Book will make you want to rise and shine for a taste of the South's biscuits

Who knew there were so many styles and nuances in biscuits?

Not Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart, until they were testing recipes for a comprehensive Southern cookbook they are working on.

"Once we did all these (biscuit) recipes, trying to figure out what made this one better than that one, then we got obsessed," Dupree says, laughing. "We kept coming back to it. It was like a sore tooth."

They realized that biscuits deserved -- and needed -- a book of their own. For one reason, no two people would produce the same biscuits even when using the same recipe.

A year ago, they zeroed in on the target together. The result is the newly published "Southern Biscuits" cookbook (Gibbs Smith, $21.99).

The 216-page book aims to cover all the bases. Its recipes reach out to the novice as well as the veteran baker. Those looking for imaginative twists will find Goat Butter Biscuits and even a Coca-Cola version ("intriguing ... a bit mysterious," they write).

Chapters include Biscuit Relatives, Desserts and Gilding the Lily, the latter with recipes for butters, jams, jellies and other spreads.

Should there be any leftover or extra biscuits, Tomorrow's Biscuits offers ways to put them to use in an entirely new dish, such as Biscuit Panzanella Salad.

Dupree of Charleston and Graubart of Atlanta have collaborated on projects since the 1980s. Graubart produced Dupree's public television series, "New Southern Cooking" beginning in 1986.

Dupree also introduced Graubart to her husband and stood up for Graubart at her wedding.

While Dupree's voice is dominant in the book, Graubart played a huge role in the research, testing, editing and writing.

Dupree says they made "way over" 100 batches of biscuits in the process.

The subject wasn't exactly new ground for Dupree. She has been teaching biscuits for years, going back to her days as director of Rich's Cooking School in Atlanta and before.

Dupree gives much credit to one of her mentors, the late Kate Almand.

Almand worked for Dupree in the early 1970s. Dupree describes her as a country woman and a great cook who measured ingredients by rote.

"She would make these biscuits, and it was magical watching her," Dupree says. "The secret was a wet dough."

As much of the Southern culinary fabric as biscuits are, the authors thought there was still a lot of explaining to do.

"The old directions always said cut it (butter or fat) in. I don't think people know what 'cut it in' means anymore. And 'form a well' -- I don't think they know what that means anymore."

The authors address many of those secrets of good biscuit baking in their "Biscuit Basics" section.

The type of flour is key. For the lightest, most tender biscuits, they recommend using a "Southern" flour.

It is made from soft wheat, also known as winter wheat. This flour has a lower protein content than the typical all-purpose flour, and subsequently develops less gluten.

Soft wheat brands include White Lily, Martha White and Red Band.

Dupree also scoffs at those who sneer at self-rising flour, although it's also easy to make your own (instructions are in the book).

The book includes discourses on the "right fat," the "right liquid" and the "right pan." How-to photos illustrate critical steps.

Details and technique matter, Dupree says.

For one, kneading is a misnomer when it comes to making biscuits.

"Kneading has become an almost forceful action to make bread. ... It's not a kneading motion at all."

Rather, the motion is folding and patting. That prevents overworking the dough -- and tough biscuits.

Rubbing the fat into the flour with one's hands is another skill to master. Dupree says it's learning how to "snap" the fat between your fingers, "not a grinding motion like most people do."

Graubart says she learned to conquer her own fear of making biscuits while working on the book.

"It just really brought home the fact that it's OK to practice something. There's is nothing else you would pick up for the first time and expect to be perfect at it.

"You can throw away a couple batches of biscuit, or make your dog happy."

Dupree says that she didn't have the luxury of a grandmother or even her mother teaching her how to make ethereal, melt-in-your-mouth biscuits.

Once she began learning, though, she says her goal became to have people lie in bed in the morning, thinking, "If I could just have a hot biscuit like Nathalie's, I'd get out of bed."

Rise and shine -- and she's not talking about the sun.

"There is really nothing better than a hot biscuit," Dupree says. "What else can you make in 10 minutes in the morning, with a minimum of ingredients?"

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at 937-4886.

