Welcome to the second installment of Cliff Notes, authored by my favorite baker and my favorite Cliff – MY DAD! Dad is the inspiration behind the classics here on the blog. You know him and love him for his Chocolate Chip Cookies, his Buttermilk Pancakes, and he’s also baker of Buttermilk Biscuits that disappear so fast at the dinner table, it’ll make your head spin. Let’s here how these perfect little biscuits came to be from the man, the myth, the legend himself – Clifford Wilson. xo Joy
Confident Chef and Her Irresistibles
A Biscuit Yarn
My mother was a fabulous cook. But she never measured anything. In fact, we had no measuring cups or spoons, nor did we have a mixer. Mother didn’t even own a cookbook, and there were no recipes she had written down. Our first cookbook was Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book that my sister, Dede, had purchased. But by then, Mother had long been braising cube steak that fell apart before it hit the plate, and her slow-roasted leg of lamb could be eaten with no teeth. Indeed, Mother had been knowing her way around the kitchen nigh on 30 years! From her luxurious gravies and sauces to her irresistible cakes and pies, she had them down!
Since early age in Tennessee and Arkansas, cooking for her father, her sickly mother and sisters, my mother used her eyes, hands, and taste to learn the behavior of ingredients when they’re brought together. She developed a preciseness in textures; how dough felt to the touch, how batter dripped off a spoon, and how all types of food responded to heat. Her absolute favorite ingredient was butter. In her opinion, butter made everything taste better. But she knew when to use it and when not to, especially during the Great Depression and World War II when butter was rationed and other forms of fat were cheaper.
Procter & Gamble had an effective marketing campaign for its easy-to-use and versatile Crisco vegetable shortening. Millions of bakers made their cakes, cookies, and pie crusts with this inexpensive product, even to this day. And shortening is a basic storeroom item in foodservice for deep-frying as well as for frying foods at home. Besides using Crisco, my mother used bacon grease left over from breakfast. Growing up, one of my favorite meals was fried chicken and biscuits, which we had for supper on Sunday afternoons after church. Mother would scoop shortening and congealed bacon grease into a cast iron skillet and heat it up. Then she’d take chicken pieces that had been soaking in an egg and buttermilk bath overnight in the fridge, and would double-dip them in salted, paprika-laced flour before putting them in the hot oil. She’d cut shortening and bacon grease into flour for her biscuits, too! When it was time to eat, I’d pull apart a hot fluffy biscuit, slather on some butter and load it up with fig jam made from the figs off the tree in our backyard. Although I had just gotten out of church, chowing down 3 or 4 of those mouth-watering biscuits had convinced me that I had died and gone to heaven.
When Mother was elderly, she continued to cook southern-style, with the same Great Depression thriftiness; she continued to use shortening and bacon grease in spite of alternative dietary trends. And when it came to her special sauces and desserts, BUTTER, the culinary love of her life, always took center stage. When I started making biscuits, I could never duplicate hers, because I never developed her “feel” for the ingredients; I always have to measure everything. I created this biscuit recipe, made with all butter, in honor of my mother’s passion for butter. These flaky bad boys sit tall, and are fantastic for breakfast, lunch and dinner! They make great shortbread for dessert. Or add savory sweet fillings to the shaggy dough—cheddar, dried figs, dark chocolate chunks, anything that pleases. And how about this? When you’re making cornbread stuffing for Thanksgiving dinner, crumble up these biscuits (instead of using bread crumbs) to mix with the crumbled cornbread. Wow! It takes stuffing to a whole new level!
BTW: It won’t hurt my feelings if you sneak in a little bacon grease.