Saturday, September 8, 2012

Kitty's biscuits

Kitty Warren at work in her kitchen. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I love this picture of my grandmother, Kitty Warren, probably taken in the early 50s. Note the perfectly done nails and the triple strand pearls. This was taken in her kitchen, where she wrote her stories for Women's Wear Daily, typing them out on her manual typewriter that she stored on a shelf in the pantry. I guarantee you she's wearing hose and heels and has a coordinating handbag in the chair by the door. I loved my grandmother because she was an original; hard-working and hilarious in a slightly ditzy Southern belle kind of way. She was a lady, when that word meant so much more than it does now. She was also the only other writer in my family.

As the only daughter in a family of boys, Kitty grew up in the kitchen, but I don’t think it really took. She loved food more than she loved cooking, but raising three boys in Birmingham, Alabama, meant learning how to put good, solid, rib-sticking meals on the table three times a day. She may have made meat loaf for supper, but in her heart, she was a chicken salad kind of girl. Preferably served on a lettuce-lined plate by a waitress in a black uniform and starched white apron at Rich’s Magnolia Room.

Beaten biscuits with strawberry jam. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Still, family gatherings found us gathered around the cherry wood oval-shaped table in her dining room, with the pier-glass above the antique buffet reflecting the sterling tea service polished to a blinding burnish. The summertime standard meal was sliced ham, biscuits, fresh green beans cooked with a ham bone until they had given up all resemblance to a vegetable product and soaked up the briny porky broth. There would be sliced tomatoes, salted and peppered, with a bowl of Duke’s mayonnaise alongside, and potato salad with and without celery. That’s right, a tiny bowl of potato salad made without celery, just for my picky grandfather. Children who reached for the wrong potato salad bowl were gently reminded that that potato salad didn’t belong to them. (And if they didn’t like celery, they could just pick it out.) 

Although this bounty came from Kitty’s kitchen, she didn’t do dessert. She loved sweets, but wasn’t much of a baker, so my mom, and eventually I, would bring cakes. Layer cakes went over well, and I became adept at making carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, and pound cakes served with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

I say Kitty wasn’t a baker, but it’s not really true. She could make biscuits, and they were always in a linen napkin-lined basket on the table. Not the fluffy, puffy lard-laden layered biscuit that is the modern idea of the Southern biscuits. Because of my grandfather’s disdain for “baking powder biscuits,” Kitty learned to make a half-dollar size (probably cut out with a jelly glass) biscuit without leavening. They were thin, and tender, and…I never got the recipe, although I asked her for it. She brushed me off, just saying they were “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” I think she wanted to talk about her latest pair of Ferragamo shoes or perhaps what the ladies in the bridge foursome ate that week. 

Beaten biscuit dough. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

As I’ve read more about Southern foodways, I’ve wondered if Kitty’s biscuits were beaten biscuits, the hardtack of the South. A couple scoops of flour, a handful of fat such as shortening or butter, mixed with water until it makes a smooth and pliable dough. Not handled quickly and gently as baking genius Shirley Corriher advises in her legendary Touch of Grace biscuits, but beaten into bloody (figurative), blistering (literal) submission with a sturdy rolling pin or mallet. There’s even a contraption called a beaten biscuit machine, resembling a laundry mangle or Count Rugen’s medieval torture device, in which dough is repeatedly run through rollers up to 100 times, until it blisters at the edges and is ready to cut and bake.

I tried my hand at beaten biscuits using recipes found online and in my 1960's edition of “The Joy of Cooking” and I’ve got say if you’ve got a little pent-up anger, if the day to day of shuttling kids to and fro, or maybe juggling the needs of your family and house and job gets to be overwhelming, whacking at a lump of dough with your favorite rolling pin is a very satisfying endeavor. Unlike icky sticky doughs, the beaten biscuit dough handles like fabric, supple yet sturdy, and you can’t overwork it.  In fact, as Irma Rombauer points out in her headnote to “Ship’s Biscuits,” the dough is meant to be man-handled, so by all means give the kids their own dough to get their sticky little hands in to. 

