Ladies Who Brunch.

There was an absolutely lovely party this past summer, the sort that felt like everyone who was still left in town had to have been in attendance, where at least a few of the worlds of Charlottesville collided. And as happens as these things, there was much chatter about how we – me – should invite people over for wine to continue the worlds colliding fun. Because apparently, this is a thing I do – have random gatherings with cool people where they met other cool people.

Of course I obliged, sending out an email to inquire as to when people might be free in order for us to have a ladies wine night. As it turns out, working moms are busy people and the best time for all of us to gather for drinks was Sunday morning.  And thus came the inspiration for “Ladies Who Brunch”.

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A bridal shower.

I co-hosted a bridal shower for my cousin Molly over the holiday weekend.  When Aunt Jenny proposed the idea, she suggested a brunch, then after I agreed, followed up by asking for a proposed menu. It wasn’t until she asked for a shopping list that it sort of dawned on me that by co-hosting, I would be catering the whole she-bang.  Why yes, I’m fully capable and yes, I do happen to actually do that particular activity from time to time for people I’m not related to, but always in the role of the very capable assistant, never do I actually assemble the menu and recipes and shopping list myself.  I’ll admit, I had a moment where I wondered WTF I was doing, with a  wavering in confidence before I got over myself and just went with it.

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Biscuits, the recipe.

Remember a few weeks ago when I proclaimed to have NAILED biscuits but failed to share a recipe?  My excuse was that I wanted to try using whole wheat flour before sharing under the auspices of presenting a healthier recipe – really, I just wanted to make sure those biscuits were not a fluke.  I can admit I do sometimes have rather lackluster batches of biscuits – they still get eaten because bad biscuits are better than no biscuits apparently – but they are nothing to write the internet about.  I tested my theory of using cream and cake flour in a few batches – including sweet potato ones – to much success every time, so now I’m ready to share a recipe.  While the all white flour version are still by far the flakiest, the whole wheat and sweet potato versions (also made with whole wheat) are still not too shabby.

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That time I nailed the biscuits.

I made THE BEST biscuits the other night.  I mean, really.  They were the sort of biscuits you brag on the internet about, in fact, they are the reason the internet was invented so that one could brag about these sorts of biscuits. Edie praised them for three days straight.  Do you know how awesome something I’ve done has to be in order for her to do that in her thirteen-year-oldness?  That’s right, pretty darn tooting awesome.

So what did I do that these particular biscuits were so good? I used cream. Back when I was obsessed with making good biscuits by picking the brain of everyone I knew who made them as well as reading up on them, I seem to remember reading something about the effect of using cream in making your biscuits.  I happened to have cream I need to use up, so I thought I’d try some in my biscuits.  In mixing fat into your biscuit flour, you want those fat globules to be as small as possible for the flakiest biscuits and by using cream, which has that butterfat already in the small size you want, bingo! Effortlessly good biscuits.

Of course, I used butter in these particular biscuits too, which I took the time to make sure was well worked in (which is key!!)  As I was out of any form of whole grain flour, these were made with all white flour – I mixed cake flour with all purpose flour since I tend to not keep White Lily flour on hand. (I wrote a few years ago about how the flour used affects the texture of your biscuit. Soft flour makes for a lighter biscuit and since cake flour is soft, using some in your biscuit mix makes for a better biscuit.)  I have since restocked the pantry, so I will be making biscuits with cream and whole wheat flour this week to see how that goes. Stay tuned.

Edie also thought I should share Sunday’s dinner – crepes stuffed with country ham, sauteed brussels sprouts (blanched, then sliced thinly and sauteed in butter in a cast iron skillet) topped with a Mornay sauce with freshly baked sourdough bread on the side. Holy Moly that was a good dinner and I have to give credit where it is due – that filling was entirely Edie girl’s call.

(I know, I go on and on about the biscuits and did not share a recipe. I’ll share it when I nail the whole wheat version. Promise.)


Today’s Experiment.

I’d been kicking around the idea of putting together some cooking classes that weren’t just canning & pickling focused.  For starters, it’s a very seasonable topic, sort of a one and done class done at various venues around town, but also because I do more than just preserve food.  I preserve food because I like to cook it, because I’m passionate about knowing exactly where our food comes from and I want to ensure that my family eats local all year long.  Really, canning & pickling is just the first step, one small part of my cooking puzzle.

So there I was, kicking this idea around, trying to find a focus (why oh why does everything seem to require a freaking focus already?!?!?!) when I got an email from a friend, asking if I was interested in leading a cooking class for his department as their staff retreat.  Would I? I love when the universe sends me signs like this, I really do.  Dave’s a regular reader, so he had a few ideas of what he wanted me to teach them, but after a few suggestions, he left it up to me.

