Tuesday, April 2, 2019

How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock


Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Southern Buttermilk Biscuits with butter and mayhaw jelly in the light of the kitchen at Reverie, Marion, Alabama.
(Photo by Lucy Mercer)
"Biscuits are containers of memory and emotion." 
~ Chef Scott Peacock

On an early spring day after the camellias opened and before the redbuds emerged, I turned my car west on Interstate 20, crossed over the state line from Georgia into Alabama, and headed south after I got to Birmingham. I stopped when I got to Marion, Alabama, in the heart of what's known as the Black Belt of Alabama, named for its rich topsoil. There's history here, but not a lot of people, about 3,000. 

The voice in my car told me to pull up to a Greek Revival mansion named Reverie.  I was there to learn how to bake biscuits from Chef Scott Peacock, the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, "The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks" (Knopf), written with the legendary chef Edna Lewis. The next 24 hours were all about cookbooks, camellias and biscuits. 

Setting the Scene


Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
This is Reverie, built in 1858 and continually lived in ever since, although it's
primarily a museum these days. This beautiful home was mine for the night. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
"Pink Perfection" camellia on the grounds of Reverie, Marion, Alabama. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)

The backstory: my food stories are published on this blog, A Cook and Her Books. That's misleading, I know. I've never authored a cookbook, or any book for that matter. I chose the title because my bookshelves are filled with probably three or four hundred cookbooks. From my childhood copy of "The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook," to my newest favorite, "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat," cookbooks are my constant companions and security blankets. "The Gift of Southern Cooking" has stood the test of time for me and in my kitchen. Every summer, I pull it from the stack and make tomato gravy with summer's best tomatoes (read the story on Food52), and sugared raspberries and countless other recipes.

In all my years with this book, I've never baked the biscuits. 

That's why when Scott Peacock put an invitation on Instagram in early December 2018 to come to Marion and learn how to bake biscuits in a historic mansion, my fingers flew to sign up. It was like my favorite cookbook coming to life. And so now I present my Biscuit Experience with Chef Scott Peacock.

The Kitchen at Reverie


Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
The kitchen at Reverie is new, but it blends easily with the original home.
 (Photo by Lucy Mercer)

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Camellias from Chef Scott Peacok's home garden. We all fussed about the cold snap earlier in the week that made mush of the earliest blooms, but honestly, the camellias were spectacular everywhere I looked. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)

Baking Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock

I wasn't alone at the Biscuit Experience, three more ladies joined in, all fans of the chef and the book, and all eager to improve their biscuit game. The conversation was lively, with talk about favorite Alabama authors, best Southern grandmother names (my vote is for "Butter") and favorite flour and butter for biscuits. 

This biscuit recipe is 30 years in the making. Over that time, and with that many biscuits (thousands, tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands?), the rituals of biscuit making become intuition, second nature. As with the simplest of recipes, technique and ingredients drive success.

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Homemade baking powder must be sifted each time it's used; it tends to clump. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
Scott begins by sifting the baking powder. He uses a homemade recipe of 1/4 cup cream of tartar and two tablespoons baking soda. Store in a jar in the pantry and use within six weeks.

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photo by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
The big yellowware bowl we made biscuits in belonged to the late chef and author Edna Lewis. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
In the bowl: five cups of flour with 10 tablespoons of very cold Plugra butter. Scott demonstrated "counting the money" ~ his term for kneading the chilled fat into the flour. Two cups of cold Marburger's buttermilk were poured in, followed by a stir with a wooden spoon. 

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photos by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Turning out the dough and quickly shaping it. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
"Biscuits can smell fear," Scott says. You need to work quickly and authoritatively to gather the dough into a mass. And go easy on the flour ~ just a dusting on the countertop is all that's needed.

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photos by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Patting out the dough. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
Shape the dough and roll it out, all with the lightest of touches.

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photos by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Use a dinner fork to dock the biscuit dough. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
Poking holes in the dough lets steam escape, creating a higher rise in the biscuit.


Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photos by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Cutting out biscuits. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)

This was the hardest part for me: learning to stamp out the biscuits with out twisting the cutter the habitual half inch. The twist seals the edges of the biscuits and impairs elevation in the oven. Instead, a mindful stamp and flip are needed.

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photos by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
The "leavings" are not re-rolled, but baked alongside the proper biscuits. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photo by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Biscuits all in a row before baking. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
This is interesting: the biscuits are not brushed with butter or cream or anything sort of finishing fillip. Scott says the butter in the dough is enough richness for the biscuits and the extra step is not needed. 

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photos by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Almost ready. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
The biscuits are baked in a very hot oven ~ 500 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 minutes. 



Learn to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photo by Lucy Mercer copyright 2019 A Cook and Her Books.
My biscuits. My babies. (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
Perfection is in the details and that's why there are 15 steps to the biscuit recipe. There's a lifetime of knowledge, technique and practice in this recipe.