Beaten biscuits. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

These beaten biscuits were round and puffy, resembling mini pockets, perfect for a slice of ham or a spoonful of my homemade strawberry jam. In my memories of Grandmother’s table, the biscuits were not the same. Kitty’s were small and thin, clearly made without the offending baking powder, but tender. My beaten biscuits were closer to a soda cracker, and they would be quite nice served like a cracker in soup. Clearly, more experimentation is necessary and so I ask here if any readers know of biscuits like Kitty made ~ no leavening, thin and tender ~ and please advise.

Sometimes in pursuing the past, you find what you’re looking for, and many times you do not. Like Norman in “A River Runs Through It,” I am haunted, not by waters, but by biscuits. They are the timeless raindrops of my life in the kitchen.

Beaten Biscuits
Not the Proustian biscuits of my childhood, but worth trying, nevertheless. Adapted from online recipes and “The Joy of Cooking.”

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter, shortening or a combination of both
½ cup ice water

1.       Heat oven to 350. 
2.       In a bowl, stir together flour and salt. With your fingers, work in the butter or shortening until the flour reaches a dry, sandy texture.
3.       Add water gradually, stirring with a fork to form a shaggy dough. As the dough comes together, it will be smooth and workable. Remove the dough from the bowl and transfer to a floured work surface.
4.       With your hands, knead the dough into a smooth ball. Using a heavy rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle, flour lightly, then fold into thirds. With that same heavy rolling pin, whack the living daylights out of the dough, fold and repeat as many times as you feel necessary. The dough is considered sufficiently beaten when tiny blisters appear along the edges.
5.       Cut out biscuits and bake for 25 to 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Cool, then store in an airtight container at room temperature. It should come as no surprise that these sturdy biscuits will last a good long time.

Hand-painted plate from my grandmother. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.

This is my September contribution to #letslunch, a monthly Twitter party on a given food subject. This month, we're celebrating Patricia's new book "The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook" by writing about grandmothers. You can participate in #letslunch by following the hashtag on Twitter and jumping in with your own stories!

Charissa‘s Apple, Pecan & Raisin Gluten-Free Depression Cake at Zest Bakery
Emma‘s Irish, Polish & Korean Grandmothers’ Recipes at Dreaming of Pots & Pans
Jill‘s Stuffed Cabbage at Eating My Words
Karen‘s Semifreddo at GeoFooding
Linda‘s Taiwanese Oyster Omelet at Spicebox Travels
Lisa‘s Polish Potato Cake at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Patricia‘s “Many Grandmas” Asian Pickles at The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
Renee‘s Chinese Grandmother’s Tofu at My Kitchen And I


Unknown said...

Lucy, I always love your stories about your Southern family. I've never heard about beaten biscuits-- intriguing! And also good to find another stress release :)

Angela said...

I just love this post--such a great story, and I have always been fascinated by this technique.

Renee said...

That's a great story, Lucy. Maybe your grandmother just took her favorite biscuit recipe and left out the baking powder, then adjusted things from there? I have never had a buscuit without leavening, so I wouldn't know.

My grandmother's fluffy tender biscuits (with leavening) were kind of legendary in our family so I've always been striving to achieve that ...

Funny how we can find ourselves striving for complete opposites eh? Nice story and recipe. I love the Joy of Cooking. :)

HapaMama said...

How interesting that your grandmother was also a writer - for Women's Wear Daily, no less! No wonder she was so elegant.

Annabelle said...

Beaten biscuits are a new one for me too! Nice story.

Richard Moore said...

I just saw this post and love it! What a great picture and story of your grandmother.

My mother cooked a more traditional biscuit but I have a friend from Kentucky who always cooks biscuits identical with those pictured. She cooks them by the score for her Kentucky Derby parties with a thin slice of country ham and they are delicious.

The mention of Rich's Magnolia Room reminds me of the times my mother treated us to a lunch there on our monthly foray to Atlanta. Usually, we ate at the nearby McCrory's lunchroom. I must admit that I was a fidgety boy and missed the noisy dime store lunchroom. McCrory's also had the largest number of comic books for sale.

Richard Moore

Lucy Mercer said...

Richard, thank you for the sweet comment. I miss Rich's Magnolia Room terribly. And even lunch counters like McCrory's - miss those twirly seats! Thanks for reading!