There is something you should know about me. When it comes to baking, I have control issues. Coupled with this is the fact that I tend to set the bar just a tad too high for myself when it comes to, well, pretty much everything. These two personality traits can sometimes be… challenging, kitchen-wise. Because while the rational, logical part of my brain knows that every recipe can’t always turn out just right, the rest of me is usually pretty devastated when things don’t go my way. And when they don’t, I get upset. I obsess. On occasion, I’ve been known to cry. It’s silly, isn’t it? I mean, really. Crying? Over baked goods? But it’s true.
Back to the controlling and obsessing part. When a recipe (or, more likely, my execution) has failed me, I go a little nuts. The control freak in me must! conquer! that! recipe! You can imagine how this might be a problem in certain situations. Like the time a few dozen people were coming over for my husband’s 40th birthday party, and less than two hours before the party was to start, I was near tears because the Swiss meringue buttercream for the three-layer cake refused to come together. Do you know how impossible it is to frost a three-layer cake with Swiss meringue soup? Worse, do you know how impossible it is to tear me away from a failing recipe mid-stream? Like I said, a problem.
The upside to this madness is that I usually, eventually, find a way to conquer the recipe. These biscuits are a good example. I can’t tell you how many different recipes I’ve tried over the years, in a vain effort to find the perfect homemade biscuit. My criteria were simple: light and moist inside, just crumbly enough on the outside, and dairy-free.* But time after time, my biscuits turned out flat. Or hard. Or dry. It seemed that my perfect biscuits would remain forever out of reach.
I had nearly given up. Then a few months ago, we took the kids to Old Town for the annual Gold Rush Days event. Have you ever been? It’s actually pretty fun. One weekend a year, Old Town Sacramento goes back in time to the days of mid-1800’s Wild West. There are cowboys, gold panning, and even a “tent city” with “residents” in period costume. Women in the tent city demonstrate how people cooked and baked back in the old days, before electricity. This year, they were making Dutch Oven Biscuits over the red-hot coals of an open fire, in large, cast-iron pots. One of the sweet ladies swished over in her Little-House-on-the-Prairie dress and offered me a taste… oh, my. They were swoon-inducingly good. Then she handed me a copy of the recipe. Could this be “the one?”
That very weekend, I gave it a shot, subbing out the milk for soy milk. Success! They rose up high and light in the oven, with a tender, moist crumb and a bit of crunch to the exterior. Over the next few months, I would make them again and again, trying them with goat’s milk or raw cow’s milk. With a little raw butter, goat’s milk butter, or margarine. With cubes of cheddar mixed in. Each time, they were delicious. And so, so easy! They were, in a word, perfect.
After multiple Google searches, I was not able to find the origin of this recipe, and no source was given on either the Gold Rush Days website or the printed handout from the nice Tent City ladies. When and if I am able find the source, I will edit this post to give due credit.
Don’t be afraid of the shortening. From everything I’ve read, it’s a staple in traditional Southern biscuits. And when it comes to biscuits, those Southern women know what they’re talking about. Other than the occasional butter swap or cheese variation, the only change I’ve made from the original was to up the amount of salt. If you are using regular “table” salt instead of Kosher, I would suggest cutting the measurement in half.
2 cups all-purpose, unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
4 teaspoons baking powder (aluminum-free is best)
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (or, 1/4 cup shortening and 1/4 cup butter or margarine)
2/3 cup milk (cow, soy and goat milks all work equally well)
Preheat oven to 350° F. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, cream of tartar and sugar. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender (or two knives) until the mixture resembles course cornmeal. All at once, add in the milk and stir with a spoon, just until the dough comes together.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead 14 times. Roll out the dough to a little more than 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into circles (I used a 2-1/2″ cutter. Well, actually, a 2-1/2″ plastic cup). If necessary, lightly knead, roll and cut the remaining dough. Place biscuits – and the scraps, if you like – on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 15-20 minutes (mine always take 20), until barely browned.
Makes 12 biscuits.
To make cheddar biscuits: cut 1/2 to 1 cup of cheddar cheese into little tiny cubes. Before adding the milk, stir the cheese into the dough mixture.
*Did I fail to mention that due to a severe lactose intolerance, my diet was almost entirely dairy-free for over 20 years? True. Happily, I recently discovered that my tummy is just fine with raw, unpasteurized cow’s milk products, some goat’s and sheep’s milk products (pasteurized or not), and most yogurts. Yay! So, nearly all the recipes on this site will be either dairy-free or made with one of these.