put in order.
Being the well mannered, eager to please Southern girl I am, I volunteered before thinking it through. Nathalie’s cookbook collection was almost endless and seemed to me to be the largest in the world. The books lined the main hall that was nearly the length of the house and were displayed on towering dark mahogany stained bookshelves. It didn’t take but a few seconds in the house to recognize the intriguing vague scent of ink, paper, and binding.
To get started on my new assignment, I met with a UGA librarian and was convinced the Dewey decimal system was the way to go. I now know I would have been more qualified to analyze chemical compounds. It wasn’t long before I realized I was in way over my 21-year-old head. Thank goodness, we then decided to make general sections, number each book in each section, and then catalogue each book digitally.
I came in an extra day each week to work on the library. I often sat in the floor and fell into the books I was deployed to organize. Nathalie didn’t mind and even encouraged me to “check-out” books to read. It was during one of these days that I was folded up on the floor engrossed in Damon Lee Fowler’s Classical Southern Cooking. It almost sounds unbelievable, but at that very instant, Damon walked in the side door. He had come through town to pick up Nathalie for an event that I don’t recall.
When Damon walked by and Nathalie introduced him, I was practically in awe. It seemed her house was the home base for all things Southern. It is this library that I aspire to recreate and still think about often. It’s quite a luxury to be surrounded by books, glorious books. My own cookbook library now takes up a wall in my office. I have an entire shelf devoted to only Nathalie’s books. Most authors only dream of publishing as many books as Nathalie has written. My “Nathalie shelf” just got more crowded.
Her brand new Southern Biscuits, written with Cynthia Graubart, is hot off the press and is a tome of the puffed and golden delicacy. It’s a real book – heavy enough to need two hands to hold and large enough to take up an entire lap when reading. I have made biscuits with Nathalie on several occasions and I can testify that she makes a dang good biscuit.
Most cooks have one or two biscuit recipes they revisit regularly, but this book has opened the door to a new world of this Southern specialty. It, of course, includes Basic Southern Biscuits, but the glass ceiling has been lightly sprinkled with flour and shattered into pieces. Between the Pimento Cheese Biscuits and Senator Hollings’ Flaky Appetizer Cream Cheese Biscuits and Gullah Biscuits, I couldn’t preheat my oven fast enough.
With lessons on flours, fats, and leavening, literally everything anyone will need to succeed at making the perfect batch of biscuits can be found in these pages. Readers learn how to slide a baking pan on the oven shelf under baking biscuits to slow browning. Twist the cutter and the biscuit will be lopsided. Even included is the fact that biscuits made from dough scraps are tougher in texture.
Practically anyone can turn out successful batch after batch of biscuits with the help of Southern Biscuits. It’s a worthy addition to any cookbook library, large or small.

Southern Biscuits by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart, $21.99

Allison’s Easy Sour Cream Biscuits
Makes 12 to 14 (2 1⁄ 2-inch) biscuits

Sour cream biscuits are among the easiest of
all the biscuits to make. Using a homemade
or commercial self-rising flour makes it easier
again, as then only two ingredients are needed.
The acid in the milk products tenderizes the
biscuits as well as activates the baking powder
already incorporated in the flour. This recipe is
enormously easy and makes exceedingly tender,
moist, and fluffy biscuits with a tang. They have
a great rise, to about three times their height.

2 1/4 cups commercial or home made self-rising flour, divided
1 1/4 cups sour cream, divided
Softened butter, for brushing.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior
is desired. For a soft exterior, use an 8- or 9-inch cake pan,
pizza pan, or oven-proof skillet where the biscuits will nestle
together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For
a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan
where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to
circulate and creating a crisper exterior, and brush the pan
with butter.
Fork-sift or whisk 2 cups of the flour in a large bowl,
preferably wider than it is deep, and set aside the remaining
1⁄4 cup.
Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back
of your hand. Pour 1 cup of sour cream into the hollow,
reserving the remaining 1⁄4 cup, and stir with a rubber
spatula or large metal spoon, using broad circular strokes to
quickly pull the flour into the sour cream. Mix just until the
dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins
to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Use the reserved
sour cream as needed to incorporate the remaining flour into
the shaggy wettish dough. If the dough is too wet, use more
flour when shaping.
Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface using some
of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and
sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. With floured
hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough out into a
1⁄3- to 1⁄2-inch-thick round, using a little additional flour only
if needed. Flour again if necessary, and fold the dough
in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat
and fold a third time. Pat dough out into a 1⁄2-inch thick
round for a normal biscuit, 3⁄4-inch-thick for a tall
biscuit, and 1-inch-thick for a giant biscuit. Brush off
any visible flour from the top. For each biscuit, dip a
2 1⁄2-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut
out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting
very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter.
The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits,
although these scraps make tougher biscuits.
Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to
the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top
rack of the oven for a total of 8 to 10 minutes until light
golden brown. After 4 minutes, rotate the pan in the
oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the
back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too
quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to
add insulation and retard browning. Continue baking
another 4 to 6 minutes until the biscuits are light golden
brown. When the biscuits are done, remove from the
oven and lightly brush the tops with softened or melted
butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to
cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up. 

* If the sour cream is too thick, add a little milk

T i p: If the sour cream is too thick, add a little milk.
Normally, however, adding milk to thin is not necessary.

Excerpted from Southern Biscuits ©2011Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart. Photos by Rick McKee.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 
Copyright © 2011 Rebecca Lang Cooks, LLC. All rights reserved.