Granny’s Buttermilk Biscuits

My granny is the Queen of the Southern Buttermilk Biscuit. Hers are the best. Even when her 40+ year-old oven was on the fritz, and no one could predict whether they would come out burnt or raw or somewhere in between, they were still delicious. She has that magic touch. When my sisters and I got old enough to be of any use around the kitchen, Granny took it upon herself to share that magic with us. Unfortunately, I seem to be a squib when it comes to biscuit magic. Without Granny looking over my shoulders, telling me what to do, I am lost.

The main reason for my lack of success, I think, is due to Granny’s completely intuitive biscuit-making style. Just like with all Southern old ladies, you can’t measure kitchen magic. You can’t express it mathematically and write it down in a recipe book for someone else to reproduce with the same results. Biscuit-making is a performance art. My old ballet master used to say (in his Polish accent), “Each performance is unique and independent from previous performances. When you step on stage, you should not try to reproduce the same successful show you did last night. What worked last night will not work tonight. Today is not yesterday. Tonight’s performance is not last night’s performance.” These biscuits are not yesterday’s biscuits.

Granny’s magic comes from her ability to know just exactly what tiny tweaks are required to make today’s biscuits come out perfectly. Even though it may seem to a casual observer that she stirred together the self-rising flour, buttermilk, and vegetable oil in the same ratios as yesterday, she knows that today’s dough needs more oil (because it’s too sticky), or more flour (because it’s too goopy), or it needs some very complicated additions of this and that because it’s got several problems going on at once. It’s very easy for the novice to feel frustrated, or downright baffled, by her methods. But it’s important to remember that she’s been making biscuits for nearly 60 years! That kind of maturity, artistry, and discernment take time to develop. Granny herself will admit to her brother Flash laughing at her biscuits for years when she was young. I’m sure there have been many instances where she was glad that today’s biscuits are not yesterday’s biscuits!

There have certainly been instances where I was glad that today’s biscuits were not yesterday’s, or that today’s performance was not yesterday’s, or that today was not yesterday in general. When yesterday was nothing to celebrate, it’s easy to approach the stage, or the mixing bowl, or whatever, with that mixture of relief, excitement, and determination to make magic. But when yesterday was triumphant, glorious, exultant, what then? I used to think the ballet master’s “today is a new day” speech was a total buzz-kill, because he would always give that speech following a near-perfect show, not a poor one. I suspected he was trying to communicate a lack of faith in us, a refusal to admit that we could put on two good shows in a row. But over time, my suspicions changed. I think he knew the power that overconfidence and overexcitement have to make immature performers take things for granted, to turn on the cruise control and just breeze through a performance, without realizing what happened until it’s over.

It’s easy to approach the stage, or the mixing bowl, or whatever, focused on identifying and correcting what we’ve done wrong. It takes slightly more expertise to identify and reproduce what we’ve done right. But the most important thing, I think, is realizing that each performance is a gift. In the early days of ballet, the term for dancing on stage was not called “performing,” but “giving a performance.” Similarly, I think, “cooking” is a less appropriate phrase than “serving.” In both cases, yes, we work and tweak and practice, but what creates that magic is not reproducing a recipe, not reciting something memorized by rote, not cruising on yesterday’s energy. The source of the magic is the knowledge that each day, each performance, each biscuit is a gift, is a unique and fleeting experience that happens once in a lifetime. Without that attitude, we might gain a knowledge of performance techniques, an ability to identify what’s right or wrong, but we won’t acquire the artistry that produces a beautiful, inspiring, or delicious gift—or even the grace to appreciate when we’re receiving one.

—Edit (3/13/12): I’ve updated the following recipe a few times. This is my best version yet, but still not as delicious as Granny’s.—

Anyway, all this is to say that I tried to make biscuits today.  They turned out poorly.  Since I’m an unfortunate kitchen squib, I need to keep track of what works and what doesn’t.  The following recipe is not perfect. The resulting biscuits will be good, but I can’t promise they’ll be a magical, once-in-a-lifetime gift.

Squib Buttermilk Biscuits
3 c Self-Rising Flour
slightly more than 1 c  Buttermilk
slightly less than 1 c Canola Oil

Mix the ingredients together in a large bowl using your hands. It is the right texture when it sticks to your fingers a little bit, and it looks doughy. Dump the dough onto a clean work surface and knead it a few times. Don’t pat it down to less than 1″. Cut into circles with 2″ diameters. Place them very close together on a baking sheet. (These biscuits don’t rise very much, so you want them to go into the oven at the same height you hope to see when they come out, and keeping them close together prevents them from spreading outwards.) Bake at 475 for 9 minutes. Serve warm with a slice of ham and cheese in the middle! Or a fried egg… Or cheese grits… Or leftover pot roast… These biscuits go with everything!

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