The hardest part was finding a space in which to do this.  Budget was key, which ruled out a number of places.  If only my kitchen wasn’t so small and dark, perhaps I could teach more than one person at a time out of here.  One of his coworkers was able to get a church kitchen, which actually could not have worked out better.  It was fairly well appointed and was made for a small group to cook together.

As this was an all-day class and Dave requested we do several dishes together, I had them start with lunch, which was pizza.  Once that prepwork was done, including making the dough, from scratch, by hand, we moved on to the big attraction.  Gumbo.

I’m really not sure there is anything as well suited to team work as gumbo is. There is plenty of chopping to go around, there is roux to be made as well as broth.  I walked them through how I like to do it – using as many burners as I can. At one point, we had the broth simmering, sauce for the pizza cooking, roux browning and the holy trinity sauteing to start the gumbo.

  If you take it step by step, you could spend all day making a pot of gumbo.  As much as I think it’s worth it, I also love doing as much as possible all at once.  Even that though, takes prepwork, and teamwork.
 Although Dave did try to do a big chunk of it on his own.

Lunch was absolutely delish if I say so myself.  We did a roasted butternut squash, sage and goat cheese pizza (which Dave had requested after reading that post) as well as a plain cheese pizza.  Just yesterday I read a piece on Beyond the Flavor about Michael McCarthy of Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie making pizza at home and couldn’t help but notice his oven was much hotter than I set mine – 550 vs. 450. Inspired, I decided to experiment with that temperature and honestly, I have to say that that cheese pizza tasted just like one you’d get a pizza shop.  I’m still patting myself on the back for using that bit of knowledge – so much so that I came home and have already started the dough for dinner.

Thankfully, no one else in this house had pizza for lunch, so there will be no lectures on their part about how pizza twice a day might not be healthy, not to mention boring.  At least she got over the whole no cold pizza for breakfast thing.

I digress.  After we feasted on our pizza lunch, we headed back into the kitchen.  There, I showed them how to make the easiest and most divine chocolate cake ever.  I love sharing that secret – that a handful of ingredients, assembled in 5 minutes and baked for 30, can fool everyone you know into thinking you are a baking genius.

One of the downsides of cooking around your camera, is that sometimes you get stuff on the lens. It does, however, lend a dreamy quality to the picture, doesn’t it?

We finished the day with biscuits. I got to expound on a bit about my biscuit theory and shared with them my whole grain version, even throwing a little bit of lard into the equation.  After putting a few of our biscuits in the oven to be sampled, the rest were divided and packed up, to be baked later in the day at home.  After all, who wants to spend a day cooking only to have to go home and do it all over again?  Not only did everyone take home biscuits, they had been instructed to bring along tupperware and so everyone took home gumbo after sampling the finished product.  It was declared a success and while I am still mentally critiquing myself as to what I can do better, I also changed some things on the fly that turned out pretty good.  That’s the secret to good cooking (and life really), is being able to adapt without flinching.  It’s all in the instincts.  Can you convey that in a cooking class?  I sort of think I did.

When in doubt, look to the 1950’s.

Last night’s dinner was leftover split pea soup. I needed to round it out with something and I knew some sort of bread was the answer.  We’ve already had sourdough baguette a few days this week, including with the first round of split pea soup, so something else was called for.  I’d spent the afternoon making and canning applesauce,  I didn’t feel like running out and grabbing something, I didn’t feel like putting effort into making something, I wanted something quick, easy and instantly gratifying.  What I really wanted was some Bisquick drop biscuits, but I was out of Bisquick.  Some quick research showed me that even if I whipped up a homemade style Bisquick, you are still required to cut the fat into the dry ingredients and that’s exactly what I wanted to avoid.  If I felt like doing that, I’d make biscuits already.

I reached for my 1956  Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book.  I felt for sure if any of the cookbooks on my shelf had a quick & easy drop biscuit recipe, it would be that one.   It’s chock full of tips on how to be a good housewife including reminders to be pleasant and have something interesting to relay to the family at dinner, so it seemed it would come through with a recipe that required little effort, because it also is full of reminders that the lady of the house should also take time for herself.  It did not disappoint.

The recipe says to sift together your dry ingredients, then pour all your liquids in at once, stir until the dough is a ball and there you go.  It seemed too easy to be true.  It wasn’t. It really was that simple.  As you stir, the dough becomes a ball.  Really.  And they were good.

