Edna Lewis' Southern Country Biscuits

Southern Country Biscuits with Strawberry Jam and Lavender Honey

These are the most beautiful and delectable biscuits I've ever made!

They're from the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking, Edna Lewis, and her cookbook "The Taste of Country Cooking" first published in 1976. Born in 1916, granddaughter of an emancipated slave, Miss Lewis grew up to be an acclaimed chef in NYC, serving the likes of Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Greta Garbo and Eleanor Roosevelt. And although her clientele might have been hoity-toity, her cooking was down home.

The recipes are organized by season and narrate the rhythms of life in a small Virginia farming community settled by freed slaves. Inside her cookbook, you won't find a single photo, just a few Currier and Ives-type black and white sketches that bring to life animals, plants, landscapes and farm work from her childhood.

I love this book as much for its stories as its recipes. How fascinating to read about hog killing, "one of the special events of the year," where nothing was wasted, not even the bladder which was blown into a balloon-like Christmas decoration. How refreshing to read about families working together to harvest the wheat or crank an ice cream maker and enjoy a "divine, creamy, crunchy concoction." How up-lifting to read about Revival Week when the whole community, with memories of slavery still lingering, celebrated their freedom amidst "linen-covered picnic tables...filled with an array of meats, corn puddings, baked tomatoes, pork-flavored green beans, sweet and pungent beets, cakes, pies, ice cream, iced drinks and watermelon slices...".

Call me old-fashioned, but I firmly believe the lessons from this place and time are still relevant today, as is, of course, the food!

Notes: The original recipe calls for lard, which I did not have on hand, so I substituted butter. I reduced the buttermilk from 1 cup + 2 tablespoons to just 1 cup. Butter has more liquid than lard so when substituting, decrease the liquid a bit.

Southern Country Biscuits
Adapted from The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis
Makes approx. twelve to fourteen - 2 1/2" diameter biscuits

Preheat oven to 450°F.

In a large bowl, sift together:
3 cups all-purpose flour (390g)
1 scant teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoons baking powder

Add to the sifted dry ingredients:
2/3 cup (152g) cold unsalted butter, cut into approx. 3/4" slices and quartered 

Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, blend butter and flour together until mixture has texture of cornmeal. Scatter over the mixture, all at once:
1 cup buttermilk (237ml)

Stir briskly with a wooden spoon or dough whisk, making sure to incorporate any dry bits into the dough. Scrape sides of the bowl and form into a ball. Spoon dough onto a clean, floured surface for rolling. Dust over lightly with flour if dough is sticky. Flatten out dough gently with your hands into a thick, round cake. Knead for a minute by folding outer edge of the dough into the center of the circle, giving a light knead as you fold the sides in overlapping each other. Turn the folded side face down and dust lightly if needed, being careful not to use too much flour, lest the dough become too stiff.

Dust a rolling pin and rolling surface well. Roll out dough evenly to 1/2" thickness or a bit less. Pierce the surface of the dough with a regular dining fork.

To cut out a biscuit, flour a round 2 1/2" diameter biscuit cutter and push straight down into dough, then pull straight out without twisting. Flour the biscuit cutter each time before you cut out a biscuit. Try to cut biscuits as close together as possible so you minimize the number of times you need to re-roll dough scraps.

Place biscuits 1/2" or more apart on a shiny, heavy cookie sheet or baking pan. According to Miss Lewis, "The biscuits brown more beautifully on a bright, shining pan than on a dull one and a thick [pan] bottom helps to keep them from browning too much on the bottom."

Bake for 13 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 3 to 5 minutes before serving (if you can wait that long).

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