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Breads have taken over Americans’ culinary attention during the pandemic, whether it’s banana bread, French toast, or, of course, sourdough loaves.
But a different baked good has quietly become a powerhouse for people sheltering in place: the biscuit. Fluffy and buttery, the baked treats have achieved unsung hero status in part because of their role as supreme comfort food. The only way you might make fried chicken better, it is said, is to add biscuits. And they don’t require the concentration and time commitment of a sourdough starter.
Among the 19 million members of the food community at Reddit, a company spokesperson says, mentions of biscuits rose 96% from May 2020 through July, compared with the same time period in 2019. Users’ interest ranged from conventional homemade buttermilk biscuits with chicken to less obvious versions, including one topped with “chocolate gravy.”
Professionally made biscuits have also seen a rise in interest during the Covid-19 pandemic. Delivery food service DoorDash reports a more than 800% increase in demand for biscuits and gravy during the first half of this year. Though that’s not as frenzied as oatmeal deliveries (up 1,768% to be exact), DoorDash consumer communications manager Liz King says the company has identified biscuits as a “top 20 food on the rise in 2020.”
A new cookbook recognizes the excellence and versatility of the biscuit. Out on Sept. 8, The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cake, and Cornbread by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings (Penguin Random House; $35) updates the cliché of the region’s baked goods as over-sized and over-sweet. Fields, who owns the Willa Jean bakery in New Orleans, shares authoritative recipes for strawberry rhubarb hand pies, cornbread pancakes, and two-day-to-make coconut cake.
The book’s hero, though, is the biscuit. There are six different recipes—seven, if you count the one for peanut butter dog biscuits—that range from the commanding baker’s biscuits to thin crispy beaten biscuits. “They are our foundation,” she says in an interview. “Pre-coronavirus, we sold 600 biscuits a day on average.”
Her frozen biscuits will soon be available nationwide, but until then, the best move is to execute her recipe freshly, at home. This one is for Fields’s rolled biscuit, which—contrary to the name—requires no rolling pin and can be patted out on a work surface. “It’s probably what people think of when they think of biscuits,” she says.
They’re easy to make. The trickiest part is grating butter before the stick melts in your hand. The little ribbons are then frozen before being mixed into the flour mixture, which is more easily incorporated than the standard small pieces, and eventually make the biscuits rise high in the oven.
What’s also great about rolled biscuits, says Fields, is that they’re sturdy enough to be stuffed to make your favorite sandwich. She favors pimento cheese and country ham, but has tried just about every filling there is. “It’s a vessel for all your favorite foods, or whatever is in your fridge,” she says. “Whatever you like to eat, it’s going to be extra delicious on a biscuit.”
The following recipe is adapted from The Good Book of Southern Baking.
Rolled Biscuit Ham and Pimento Cheese Sandwiches
Makes 12 Sandwiches
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt
6 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, grated on the large holes of a box grater and frozen
1 cup cold whole milk
Heavy cream, for brushing
Slices of your favorite ham
Tomato slices (optional)
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Using your hands or a fork, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles very small peas. Add the milk and mix gently until a dough forms. If it’s dry, add a dash of milk and mix just until the dough comes together.
Lightly dust a work surface with flour. Turn the dough out of the bowl and pat down until it’s 3⁄4-inch to 1-inch thick. Cut out 2 ½-inch rounds, using a floured biscuit cutter or the top of a small jar; cut them out as close together as humanly possible to reduce scraps. (You can put the scraps together to make more biscuits but they won’t rise as well.) Transfer the biscuits to the prepared baking sheet and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425°. Lightly brush the tops of the frozen biscuits with the cream; don’t let it drip down the sides, which can reduce their rise. Bake for about 18 minutes, rotating the baking sheet after 8 minutes, until the biscuits have risen and are light golden. Let cool slightly, and then halve them and spread with pimento cheese. Pile ham slices on top, and serve.
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