Monday, December 5, 2016

Christmas biscuits chez Huang that channel Shirley Corriher

Vice Munchies included All Under Heaven in its shortlist of Best Cookbooks for 2016. 

And Wendell Brock at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did the same thing. 

I'm so blown away. I never thought this would happen, but here it is. Wow. I have a lot to complain about when it comes to 2016, but as far as the books are concerned, all I can say is Thank You! on eternal loop. 

*  *  * 

I first fell in love with these amazing biscuits in Portland, when the great cooking science author Shirley Corriher was demonstrating how easy it was to make them, even when scores of hungry people are milling around you. 

We were all at the IACP convention, and this had to be the highlight of the entire experience for me. As Shirley explains in this video, the original recipe came from her grandmother, and she has refined it over the years into a masterpiece.

Now, I wrote about these biscuits when I first started this blog, so even I pretty much forgot about that post until just now. (Do check it out for the original recipe, and also for the video I taped of the lady herself making the biscuits.)

And I have to agree with you, if you happen to notice, that this recipe is not even peripherally Chinese. However, Touch of Grace Biscuits are just so delicious that you can throw out every other biscuit recipe ever made, as far as I am concerned.

These are the lightest bits of pastry I’ve ever tasted. And here’s the reason why: they are neither rolled nor dropped. Instead, very wet blobs of dough are tossed in flour, which holds them in place long enough to get sidled up against other wet blobs of dough and shoved into an oven. And because the dough is so wet, the biscuits bloom into puffs of air held together, again, by that flour coating, which just sort of disappears when its work is done. 

That’s what happens when a dedicated food scientist messes with your biscuits. It's inspired.
Light as a feather

Touch of Grace Biscuits are perfect as is, and don’t even need butter or honey or gravy to make them shine. The dab of melted butter on the top is the exact right amount in my book, and if it’s good quality salted butter – like Kerrygold – the taste turns out to be astonishingly good. However, I would never say no to one of these if they were properly adorned with butter or a slice of ham or whatever else might be seducing my attention.

I like to make these biscuits the day after a holiday, especially if people are showing up for brunch. I throw a small ham in the oven, bake these biscuits, and offer a bowl of fruit along with the coffee and orange juice. It’s a great way to end a holiday gathering without getting too stressed.

The cutest damn label in the world
Over the years, I’ve of course messed around with it just a little bit – or maybe a lot. There is kefir in here instead of buttermilk, half of the sugar in the original, and it’s baked in a cast iron skillet instead of a cake pan. 

In addition, I’ve used super-fine cake flour here plus baking powder and an extra dash of salt instead of the self-rising flour called Tenda-Bake or White Lily that Shirley always calls for, basically because I never have any other need for the stuff, and because it always gets buggy before I use it all up. Also, I didn’t care for the flavor of the leavening in the self-rising flour when it was used to powder the balls of dough and much preferred plain flour there.
Ingredients in my version

But then again, this is Shirley’s recipe, so of course try hers too in order to see which one you prefer. However you make these biscuits, you will end up a convert.

Touch of Grace Biscuits chez Huang
Makes about 16

Spray oil
2 cups / 300 g super-fine cake flour, like from Bob’s Red Mill
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
Use a pastry knife to mix in the shortening

1 cup / 150 g cake flour for shaping the biscuits

4 tablespoons white shortening, room temperature (see Tips)
⅔ cup/ 155 ml heavy (or whipping) cream
1 cup / 250 ml kefir or buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Heat your oven to 425°F / 220°C and set one shelf just below the center of the oven. Spray the oil on the inside of a 9-inch / 23-cm cast iron frying pan (or a similarly sized round or square cake pan – whatever you like). 

Toss in the cream
2. You will want to make these biscuits by hand, rather than in a mixer or food processor, since a) this will make the pastries much lighter and b) it’s just easier to do it this way. To measure the flour in cups, simply dip your 1-cup measure into the flour and then scoop off the top with a knife – this way the flour doesn’t get tamped down. Stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar with a dry balloon whisk. Don’t skimp on this step, as you want the leavening to be very easily distributed.

3. Have a pastry knife ready, as well as an ice cream scoop and silicone spatula, and place the extra cup of flour in a medium work bowl for Step 5. Work the shortening with the pastry knife into the flour and baking powder mixture until there are no large lumps. Shake the bowl gently to encourage any large clumps of fat rise to the top, and then chop away at the flour mixture until it looks sandy. (If you don't have a pastry knife, or dough blender, or whatever you want to call it, simply work the flour and fat together with your fingertips as Shirley shows in the first video.)

Dough arranged in the pan
4. Use the silicone spatula to toss in the cream, which will give you large clumps of dough. Be sure and toss these ingredients together with the spatula, rather than stir, as this will incorporate all of the dry ingredients without toughening the dough. Gently stir in buttermilk until the dough resembles cottage cheese. The leavening will start to foam as soon as the kefir hits it (that’s the baking powder reacting with the acidic kefir), so it will fluff up. (This is also why this is officially called “double-acting baking powder,” because you get an initial rise when wet meets dry, and then again when the dough is cooked.)

5. Use an ice cream scoop to pick up plum-sized balls of dough. Toss these around in the flour to coat them well. Shake off the excess and arrange these in the skillet, packing the balls of dough tightly together so that they all fit. Bake them until the tops are a golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Brush the top of the biscuits with the melted butter. Use a fork to lift out the biscuits and serve immediately. Any leftovers can be split and toasted, and by the way those are truly excellent when they turn all crunchy, plus then they will be better able to withstand whatever toppings you like.
The proper way to measure solid fat


Measure the shortening the way my seventh grade home ec teacher taught me: Fill a measuring cup with 1 cup cool tap water minus the amount of fat you need. So here, since you need 4 tablespoons, fill the cup with ¾ cup water. Then, press the fat down into the water so it is covered, which gives you an accurate measurement. Keep adding the shortening until the water level reaches 1 cup, and you then have a quarter cup (= 4 tablespoons) of fat in there. Empty out all the water, and there you are.

Be sure to gently squish the balls of dough up against each other in the pan. Otherwise, you will run out of room.

That cottage cheese look
Also, shake off the extra flour once each ball has been coated. This ensures that the biscuits won't have dry areas.

Whatever you do, don't make these in a food processor or with an electric mixture. Go easy on the dough, as it is more like a delicate cake batter than a packaged mix. 

Enjoy the textures of the dough as it undergoes the various chemical reactions. It turns out to be quite sensuous and wonderful, and the transformation when the kefir is added is positively thrilling, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, I'm a food nerd. We've established that.

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