For Belinda Ellis, homemade biscuits are more than merely delicious | Food Feature | Indy Week
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For Belinda Ellis, homemade biscuits are more than merely delicious 

"It's really not difficult to make a good biscuit," says Belinda Ellis. But the dough is key.

Photo by Fred Thompson/Edible Piedmont

"It's really not difficult to make a good biscuit," says Belinda Ellis. But the dough is key.

If you're making your list and checking it twice for Thanksgiving, scratch off that tube of refrigerated biscuits. The same goes for those bland lumps from the freezer case. In no more time than it takes to pick up a few things at the grocery store, you can make a batch of biscuits from scratch that would make your Southern granny proud.

If you don't have Southern roots, allow yourself some personal satisfaction in having made a batch of light, buttery biscuits with your own flour-coated hands.

"It's really not difficult to make a good biscuit," says Belinda Ellis as she checks the progress of a batch in her small Durham kitchen. She lightly touches the hot surface of the biscuits, which are beginning to turn golden, and returns the pan to the oven. "My grandmother made biscuits every Sunday. There's no need to wait for a holiday to make some."

The author of Biscuits, a volume in the UNC Press Savor the South series, Ellis has served as an ambassador for the Southern staple since she started working 20-plus years ago as test kitchen and marketing manager for White Lily flour. The brand, formerly produced in Knoxville with 100 percent soft red winter wheat, once reigned as the undisputed choice among Southern biscuit-makers.

White Lily is one of several labels found in her kitchen, but some food writers have shared complaints from home cooks that favorite recipes aren't as successful as they were before the company was sold to Smuckers and production shifted to Ohio. The equipment formerly used to mill the brand is now used by Southern Biscuit at its facility in Newton, N.C.

"There are just three ingredients in most biscuits—flour, liquid and fat—so it's important to use the best you can find," Ellis advises. "My liquid of choice is Maple View Farm buttermilk, and I generally use butter because it's so hard to find leaf lard."

Leaf lard is the highest grade of fat rendered from pork. It's considered by some bakers to yield the most tender biscuit.

Ellis begins Biscuits with a master recipe that can be tweaked to create several variations. In a first for the Savor the South series, whose pages were previously non-illustrated, the recipe includes a series of photographs to help bakers master the technique needed.

"The best way to learn how to make biscuits is by making biscuits," Ellis says simply. "You have to learn to trust the way the dough feels. It's not like other doughs."

In most cases, biscuit dough should be slightly wet, just tacky enough to leave a trace on your fingers. Generously flour your hands or rolling pin while kneading, but avoid working excess flour into the dough. And always, Ellis says, cut portions cleanly with a sharp biscuit cutter, which allows the dough to rise to its full potential.

A delicious exception to the master recipe is her Flaky Butter Biscuits, which recall the peelable, layered biscuits from the pop-open can. These biscuits use all-purpose flour, which blends soft and hard wheat. They need baking powder, salt and—contrary to a true Southern biscuit—a spoonful of sugar. And while most biscuits require minimal kneading, these are rolled thin and folded in thirds five times to create a croissant-like texture.

"It's my favorite recipe for Thanksgiving and it will be what I'm making for our table," she says, offering tips as her student practiced rolling and folding the butter-speckled dough. "I find a lot of young people associate the layers with what a biscuit should be because they didn't have anyone making them (from scratch) when they grew up."

Ellis believes that biscuits serve as lifelong taste memories, especially for Southerners. She recalled a woman's reaction to sampling one of her biscuits at a food show.

"She took a few steps away and then stopped. She was crying," Ellis says, pausing to inspect the perfect layers in her still-steaming biscuits. "She said she hadn't tasted a biscuit like that since her grandmother made them for her when she was a child. It was a very emotional experience for her, and for me."

Flaky Butter Biscuits

From Biscuits: a Savor the South® cookbook by Belinda Ellis. Copyright © 2013 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Are super-flaky biscuits impossible to make from scratch? Can't a biscuit be as flaky and buttery as a croissant? Yes, it's all about layers. To create layers, fold the dough as in making puff pastry. The inspiration for this biscuit came from famed Charlotte-based cookbook author, bread baker, pastry chef, and Johnson and Wales instructor Peter Reinhardt. I love the results. These biscuits are so good that I serve them for Thanksgiving. I use all-purpose flour for this recipe to make the layers more pronounced.

Makes 16-20 biscuits

1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 cup heavy cream mixed with 1 tablespoon lemon juice (let stand for 10 minutes)
Melted butter for brushing the tops (optional)

Put the butter in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before you start baking to give it time to get very cold and hard. If you have the space in your freezer, freeze the flour too.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Use a baking sheet with a silicone liner.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Place the mixture in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.

Grate the butter in a food processor using the grater attachment or with a hand grater. Place the grated butter in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Gently toss the butter into the flour using a wooden spoon. Add the acidified cream and stir just until blended. If you need more liquid for the dough to pull together into a ball, add a small amount of cream and stir. The dough should come together into a ball, but it won't be wet.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a rolling pin coated with flour, roll out to a 12-by-18-inch rectangle, about 1⁄8-inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds like folding a letter. Pick up the dough to keep it from sticking, and lightly flour the surface. Roll the dough again about 1⁄8-inch thick. Repeat folding the dough into thirds and rolling it three more times. If the dough sticks, use a bench knife to pick up the dough and fold it. Handle the dough as little as possible.

Cut the biscuits using a 1 1⁄2-inch biscuit cutter or slice the dough into squares using a pizza cutter or bench knife. Place the biscuits on the baking sheet about 1⁄2 inch apart so the sides brown.

Bake for 12–15 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown. Remove from the oven. If desired, brush the tops with melted butter.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Bake some memories."

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