Chef Scott Peacock’s Buttermilk Biscuits

Makes 2 dozen 2-inch biscuits 

5 cups sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon homemade baking powder or store-bought baking powder (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
10 tablespoons butter, cold from the refrigerator
2 cups buttermilk, cold from the refrigerator

Directions:
  1. Assemble equipment: You’ll need a  baking sheet with parchment paper liner. (I use a half-sheet baking pan). A biscuit bowl is nice, but any large, deep bowl will work. Get out your best rolling pin and a biscuit cutter. I like a 2-inch cutter, but you can use any size that fits your bliss. You’ll also need a whisk, a wooden spoon and a dinner fork.
  2. Heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. 
  4. Dice the very cold butter into 1/2 inch pieces and toss into the flour. Get your hands in there and use your fingers to press the butter into the flour. Work quickly; the goal is to have pieces of butter of varying sizes throughout the flour.
  5. Clean your hands by rubbing them together and shaking off the floury bits. 
  6. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the cold buttermilk. With the spoon, quickly stir the ingredients together. It’s okay to stop before you incorporate all the stray floury bits; the dough should be very sticky.
  7. Lightly flour your countertop and immediately turn the sticky dough on to the counter. With a quick and gentle touch, gather the dough and shape it into a ball. Persevere and resist the temptation to add more flour. 
  8. Dough will be craggy and sticky, but if you taste it, you’ll know that you’re creating a masterpiece. 
  9. Use your hands to gently flatten the dough to about an inch thickness. 
  10. Flour your rolling pin, but not over the biscuits. You have put a lot of work into these biscuits so far, do not ruin them with excess flour.
  11. Take the rolling pin and center it over the dough. Roll once from center to top and lift. Center again, roll from the middle to the bottom and lift. Repeat one or two more times, just enough to even out the tops of the biscuits.
  12. Dip the dinner fork in flour and pierce the dough every inch or so. Grab your biscuit cutter and dip it in flour, stamping out biscuits and arranging on parchment-lined baking sheet. Cut out biscuits, but do not twist. The twist deflates the biscuits. A little flip is all you need to lift the biscuits from the dough.
  13. When you’ve stamped out all the biscuits that you can, place the extra dough bits wherever they will fit on the pan. My baking pan was filled with 75 percent pretty rounds and one quarter misfit toys.
  14. Place tray in 500 degree Fahrenheit oven and bake for eight to 10 minutes until biscuits are crusty and deep golden brown. (At home, I use convection oven: 475 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 minutes. If your oven heats unevenly, rotate the pan at the 7 to 8 minute mark.)
  15. Remove pan from oven and let cool for a few minutes on the counter. Serve biscuits warm with a pat of butter and a drizzle of honey or spoonful of jam. 
Homemade Baking Powder

1/4 cup cream of tartar (organic preferred)
2 tablespoons baking soda

Sift together ingredients and store in a glass jar. Sift again before using ~ the ingredients tend to clump when stored. Store in a cool, dry place like a spice cabinet for up to six weeks.

Learn How to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photo by Lucy Mercer | A Cook and Her Books copyright 2019
Cookbooks (Photo by Lucy Mercer)
After each of us had a turn mixing and baking and we gloated in the glory of our beautiful biscuits, we sat down at the table for a feast of sliced country ham, red eye gravy and a salad made with red-speckled Bel Fiore radicchio. We talked about Marion, Judson College, the Black Belt, and Miss Lewis. And then Scott signed books and posed for portraits on the staircase at Reverie. I brought along a few associated titles that Scott graciously signed (above). 


Learn to Bake Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock | Photo by Lucy Mercer copyright A Cook and Her Books 2019
Learn how to bake biscuits at Reverie with Chef Scott Peacock. 

You, too, can book a Biscuit Experience with Chef Scott Peacock. You'll learn about the Black Belt and Marion, and soak up the gospel of biscuits.

Look for more stories about Marion and the Black Belt and my stay at Reverie ~

You can also read John Kessler's lovely story in the April 2019 issue of Garden and Gun

Text and images copyright 2019 Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

These Boots Were Made for Gardening





It's been awhile since I've checked in with my A Cook and Her Books friends. I let an important occasion, the 10th birthday of this blog, just slip right by. Ten years ago, my toddler was taking a nap, it was snowing outside, and I decided to heed some advice I'd read somewhere that if I wanted to take my place in the internet landscape, that I needed to start a blog.

This little corner of the internet changed my universe. It started with food, sharing my favorite recipes. I got calls from pr folks, and that got me into restaurants. The gardening niche fell into place somewhere in there. I repurposed my daughter's cast-off galoshes into planters for pansies. I snapped a photo with phone and wrote a little copy to go along. Amazingly, that little story led to the job that I have today, writing about gardening for The Home Depot's Garden Club.

As I've learned more about gardening, I discovered the Master Gardener Extension Volunteer program, and am now proud to report that I have passed the Master Gardener course and am more than halfway through the volunteer hour commitment. Within a few months, I'll be a certified master gardener.

I'm still interested in food, of course. I'm still the cook with too many books. Except now, I'm expanding my interest to look at where and how food is grown. It's unbelievably easy to grow at least some of your own food. Radishes are ridiculously quick from seed to harvest, just 30 days. And carrots, and potatoes, too.

These are the stories that I want to write, the ones that connect the garden and the plate. I hope to be able to share more with you here soon. In the meantime, I still share what goes on in my world via social media. Check in on my A Cook and Her Books Facebook page, and I share food and flower pics on my Instagram. See you soon ~