What with all the canning I’ve been doing lately, it may not surprise y’all to know that I’ve been on a mission to master biscuit-making this month. But the actual impetus wasn’t my own canned goods – oh, no. It was two jars of cocoa butter from an incredible bakery in Reykjavik. It’s called Sandholt, and if ever you’re in Iceland, you’ve got to check them out. Possibly better pain au chocolat than we had in Paris, though nothing will ever top the wild strawberry tartlet we got at Pierre Herme. Every day, our breakfasts consisted of a pain au chocolat, purchased at Sandholt and eaten while walking around the city. Pain au chocolat on the way to the 871 exhibit. Pain au chocolat before a browse through record albums at Skifan. And then eventually mildly stale evening pain au chocolat for me, beset by insomnia, thanks to the midnight sun that seemed able to creep through even the sturdiest blackout curtains. I formed a quick bond to the place and, disappointed to be leaving it behind so quickly, I bought two jars of cocoa butter to bring home. At that point we still had 17 days of travel to go, but nevertheless I got those jars safely through three nations and brought them home. I think that calls for a biscuit, don’t you?
I’ve tried other biscuit recipes before and the results were always very… northern. My family is by and large Tenneessean and I grew up eating proper biscuits every summer, and thus, biscuits that taste like an English scone just do not rock me. Enter Beth Kirby and her biscuit recipes. I went back and forth, reading through both the original buttermilk biscuit recipe and the newer pumpkin-honey variation. I studied them. I tried out the various options suggested in the articles and in the comments. I baked several batches. Some I shared with my spouse. One batch I failed at sharing with anyone (as I once told a coworker, you don’t get an ass like this eating salads). And two batches I made for my parents.
Those were the really rewarding batches – both pumpkin-honey and plain biscuits, wrapped in a linen tea towel to keep warm, and three spreads on the counter, including one of the Icelandic butters, a banana cocoa butter that is epic on the pumpkin-honey biscuits, truly. Everyone standing in my kitchen eating them and acting like I was some sort of magician. Much better than furtively eating them alone while I photograph some apples, though let’s face it, any day you get to eat a biscuit is a good day.
If you’re feeling any fear at all about making these, I would urge you to give them a shot. They’re magically delicious and wonderful to share with others. My notes below are full of my own kind of elaboration, but also give Beth’s recipes a read-through for a different take, and you’ll be empowered to make incredible magic biscuits yourself. Never forget, I am here for you in the comments section if you have questions or concerns. Sometime soon I want to talk about fear and the ways in which it makes small things seem impossible. For now, though, let’s all make biscuits.
Buttermilk Biscuits, Plain or Pumpkin Honey
Yields 8-10 smaller biscuits or 4 mammoth biscuits (that may attack your face; don’t say I didn’t warn you)
Ingredients (for plain biscuits):
– 250 grams or 2 cups flour (cake flour or all-purpose flour)
– 1 Tbsp baking powder
– 1 tsp kosher salt
– 230 grams or 1 scant cup buttermilk
– 4 Tbsp butter (half a stick)
Ingredients (for pumpkin honey biscuits):
– 250 grams or 2 cups flour
– 1 Tbsp baking powder
– 1 tsp kosher salt
– 1/2 a cup (120 grams) plus 1/4 cup (60 grams) buttermilk (you likely will not use the 1/4 cup; you’re merely holding it in reserve in case your dough seems dry)
– 4 Tbsp butter (half a stick)
– 1/3 cup pumpkin purée
– 6 tablespoons honey
– 2 tsp cinnamon
– 1 tsp ground ginger
– A pinch of ground cloves
Preheat your oven to 425 whenever it suits you. I always do it during the second rest period so my kitchen stays cool in the meantime.
Mix the dry ingredients together so everything is evenly distributed.
