A few years back, I watched food writer Nathalie Dupree show how to make Southern-style biscuits. It was not a pretty sight.
The batter was lumpy and seemed too wet. Unconcerned, Dupree swiftly shaped the unruly mess to form biscuits. “The trick is to handle the dough as little as possible,” she said.
The tender, delectable biscuits we tasted came as no surprise. After all, Dupree is the co-author, with Graubart, of Southern Biscuits and Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking. She knows what she’s talking about.
I didn’t abandon my old ways of making biscuits, however. Most Southern biscuit recipes call for a mix of vegetable shortening or lard with butter for added flakiness, but I don’t like to cook with these ingredients. Self-rising flour also contributes to the tenderness of Southern-style biscuits, but I usually don’t have it on hand. (Self-rising flour, if you’re not familiar with it, is a lower-protein flour to which baking powder and salt have been added.) Plus, I like the look of neatly rolled biscuits, even if they are a little less tender.
White Lily, a well-known brand of self-rising flour, doesn’t seem to make it up to New England. But I noticed that King Arthur sells self-rising flour and, on impulse, I grabbed a bag.
I was planning to make a cobbler with strawberries and rhubarb, and it occurred to me that the rich, tender biscuits I remembered would be ideal as a topping.
In lieu of lard or shortening, I substituted more butter. The batter was loose, so I used two spoons to drop them on top of the sweetened fruit, gently nudging the edges to form circles.
The cobbler was delicious, its rich, craggy biscuits recalling the origin of the name: cobble-stoned streets of the past. In the world of Italian sweets, brutti ma buoni are cookies–but perhaps there’s a place for my homely but tasty cobbler.
When peaches and plums come into season, I’ll keep the cobblers coming. After all, I still have that bag of self-rising flour in my pantry.
Fruit is topped with my version of Southern-style biscuits, made with self-rising flour and plenty of butter. If you don't have self-rising flour on hand, it's easy to improvise.
- 1 pound rhubarb stalks cut in small pieces
- 1 quart strawberries trimmed and cut in small pieces
- 2/3 cup sugar or to taste
- 2¼ cups self-rising flour*
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ cup chilled unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon to finish
- 1 cup milk
- Vanilla ice cream
To make fruit base: Combine rhubarb and strawberries in a large rectangular baking dish. Stir in sugar until coated. Taste the two fruits together for sweetness; rhubarb by itself will be tarter, of course. Add more sugar if you want it sweeter.
To make biscuits: Preheat oven to 400F. Combine flour and sugar in a large bowl. Cut butter in ¼-inch cubes. Add to bowl. Working quickly, use a pastry blender to blend butter with flour until the consistency of coarse cornmeal. (Alternatively, lightly crush butter into flour with your fingers, using a motion similar to snapping your fingers.)
Add milk and, using a spatula, gently but decisively mix until dry ingredients are moistened and excess liquid is absorbed. Do not try to eliminate lumps.
Using a large spoon, dip out batter and, with a second spoon, scrape onto fruit in baking dish. Using spoons, nudge batter into a circular shape. Continue until 12 biscuits are formed. If batter is left over, distribute on top of biscuits.
Bake cobbler for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan (or use a microwave). Brush on top of biscuits. Continue baking for 10 minutes longer; if biscuits are not browned, turn on broiler briefly.
To serve: Spoon one or two biscuits on dessert plates or shallow bowls; spoon fruit around it. Add scoops of vanilla ice cream on the side.
*Self-rising flour is traditionally made from a softer, lower-protein version of all-purpose flour. You can substitute all-purpose flour, adding 1 teaspoon baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt per cup of flour. Your baked goods will come out fine, though perhaps not quite as tender.