go to basket

Graham Biscuits

A hot graham biscuit with raw honey—paradise in biscuit form.
difficulty:
yield:

9 or 10 biscuits

time:

10 minutes to make, 15 minutes to bake

Flour milled from heirloom grains absorbs liquid more slowly than commercially processed flour. Since this dough may feel wet at first, it is prudent to let it rest in the bowl for 5 minutes before rolling it out. Work with this dough lightly and quickly and use as little flour as possible.

introduction

The bran in the graham flour gives the biscuits a fine, crisp patina and a delicate crunch.

Historical Notes

In the tradition of foods associated with antiquity, the earliest biscuits, dating back to ancient Rome, employed minimal ingredients and rudimentary techniques. Biscuits began as a stout, cooked porridge of fine wheat flour and water spread on a plate to dry, broken into pieces, and fried—a process reflected in the Latin roots of the word itself: bis, which means “twice,” and coctus, which means “cooked.” Thus, the earliest biscuits were hard and unleavened—what we might call hardtack today. In the 7th century, Persians began baking these hard, unleavened biscuits with sugar. Sugar stuck to the word biscuit and stayed there—at least in Europe, where, to this day, British cookies are called “biscuits” and Italian cookies “biscotti.”

In the United States, biscuits took off in fresh directions. Fine colonial butter made its way into most recipes and sweet milk replaced water. Still, the dough remained unleavened and the final biscuits hard. A case in point: the recipe for Hard Biscuits in Memorials of a Southern Planter (published in 1887) directs the cook to rub butter into flour, dampen the dry ingredients with milk to make a dough, and roll it out using reserved flour. The dough is cut into rounds and baked in a hot oven. Another early biscuit recipe, the famous beaten biscuits of the South, were made from unleavened dough, pounded with a mallet to produce blisters, folded back onto itself, and pounded again and again—efforts that reflect the wish to get a rise out of the dough (though, in truth, the final puffy, crackerlike product resembles an early Roman biscuit more than a modern American one).

Biscuits didn’t really turn the corner in their development, of course, until bakers began to leaven them in the mid-1800s, skipping the eggs they used to leaven cakes and the beer yeast that raised their bread in favor of an agent that truly anticipated modern American baking: pearlash. Pearlash—potassium carbonate—was a powder extracted from wood ashes through steeping and evaporation. When the evaporation step was eliminated, the ash water, called lye or potash, was used to make, among other things, hominy. Pearlash produced a strong alkaline effect in the presence of an acid by bubbling and giving off carbon dioxide, just like baking soda does. In fact, pearlash is the great-grandfather of baking powder. Native Americans were the first to use it as a seasoning and leavening agent, and Americans the first to patent it (the first patent issued in this country, in 1790, was issued to protect pearlash). All this makes America the de facto birthplace of chemical leavening—and biscuits the first real American quickbread.

From pearlash, to saleratus (a crude form of sodium bicarbonate), and later to baking soda and powder, the leavening agents bakers seized to make biscuits were, inevitably, quick and chemical. You’d expect early iterations to have been yeasted (both beer yeast and grape ferment were widely used in bread making at the time), but historical documents suggest this was not the case. Perhaps it is because biscuit dough always had a higher fat to liquid ratio than standard bread dough, a ratio that does not create an environment in which yeast likes to work. (Add extra liquid and yeast to unleavened biscuit dough and, behold, biscuit becomes dinner roll!) Or perhaps it is because most biscuits, unlike bread doughs, experience no kneading—they’re trying to stay tender and want as little gluten development as possible. In rural areas of the colonial South, plantation journals described wild yeast ferments in which raw biscuits were set out before baking and inoculated with airborne yeasts that lifted the dough in the oven, but this practice involved unpredictable ferment times and erratic finished flavors (plantation journals note multiple day ferments).

The earliest yeasted biscuit recipe we found used a sponge (or soft bread dough) and saleratus together—anticipating, perhaps, the hyperinflated modern angel biscuit. Appearing in Memorials of A Southern Planter in 1887, these biscuits are “moulded” (not stamped into rounds), baked in a hot oven, and come with an acknowledgment from the author that her “biscuits” are a lot like bread.

The most famous biscuits of the South were made with sour (or clabbered) milk or buttermilk and baking soda, a combustive mix of acid and alkali that produced a spectacularly high pan of biscuits. By 1850, Southern biscuits had reached the height of their form with fresh bolted local soft wheat flour (classified as pastry flour today), sweet butter, buttermilk, and soda—along with a light touch and a ripping hot oven. (Lard, though occasionally used to make flaky biscuits, has never taken precedence over butter in biscuit work.)

Scratch biscuits, leavened with spare amounts of soda and phosphate survived the first onslaught of convenience food prior to 1900. But then came self-rising flour offering just the right proportions of baking soda, phosphate, and salt. The fall of scratch biscuits can be traced to Southerners who succumbed to the wiles of packaged baking mixes during the Depression. Seductions of easy and quick dealt a nearly lethal blow to all authentic Southern quickbreads, especially biscuits.

The history of biscuits chronicles a surreal acceleration of chemical leavening after World War II, an acceleration that enters the theater of the absurd when a motherlode of modern biscuit recipes, industrial mill advertising, and convenience ingredients collide after 1950 to form a culture of nearly instant biscuits. Boxed mixes, self-rising flour, extra baking powder, and extra baking soda reach critical mass with the class of biscuits known as “Angel” or “Bride’s” biscuits, which have an abundance of quick leavens—and yeast, too. In this declension, even the terms “bleached” and “enriched” became good things. The conversion from local fresh-milled natural biscuit flour to packaged commercial flours is so complete in the South today that our so-called finest biscuit flours now have counterparts dubbed “unbleached” and “unenriched”—like these are bad things.

Catshead, Angel, Bride’s, Truckers, Farm, Baby, Drop, Pinch, Graham, Cream, Beaten and many more lyrical names are grace notes in the saga of Southern biscuits. But perhaps most important are the two traditional biscuit styles: soft and fluffy versus crisp and flaky. Soft biscuits are crowded together in their baking pan so that the sides cannot brown or harden and are torn to separate after baking. Crisp biscuits have more fat, less liquid, and enough space between each other on the sheet pan that their sides brown and crisp. Each has its own set of diehard fans and apologists.

equipment mise en place

For this recipe, you will need a baking sheet, parchment paper, a food processor, a large mixing bowl, a rubber spatula, a rolling pin, and a 2-inch biscuit cutter.

  1.  

    Adjust the oven racks to the lowest and upper-middle positions and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

  2.  

    Place the flours, baking powder, and salt in a food processor bowl and pulse to combine. Scatter the butter pieces over the surface and process to a coarse meal, about ten 1-second pulses.

  3.  

    Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl and, using a rubber spatula, lightly blend in 10 tablespoons milk. If the dry ingredients are not uniformly moistened or are not holding together, add up to 2 tablespoons more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time. (The dough will be fairly wet.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

  4.  

    Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll or pat it out to a 1-inch thickness. Dip a 2-inch biscuit cutter in flour, stamp out 5 biscuits, and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Press the dough scraps back into one piece, roll it lightly until smooth, and resume cutting biscuits until the dough is gone. You should have 9 or 10 biscuits.

  5.  

    Bake the biscuits on the lowest rack until they are nicely risen and deep golden brown on the bottoms, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to the upper-middle rack and continue baking until the tops are nicely browned, 6 to 8 minutes more. Remove the biscuits from the oven and serve them hot with plenty of sweet butter and honey or sorghum.