How stinking happy am I that I found a quick & easy biscuit recipe that’s not Bisquick?  Admittedly, I have a soft spot for the mix seeing how it was my Granny’s secret recipe for just about anything, as long as the recipe was printed on the box.  It’s not whole grain and I’ve yet to find another baking mix that is as versatile as Bisquick that is whole grain (although I’ve been known to throw some wheat germ into pancakes made with it, just to feel like I’m healthing it up), but otherwise, it is one of two processed foods I tend to make room for in my pantry (the other being Kraft Mac & Cheese).

Because of my thing about using more whole grain flours when I bake and my current experimentation with spelt flour, I subbed a cup of that for all purpose flour.  I also threw in some fresh herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano- which I chopped finely and threw in with my dry ingredients.  You can roll them out or drop them, as I did.  If you can turn on an oven, you can make these.  They are that easy.

Stir and Roll Biscuits 
(From the Betty Crocker 1956 Picture Cook Book)

Sift (or whisk) together:
2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Pour into measuring cup (but don’t stir together):
1/3 cup cooking (salad) oil
2/3 cup milk

Then pour all at once into the flour.
Stir with a fork until mixture cleans sides of bowl and rounds up into a ball.  
For rolled or patted biscuits, smooth by kneading about ten times without additional flour.  With the dough on waxed paper, press out 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick with hands or roll out.  Cut with unfloured biscuit cutter.  Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake until golden brown.

For drop biscuits, skip the kneading and drop from spoon onto ungreased baking sheet.

Bake at 475 for 10-12 minutes.

Buttermilk version:
Reduce baking powder to 2 tsp and add 1/4 tsp. baking soda.
Use 2/3 cup buttermilk in place of sweet milk.
Makes 16 biscuits.

More on biscuits, plus a salad.

That long weekend in which I perfected pizza crust, sourdough bread AND the biscuit?
Well it turns out that even if you do work out 5 days a week and can eat your weight in carbs thanks to your good Irish genes, a massive overdose on white flour where one eats the better part of a pizza one day followed by at least an entire loaf of sourdough baguette a few days later and follows that up with 4 biscuits at dinner the next night with 2 for breakfast the morning after over a 5 day span will result in a muffin top just like your girlfriends warned you about once you are at a certain age, which apparently I now am.
So, after hitting the gym hard and watching my carb intake, especially my not-quite-entirely-healthy carb intake and getting that waistband on my jeans to fit like it should, I was ready to get back on that biscuit project.  As I stated in my last post about biscuits, I want to come up with a whole grain biscuit that is light, fluffy, tasty AND easy on my waist line no matter how many I eat in one sitting.  I’ve spent serious time reading and talking with my other foodie friends about types of flour and fat and had a few ideas I wanted to try out.
I also acquired an assistant in my mission.
After watching countless hours of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, along with a little bit of bow tie guy that she won’t admit to watching (She claims to not like him and last week’s profile in New York Times Magazine with the title “Cooking Isn’t Creative and It Isn’t Easy” sent her on a good 20 minute tirade of how that’s exactly why she cannot. stand. him.) on PBS’s Create channel, my girl decided she wanted in on the great biscuit project.
So, I measured out the flour proportions I wanted to try and she took over, with a small assist from me on working in the butter.
The recipe we used calls for 3 cups of flour.  We did one cup whole wheat, one and a half cups all purpose flour and a half cup cake flour.  For the fat, we did equal parts lard and butter.  We cut the lard in first and the butter second.
The biscuits themselves were light and slightly crumbly.  I think the flour mixture was spot on.  I want to play around the amount of lard – I think next time we’ll do a quarter lard and three quarters butter.  I also will cut the butter, or at least most of it, in first, as the lard is ridiculously easy to cut in.
I’ve now tried lard in both a pie crust and a batch of biscuits.  It does make your pastry incredibly flaky, but it also imparts a certain animal taste.  I like it in the chicken pot pie, but not so much in biscuits.  Toasted for breakfast, smothered in butter and Grandma Kathy’s blackberry jam I didn’t notice the flavor as much, admittedly.  But I also am not that much of a fan of meat or the taste of it in general.  I like bacon and sausage, but I mostly prefer the smoky flavor and the spices involved more than anything else. Although the flavor, combined with the larger size biscuits Edie cut out definitely kept me to eating just two biscuits with my soup and salad.
The salad is worth mentioning.  We had some goat’s milk brie and some toasted pecans that she thought would pair wonderfully with dried cranberries and the arugula I always seem to have on hand and work into dinner a few nights a week.  Only we didn’t have any dried cranberries on hand.  What we did have though, was some cranberry spread I’d made last year.  I proposed the idea of using it as a basis for a dressing.  So, down we went to the shelves in the basement where all things canned, pickled and jammed are kept and grabbed a jar.  We thinned it with olive oil, lemon juice, honey and water until it was just the right consistency, then tossed it with the greens, cheese and nuts.
It was a darn good salad.  And she did a most excellent job on the biscuits too.  Definitely some proud mama moments as I watched my little foodie go to work in the kitchen last night.
As for the dressing,  I think the liquid proportions with the exception of the honey ended up being equal.  Using a fruit spread (or jam) as the basis of a salad dressing seemed pretty genius to me and I’m now brainstorming ways of using up my stash on the shelves down there.  At some point I might measure things and write out a real recipe to share, although I definitely will be making a batch of cranberry spread again this year and if you like cranberries, I recommend you make some too.  It’s easy and oh so good.
Reminder – the cookbook giveaway is still open, so get on over there and enter before this Thursday, October 25.

