My children feel about any dinner with biscuits in it the way I feel about any movie with Laura Linney in it: however bad it gets, at least there's that. And so a warm, flaky biscuit with butter makes the kids feel very forgiving towards, say, lentil soup, which is what we were having for dinner last night (again). And these biscuits happen to be extra-delicious: crunchy and wheaty on the outside, tender and tangy within. The original recipe is from Deborah Madison's wonderful Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, a book you should buy or check out of the library even if you're not a vegetarian, simply because she has so many wonderful ideas about making easy, delicious, wholesome meals from inexpensive basics like beans and rice, eggs and cheese. Biscuits fall into this category--a cheap thrill that tarts up even the simplest meal. Oddly, the original recipe calls for all white flour--surprising, since Deborah Madison really seems like a whole-wheat kind of gal--but that's not how I make them. Try using half spelt or whole-wheat flour like I do, not just because it's more nutritious that way, but because it actually gives the biscuits a lovely, warm flavor without turning them into those puck-shaped anvils that seem to dominate the whole-wheat-biscuit genre. Sometimes I go even further, and use all whole-grain flour and, again, the flavor is excellent this way.
There's also the fact that biscuits are a great project to get your kids in on--what with the cookie cutters and the flour everywhere and the simulation of play-doh, only less salt. Birdy pats out dough with such utter sweetness, like it's a baby animal, that I fall in love with her every time. I actually had to put the camera down so that I could grab her and kiss her floury neck. "Oooh," I said. "You're such a pumpkin!" And Birdy said sensibly, with her small hands still pat-pat-patting at the biscuits, "Well, Mama, like you always say, it's not how I look, it's that I act like a pumpkin." I don't know exactly what it means to act like a pumpkin, but "Pumpkin is as pumpkin does" might just become a favorite saying around here.
Yummy Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes a dozen 2-inch biscuits
active time: 20 minutes; total time: 35 minutes
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. If you experiment with the mix of flours, please do let me know how it turns out!
2 cups flour (I use up to 100% spelt or whole-wheat, and they are delicious that way)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
6 tablespoons butter (3/4 stick; I use salted), cut into small pieces
1 cup buttermilk
Heat the oven to 450 and butter a large cookie sheet. Now mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl with a fork or a whisk, then add the butter. What you'll see in the photographs is that I do this part in my food processor: I add all the butter, then pulse the machine until it has created an uneven mix of sandy crumbs, with some pea-sized clumps of butter still kicking around. But you can do this by hand too, and that's what I used to do: just add the butter, and toss to coat it with the flour mixture, then take off your rings and use your fingertips to rub the butter into the dry ingredients. This is a messy but not unpleasant job: you’ll be lifting handfuls of the mixture up out of the bowl, then gently letting it fall through your fingertips as you rub it lightly together. Eventually, you’ll have a bowl full of lumpy sandy stuff, which is what you're going for.
Now dump the mix back into the bowl if you used the food processor, and stir the buttermilk in with a fork until the mixture is evenly moistened. Turn the dough onto a floured countertop and press it together a bit--your don't want to handle it more than is necessary--then use your hands to pat it out into a circle that's about three quarters of an inch thick. Use a cookie cutter, biscuit cutter, or drinking glass to cut your biscuits, laying them on the cookie sheet as you go. When you've cut as many biscuits as you can, reassemble the scraps by pushing them together as best you can (if you knead them all up into a ball and then press them flat again, the biscuits start to get a bit tough, which is okay but not ideal--they're more tender if you just kind of shove the scraps together). Cut the rest of the biscuits, then bake for 15 or so minutes until they are golden brown.
I like to brush beaten egg on the tops and add a sprinkle of celery seeds before baking, but my family likes these plain, plain, plain, so that's how I make them, because I am self-sacrificing like that. I know.