Next, cut in the butter. I have developed a technique for this, but I don’t say it’s necessary or even universally helpful – it just works for me. I cut the butter into two (very cold) chunks and then cut it in with a pastry blender until I’ve got nice pea-sized chunks of butter distributed throughout my dough. You can also cut the butter in with your hands or two knives, or really anything that works for you. I have a pastry blender from my days of overzealously acquiring kitchen goods, and I like the way it feels, so I use it.
Once you’ve got your butter cut in, mix in your remaining wet ingredients. For the plain biscuits, that’ll be just the buttermilk. For the pumpkin variation, you’re going to take the first 1/2 cup of buttermilk as well as the pumpkin puree and the honey, and blend them all together using a fork in a separate bowl. Once they’re blended together, add them to the butter and dry ingredients.
The dough will be wet and will come together pretty quickly. Once it does, let it sit for 20 minutes. Letting it sit isn’t strictly necessary, but I find that when I do it, I get higher biscuits.
After it’s had its rest (or not – baker’s discretion), transfer it to a floured surface and shape it into a rectangle about an inch and a half thick with your hands. It does tend to stick, so make sure there’s an even but thin coating of flour over everything that will touch it, including your hands. Fold the dough rectangle like you would fold a letter to fit into a business envelope – the top third comes down onto the middle third, then down again onto the bottom third. Rotate the dough 90 degrees, re-flouring your surface if it needs it, and press it out again to about an inch and a half thick. You want to be really gentle with it – by folding it, you’re creating the layers you want in the finished biscuit, so as you work, visualize yourself NOT crushing all the nice layers you’re making. I use my hands because I hate rolling pins and I feel like I have the most control with my hands, but you can use a rolling pin here too. Just be gentle, whichever course you take. Once you’ve rolled it out, fold it in half, rotate it 90 degrees, roll it out again to an inch and a half thick, then fold it in half again, rotate it 90 degrees again, and roll it out again to an inch and a half thick. Your fold-and-roll sequence will basically be once like a letter, then twice in half.
Once you’ve rolled it out for the last time, let it sit another 20 minutes. Again, you don’t have to do this, but I find my biscuits rise higher when I do.
After the second resting period, cut your rectangle into smaller rectangles with a well-floured kitchen knife. You can, if you have it, also use a biscuit cutter to get perfectly round biscuits, but I actually prefer the aesthetic of the square biscuit, and besides, square biscuits do not involve re-rolling your dough to use every last bit of it. You can get flour to adhere to your kitchen knife by first sticking a little extra dough to the edge, or you can just keep re-flouring it as you slice. Be sure to cut straight up and down and avoid twisting, which will seal the sides of your biscuits. I usually form my dough so it’s a rectangle, cut once down the center of the long part, and then slice off individual biscuits from the two big resulting logs of dough. I aim for biscuits that are about two to three inches in size – depending on my dough, sometimes they’re more square and sometimes they’re rectangular. Either way they will be fine. You can control your yield here based on the square size you cut. Want mammoth face-eating biscuits? Cut 4-6. Want smaller biscuits to feed a bigger group? Cut 8-10.
After you cut them, pick each biscuit up, flip it over and place it upside down on a baking sheet. Place the biscuits very close to each other – almost, but not quite touching.
Now let’s talk baking time. This will vary based on two factors – your oven and your biscuits. Since we’re cutting squares here, you may find they cook faster or slower than mine did based on how you cut them and how many you got. My oven runs cold, so generally I start by putting 15 minutes on my oven timer and then checking the biscuits for done-ness every couple of minutes after that. You’re looking for a nice, golden biscuit top. In my oven, the large biscuits generally take about 20 minutes to cook, while the smaller biscuits are usually done around 17-18 minutes. I also sometimes vary the cooking time based on who I’m cooking for – some of my family like their biscuits softer than others. Bottom line, start at a bake time of around 15 minutes (maybe a minute or two less if you know your oven runs hot) and then keep an eye on them.
After they’re done, let them cool (if you can stand it) or burn your fingers by eating them right away (the latter is more my style).