A great relief
It’s kind of hard for me to get my head in the game this fall - you know, for Thanksgiving and the holidays and all. I can hardly keep track of anything these days except the words on my computer screen, and even that’s touch-and-go. My brain is a wide-mesh sieve. The other day, I went out to breakfast with a friend, someone I’d lost touch with for a couple of years and ran into again only recently, and we were talking about my wedding. She wanted to know what time the ceremony took place, and - get this - I couldn’t remember. Could. Not. Remember. I was like, “Uhh, four? Or five? Or no, four-thirty?” The only good part is that later, when I told Brandon about my little memory lapse, he giggled and admitted that he can’t remember either. Heavens, he’s dreamy. We were meant for each other.
But all that notwithstanding, I really do want to talk about Thanksgiving today. I love Thanksgiving. It’s barely ten days away and approaching at lightning speed. I haven’t been cooking much these days, to be perfectly honest, but over the past few weeks, during lunches and in those late-night moments before my eyes cloud with sleep, I’ve come across some holiday recipes that made me itch to get to the stove. I don’t have much time to spare, but this weekend, feeling terribly decadent and devil-may-care about the manuscript and whatnot, I decided to do it anyway.
Oh ho ho. See that carrot soup up there? So pretty, right? So silky, so creamy, so delicious, it would seem, with white cheddar and a warm baguette? Oh, were it so. To tell you the truth, it was boring. Really boring. Like, I’ll-keep-eating-this-because-it’s-healthy-but-I’m-definitely-not-
going-to-enjoy-it-boring. It had tons of sweetly sauteed shallots, homemade chicken stock, and cream, and still, booooo-ring. I had it for lunch today and almost fell asleep.
Then there was the winter squash gratin from Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. Years ago, someone told me that it was a terrific recipe, and I’ve had it bookmarked ever since. I finally tried it on Saturday. It’s basically cubed winter squash - I used butternut - that you steam briefly with some minced garlic and fresh ginger and then fold gently with béchamel, top with fresh bread crumbs and gruyère, and bake slowly until lightly browned on top. I’d never made a gratin with béchamel - usually just milk or cream - but this was Julia, right? I love Julia. And butternut squash! And gruyère! It would be rich! It would be gooey! A Thankgiving homerun! You see where this is going. It too was only so-so: strange and slippery on the tongue, and with next to no flavor. It was like butternut squash with the volume turned down. It was wasted groceries, basically, and why oh why did I do that, and oh, what the hell, let’s have ice cream for dinner.
But in the midst of all this, my weekend of utter mediocrity, I remembered something. It came as a great relief. I think you’re going to like it. I know I do.
What I remembered was Shirley Corriher’s Touch-of-Grace Biscuits. Over the past several years, these little lumps of glory have come to be my Thanksgiving trademark, and though I wrote about them here three years ago, I thought it was high time to take them down from the shelf, dust them off, and trot them around again. I hope you don’t mind. Once you’ve tasted them, I doubt you will. I’ll bet even a snore of a carrot soup could look lively with one of these dunked in it.
Shirley Corriher is a well-known food scientist and author of a book called Cookwise, but even if you haven’t heard of her, this recipe will have you shouting her name from the rooftops. It’s based on her grandmother’s method for making biscuits, and though it’s a little odd on first glance, it’s utterly, utterly easy. Basically, you combine flour, sugar, and salt; rub in some shortening; and then stir in buttermilk and cream until the mixture looks like large-curd cottage cheese. Then, using a measuring scoop, you spoon up a biscuit-size quantity of the wet dough, dunk it in a bowl of flour, dust it off, nestle it in a cake pan, and repeat. The biscuits bake into a pebbly cake of sorts, like this.
Then you break them apart, wrap them in a dishtowel, put them on the table, and watch them go - because they do, fast. They’re uncannily light, moist and airy, with a flavor that’s both rich and tangy, buttermilk through and through. If you want to know what I’ll be contributing to Thanksgiving next week, when Brandon and I go to Oklahoma to celebrate with my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, three cousins, one cousin-in-law, two cousins’ boyfriends, one brother, one sister-in-law, one uncle, and one baby niece who is just starting to eat real food and loves it so much that she pants in anticipation - pants! - when she sees a spoon, well, this is it. I’ll probably be making two batches, actually, or maybe even three. Because we like biscuits. Much better than butternut gratin, in fact. I don’t know what I was thinking.
Adapted from Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise
This recipe relies on two principles: 1) that low-protein flour makes tender biscuits, and 2) that a wet dough creates lots of steam in the oven and makes biscuits extra-light. It’s both simple and ingenious. The only tricky part is that you need Southern self-rising flour. It sounds finicky, but there’s a method to Corriher’s madness: Southern brands of flour are milled from a soft wheat that contains less gluten, meaning that they make a more tender biscuit. My favorite brand is White Lily, although I think I’ve also used Martha White, maybe, and Aunt Jemima brand. I can’t remember. White Lily is hard to find outside of the East Coast and the South. Williams-Sonoma used to carry it, but they’ve stopped, and now I have to mail-order mine. Crazy, I know, but these biscuits are worth it. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll order some too.
If you can’t find Southern self-rising flour, or if you don’t have time to wait for the mail, you can also try this: instead, combine 1 1/3 cups national-brand self-rising flour, 2/3 cup Wondra flour, and one heaping ½ teaspoon baking powder. That’s a decent substitute, although not quite as light. You also might need to add a touch more buttermilk to get the right consistency.
Nonstick cooking spray
2 cups Southern self-rising flour, such as White Lily
½ tsp. salt
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup vegetable shortening
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup all-purpose flour, for shaping biscuits (do not use self-rising for this)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit, and spray an 8” round cake pan with cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, combine the self-rising flour, salt, and sugar and whisk to mix well. Add the shortening and, using your fingers, rub it into the flour mixture until there are no lumps bigger than a large pea.
Stir in the heavy cream and buttermilk, taking care not to overmix. Let stand for 2-3 minutes. The dough will be very wet, resembling large-curd cottage cheese.
Pour the all-purpose flour into a shallow bowl or pie plate. Rub your hands in the flour to dust them well. Using a ¼-cup measuring scoop or something of similar size, spoon a lump of wet dough into the flour, and sprinkle some flour over it to coat well. Gently pick it up and shape it into a soft round. I do this by cradling it in the cupped palm of one hand and gently shaking it, letting the excess flour fall through my fingers. You can also toss the dough softly - very softly - back and forth from cupped palm to cupped palm: it should feel similar to a water balloon. Place biscuit in pan and repeat with remaining dough, pushing biscuits tightly against one another so that they will rise up and not spread out.
Brush with melted butter and bake until set and lightly browned, 15-20 minutes. Cool for a minute or two, then dump out and break apart into individual biscuits.
Yield: 10-12 biscuits