Biscuit theory.

I have long held the theory that if I just found the right biscuit recipe, I would be able to make flaky, delectable biscuits that my family would rave about.  Over the years, I have sworn by this recipe and then that one.  Among my cookbook collection, I have dozens upon dozens of biscuit recipes – my Southern Living Southern Heritage series alone has 95 recipes scattered throughout its eighteen volumes.  The “Bread” volume alone has an entire chapter on biscuits, with subsections on beaten biscuits (5 recipes, including Maryland and Kentucky style beaten biscuits), yeast biscuits, basic biscuits (17 recipes, including 3 with ‘buttermilk’ in the name), as well as biscuits suitable to be served with tea. Both the beaten biscuit as well as the basic biscuit section feature picture tutorials with step by step how-to instructions.
It’s not entirely about the recipe though, it’s about the ingredients and technique of putting those ingredients together.  While many of the recipes I have call for all-purpose flour, one could assume all flour is the same, when in fact, all purpose flour differs from  region to region.  Southern all purpose flour is made with soft red winter wheat, which has a lower protein and gluten content than what is available in other regions of the country.
I first learned this in conversations with my friend Mark down at city market this summer.  He often sets up a stand, handing out samples and recipes of dishes made with local produce.  We share similar interests in food and when he’s down there, I find myself engaged in conversations with him and other foodie types, discussing things like pickles and grits and curing your own meats and yes, flours.  Turns out that while I was reading Game of Thrones on my summer vacation, Mark was reading about biscuits.  Three books worth in fact.
As a baker, I knew the importance of different flours – high gluten flour for pizza crusts that resemble the ones your favorite local pizza place makes,  Cake flour for lightly textured cakes, pastry flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, buckwheat flour and more, including just plain old bleached & unbleached all purpose flour, but even I did not know that flour was different from region to region, brand name to brand name.
Interestingly enough, my older (1946 & 1964) copies of The Joy of Cooking both call for cake flour in their biscuit recipes, saying that it will make for a lighter biscuit.  Nowhere else have I seen a peep about how the flour you use is a large factor in making your biscuits light and fluffy.
There are differing opinions on how much to handle the dough, whether to knead or not, some say to roll it out, others say to keep the rolling pin far away from the biscuits.  Beaten biscuits, which apparently are unbelievably light and fluffy are made by literally beating the biscuits for a good 20 minutes or until the dough starts to ‘blister’ and pop.
With it being soup season, that means it’s biscuit season too.  I made my first batch of biscuits the other night,  using a technique I picked up from Rachel’s pie class I assisted with this past summer.  She cuts her fat in in stages, handling the final crust as little as possible. This, combined with using a southern flour (which took visiting a few grocery stores, believe it or not, despite the fact that I live in Virginia, which is considered the home of the ham biscuit), resulted in what I think is hands down my best biscuit ever.
They were everything you want a biscuit to be – light and flaky, excellent with butter and some blackberry jam for breakfast the next morning too. I think I have finally figured out the secret to a good biscuit – it’s not necessarily the recipe, it’s the flour you use and how you put them together.  Really, so much to cooking is about the ingredients you use as well as techniques.
Here’s my next goal – to figure out how to make a biscuit using whole wheat flour that is just as flaky and light as a biscuit that’s made of nothing but white flour.  I know that whole grains are healthier for us and since a big part of my motivation in my food sourcing and cooking is so that my family eats healthy, nutritious food, I’m not comfortable with us eating home baked goods on a regular basis that only use white flour, especially the lighter versions with less nutrients.  I have a few ideas about how I want to go about developing my own flour mixes, namely I’m going to try mixing some cake flour with some whole wheat flours and seeing what those results are.  I’ve also gotten my hands on some lard, not from the grocery store, but from animals that have been raised humanely, not commercially.  I’ve read good things about cooking with lard and I want to see for myself how they work in my biscuits and pie crusts.

You are what you eat.  Which is why I spend so much time thinking about biscuits, clearly.