Recipes from “Southern Biscuits” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs-Smith, $21.99):

Makes 12 to 18 (2-inch) biscuits

This very basic recipe is the standard recipe used by most Southern families as their guide to what a biscuit should be. If a more crumbly biscuit is desired, increase the shortening to 3/4 cup.

Ingredients

21/4 cups commercial or homemade self-rising flour, divided

1/4 cup chilled shortening, lard, and/or butter, roughly cut into 1/4-inch pieces

1/4 cup chilled shortening, lard, and/or butter, roughly cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup milk or buttermilk, divided

Softened butter, for brushing

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

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 ovenproof 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 flour in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep, and set aside the remaining 1/4 cup. Scatter the 1/4-inch-size pieces of chilled fat over the flour and work in by rubbing fingers with the fat and flour as if snapping thumb and fingers together (or use two forks or knives, or a pastry cutter) until the mixture looks like well-crumbled feta cheese. Scatter the 1/2-inch-size pieces of chilled fat over the flour mixture and continue snapping thumb and fingers together until no pieces remain larger than a pea. Shake the bowl occasionally to allow the larger pieces of fat to bounce to the top of the flour, revealing the largest lumps that still need rubbing. If this method takes longer than 5 minutes, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 5 minutes to rechill the fat.

Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Pour 3/4 cup of the milk into the hollow, reserving 1/4 cup milk, and stir with a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad, circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the milk. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons of reserved milk, just enough 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 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 21/2-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 10 to 14 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 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 8 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.

“Pimentocheese” is almost one word in the South, along with “ratcheese.” Pimento peppers — pointed red peppers similar to a bell pepper — were grown and canned in Georgia through 1970. They were mixed with mayonnaise and “ratcheese,” which was a large round of yellow American cheese similar to cheddar cheese. Ratcheese was kept in a round wooden container until ready to see, when it was placed under a glass “bell” and kept on a wooden board. It is found in grocery stores, delis, and even gas stations, and is used as a paste on white bread (fresh or toasted), cucumbers, and many other foods.

Ingredients

21/4 cups self-rising flour, divided

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1/4 cup chilled butter, roughly cut into 1/4-inch pieces

1/4 cup chilled butter, roughly cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 (4-ounce) jar pimento or roasted red bell peppers, chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped onion (optional)

1 cup buttermilk, divided

2 tablespoons melted or softened butter, for brushing

Directions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Pulse 2 cups of flour with the cheese two or three times in a food processor fitted with the knife or dough blade. Set aside 1/4 cup of flour.

Scatter the 1/4-inch shortening pieces over the flour mixture and pulse 2 or 3 times. Scatter the 1/2-inch shortening pieces over the flour mixture and pulse 2 or 3 times until mixture resembles well-crumbled feta cheese, with no piece larger than a pea. Add the pimentos, onion, and 3/4 cup of buttermilk. Set aside the 1/4 cup buttermilk. Pulse mixture briefly to incorporate into a shaggy wettish dough. When the blade stops, remove the lid and feel the dough. Add reserved buttermilk or flour as needed to make a slightly wettish dough. Pulse once or twice more until the dough looks shaggy but holds together.

Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface with some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and sprinkle the top 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-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 a lightly greased baking sheet so they are touching each other. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 13 to 15 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 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 7 to 9 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.

Serves 8

Sausage and apple is one of my favorite food combinations, and I find ways to cook it into everything from quiches to this souffle-like casserole, great for a brunch or long weekend.

Ingredients

2 pounds bulk sausage

2 tart apples, cored and sliced

6 cups torn or cut biscuits in 1/2-inch pieces

9 eggs, beaten

3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

11/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

3 cups milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Fry the sausage in a skillet, breaking it up as it cooks, and drain on a paper towel. Reserve the fat and let the sausage cool. Saute the apples in the reserved fat, remove from pan, and let cool.

Move the biscuit pieces to a large resealable plastic bag.

Whisk together the eggs, mustard, cheese and milk in a large bowl. Stir in the sausage and apples. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to the plastic bag. Place the bag inside another resealable plastic bag with the zipper facing another direction in order to prevent leaks. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight or up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour mixture into a buttered 13x9x2-inch baking dish or divide between two 11/2-quart casseroles. Bake covered 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes until eggs are set and the center measures 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.