Thursday, February 28, 2013

So, this is blogging...and it's about making biscuits.

I thought I didn't have much to say. And, for a long time, maybe I didn't. Not to say that won't happen again. But I've found that increasingly over time, I've wanted to write more, and much of it has wound up on Facebook. This would be a more appealing venue, although I'll probably post it directly on Facebook via a link. If I can figure out how to do that.

When I began this blog, it was to be about my exploration of photography. I loved that venture. And along with friends I made online, I learned quite a bit. And then the illness happened, and my enjoyment of photography was affected. By this I mean my enjoyment certainly not my sharing in the joys of the work of others, but more in the enjoyment of trying to capture images that please me with my camera in my own shaky hands. I'm beginning to do it more now, and I'm pleased to say that it's coming back. My hands shaking so much have probably also inhibited my writing, and some days are much better than others. Today, it's not so easy, so I spend about as much time correcting mistakes as I do typing, so it doesn't exactly add to the creative flow. I watched My Left Foot this weekend, so enough said. Daniel Day-Lewis was so young. He's so much more elegant now.

Anyway, this is a blog entry about biscuits. There will be no photographs, simply because I didn't take any, although there were many possibilities.

I always made delicious biscuits during the early years of my life and during the years my children were growing up. They were the equals of my Mama Bea's, and that was saying a lot. They were palm-sized, light and fluffy, and always perfectly-browned. I learned to make biscuits from Mama Bea, my paternal grandmother who raised me, and from her mother, Granny Pitts. I always felt that any southern woman should be able to make good biscuits, good cole slaw, and good fried chicken. I, however, have yet to master the fried chicken. It's still out there, beckoning a part of me, mainly the part that lives on in my children. They love my pathetic attempts and continue to encourage me and assure me that they love whatever I stumblingly fry and put on the table in front of them. 

But in the meantime, I've lost my desire, and my stomach, for dealing with chicken and poultry. Actually, I cook and eat few meat products, although at this point, I can in no way call myself vegetarian. That is my goal, as I find myself relying much more on grains, vegetables and fruits. Having a resurgence in locally available produce, especially at farmer's markets, has made cooking and baking fun again. My son, Marc, calls my yeast breads "artisan quality," although many of them begin in the bread machine. Some of them may finish there, too, but I have few complaints.

Pies will also be on the prerequisite list for some successful southern women. I learned early on to limit my expectations of myself. At various bridal showers, I was, of course, given several rolling pins. As a new bride, I decided one day, happy in my newly-painted avocado green kitchen, to bake a pie. Naturally, all of the rolling pins were packed away in boxes, and I wanted to bake, not spend unnecessary time unpacking!

Again, I have digressed. Sometime, after my children left home, I lost my ability to make good biscuits. I don't know what happened. I made them much less frequently, and I suppose that over time, I simply lost my biscuit-making mojo. Probably, about ten years ago, I began relying on frozen biscuits for their consistent, dependable similarity to the biscuits of my youth. 

I always felt a an uneasy shame with using the frozen biscuits, and I never took credit for them, making sure that the blue plastic zipper-bag was left empty on the kitchen counter. I knew I was taking short-cuts that were not allowed by the Credo of the Southern Sisterhood. So yesterday, I vowed that this morning, I would make myself a pan of biscuits.

I used the same self-rising flour I remember using. I used the same buttermilk powder that I remember being acceptable in the past. While regular buttermilk is much preferable, I learned a long time ago that either I wouldn't have any when I needed it, or it would have expired three months before. So I experimented with powdered buttermilk in different recipes and did find it to be acceptable. I used the amount of water recommended on the flour bag. I had to add to that amount to get the dough consistency I more recall from Mama's biscuit-making. I also used the recommendations about the amount of shortening to use, although I do recall that when learning, I was simply told to use a "piece about the size of a small egg." 

I don't remember anything about the bowl Mama used for her dough, or even if she had a regular bowl she used. But Granny Pitts' dough bowl hangs right here over my kitchen sink, as it has everywhere I've lived since I was in my early 20's. By then, Granny seldom made biscuits anymore, and she left the bowl outside on her well. It developed a linear crack in the bottom rendering it useless, except as a memorial to days well-spent at her apron-strings. I cleaned it up, stained and varnished it, and it's been one of my favorite possessions since then.

I found early on that I couldn't blend in shortening with a fork, so one of my  favorite kitchen purchases through the years has been a pastry cutter. Its value proved true again today. I have suspected now for many years that my overall biscuit failure was due to my gradually beginning to use more than "the small egg-sized piece" of shortening advocated by Granny Pitts. 

I patted my biscuits out by hand, just as I always have, and just as Mama Bea always did. Granny Pitts always rolled hers out with a jelly jar. Then she carefully cut them out with a snuff jar. This is a difference in women as unique as belly buttons. And hence, my aforementioned difficulty with pies. When I couldn't find a rolling pin that day in 1972 to roll out my pie crust, I took the liberty of trying Granny Pitts' glass technique. My crust was over an inch thick and, in retrospect, I'm sure, inedible. I proudly took large pieces to every member of my family. 

The next day, Granny Pitts showed up at our little apartment. She had to have somebody bring her; the women on that side of my family did not drive prior to my dad's generation. She had been by Woolworth's and brought me a rolling pin. It was a big deal for Granny Pitts to do that. She was not a big present-buyer, plus she had to pay somebody to take her uptown and then to my place. Later in the day, my paternal grandfather, Poppy, showed up in his blue 1972 Volkswagen Beetle with my second rolling pin of the day. It was also a big deal for Poppy.

This morning, I pre-heated my convection oven to 450 degrees, and as per Granny Pitts' careful instructions to my naive eighteen year old questioning, I "baked them 'til they were done, Jan." "Heatin' up the oven to bake biscuits was always an item of contention in both kitchens, at least in the summer months. Thankfully, today I get to use a counter-top convection oven and it's the last day of February.

All things considered, my biscuits are much better! I'm well on my way to the restoration of my mojo and to the ability to honor the biscuits of my family in a way that would make them proud.  I have more of an idea where to continue to experiment. I didn't buy any frozen ones; it's just too easy to bake up a batch of biscuits when you need to!

OK, I said no photographs today. But, I changed my mind. The photo is obviously not of biscuits, but of the beautiful flowers I received from Morgan, Beth, and Izzy two weeks ago today for my birthday. I've never seen flowers last this long. They're in some type of a shredded gel inside the vase, and I don't know if that's the secret. They're just too pretty not to share, and they've been at it now for so long. Just something about a hearty flower in the winter...

1 comment:

  1. Well, first of all...great way for you to start writing. I briefly remember you talking about Granny Pitts years ago when we worked together and so this brought back good times of listening to the wonderful stories you have plus it reminded me of my dear beloved Big I too, spent many days in her kitchen. I learned to make yeast rolls; however, over the years...not much of that has happened. And while I think I cook rather well, I've seen my son create the most beautiful meals from nothing. Yes! the head bonker is cooking and making me proud but also frustrated at the same time, since he lives so far away. Can't get some of that when I want it. But biscuits...the best ones are the ones made at home, with love and care which has been handed down from some of the best cooks on earth. (Sorry do good but granny did it better). I think your blog today was as much about you getting back in the game as it was about biscuits and for that, Thank You Granny Pitts and Mama Bea!!!!