Tag Archives: the biscuit method

Cobbler Redux: An Example of The Biscuit Method (plus another method and a few techniques)

14 Jul
Meet the Scientific Marvel that is Cobbler

Meet the Scientific Marvel that is Cobbler

There were some lovely, lovely plums at the store on Sunday, perfectly ripe and fragrant.  While some might choose to use the plums in a salad, not a bad idea, I always lean towards dessert.  So, I bought ten of them and prepared to make Cobbler Happen.  Again.  In my book, you just can’t have too much cobbler.  And, in honor of The Biscuit Method, about which I Went On at Great Length a couple of days ago, I decided to do a drop biscuit topped cobbler as opposed to the batter-based cobbler I made here.  Also because my mom makes a Very Nice biscuit-topped plum cobbler.

Before I begin, may I just state for the record that this was Damn Fine Cobbler.  I didn’t use a recipe for the fruit part, but I looked up a basic sweet biscuit cobbler topping, just to look at proportions.  The original recipe is here.  I tweaked it a bit, because I wanted to use my Atkinson’s Mill Cornmeal again, and because I am not very good at leaving Well Enough alone.

What follows is a “recipe,” as near as I can guesstimate amounts.

Ahem:

Biscuit Topped Plum Cobbler
For the fruit portion of the activity:

  • 10 lovely ripe plums, each about the size of a racket ball (ish)
  • healthy pinch of salt
  • several serious squeezes of honey, maybe 3 tablespoons.  Do this more or less to taste depending on your sweet tooth and the sweetness of the fruit.
  • about 3 tablespoons fruit juice–I used cranberry-pomegranate because that’s what I had.
  • maybe 2 tablespoons corn starch

For the biscuit portion of the activity:

  • 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup corn meal
  • some brown sugar–the original recipe called for 6 TBSP white sugar; I just dumped in a little–prolly about 1/4 cup (not packed) or a bit more
  • heavy pinch of salt
  • 1 1/4 tsp baking powder–the original called for 1 1/2, but I didn’t want my guys to be really light and fluffy.  I was going for more of a scone-type deal.
  • 3 oz cold butter, cut in pieces
  • a heavy pinch of cinnamon–maybe about 1/4-1/2 tsp
  • 2/3-ish cup milk

The Gilding of the Lily

  • demerara sugar, for sprinkling on the top of the cobbler, because I never met a lily that didn’t need some gilding

So this is how this works.

Here are my hands cutting up the plums.  I washed them well, first.  The hands and the plums.  Plum skins are very thin, so just leave them on.  If you have an Aversion to plum skins, you can peel them, I guess.

Here are my hands cutting up the plums. I washed them well, first. The hands and the plums. Plum skins are very thin, so just leave them on. If you have an Aversion to plum skins, you can peel them, I guess.

First, I cut up my plums and threw them in a pot with the rest of the fruity ingredients.

Everybody in the pool:  plums, honey, salt, fruit juice and corn starch.  Add the cornstarch while everything is still cold and stir it in, or you'll have lumps.  I guess you could mix the cornstarch into the fruit juice first; yes, that would've been a Good Idea.  Note to self...

Everybody in the pool: plums, honey, salt, fruit juice and corn starch. Add the cornstarch while everything is still cold and stir it in, or you'll have lumps. I guess you could mix the cornstarch into the fruit juice first; yes, that would've been a Good Idea. Note to self...

Note that milky looking juice.  This is before heating to a boil.

Note that milky looking juice. This is before heating to a boil.

Then, I brought the whole deal to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Then, I threw all the dry biscuit ingredients together in a bowl.  Before adding the fat, I was very careful to crush all the lumps of brown sugar so that my dry mix was nice and homogeneous.

Whisking the dry ingredients together.  I had to use my hot little hands to crush the lumps out of the brown sugar.

Whisking the dry ingredients together. I had to use my hot little hands to crush the lumps out of the brown sugar.

Hello, cold butter.

Hello, cold butter.

I tossed in the butter and proceeded to rub it in by hand.  Now, remember I said that often you want to leave little pieces of cold butter whole so you have some delightful buttery pockets?  Well, this time, I really wanted a pretty short (not a lot of gluten) biscuit.  I wasn’t worried too much about structural integrity.  It wasn’t like I was going to pick them up, split them and spread some butter on them or anything.  So, I kept rubbing until everything was pretty mealy.

See, most of the butter is in very wee, mealy pieces, but the whole mix looks pretty floury.  Magical.

See, most of the butter is in very wee, mealy pieces, but the whole mix looks pretty floury. Magical.

Notice that the mix is still somewhat floury–not all sticky like a cookie dough.  This means that I was able to get some gluten formation.

Once my dry ingredients were mealy and very little fat was visible, I stirred in the milk.  This actually makes a fairly wet dough–it’s decidedly sticky, but not so much that you need to keep wiping your hands.

Here's my pretty wet biscuit dough.  It's not shiny or runny, but it is Decidedly Sticky.

Here's my pretty wet biscuit dough. It's not shiny or runny, but it is Decidedly Sticky.

I sort of tossed the milk about with a fork as I poured it in, and I chose not to do any kneading, again because I didn’t want to get too much gluten forming.

See how clear the juices are now?  Plus it's nicely thickened.  Thank you, corn starch, for thickening my fruit.

See how clear the juices are now? Plus it's nicely thickened. Thank you, corn starch, for thickening my fruit.

Once the fruit was nice and soft and the juices were thickened and clear, I poured it into my trusty 9″ cast iron skillet.  I let the skillet heat up in the 350F oven while I was doing all my prep, so when the fruit hit the pan, it made a satisfying sizzle and began to boil a bit around the edges.  This meant some yummy caramelization, so I was pleased with that.  Hooray.

You could pat this dough out and cut circles, but I'd cut back on the milk some.  I wanted Rustic Cobbler, so I just dropped it from my fingers.  I didn't even use an Implement.  How's that for rustic?!

You could pat this dough out and cut circles, but I'd cut back on the milk some. I wanted Rustic Cobbler, so I just dropped it from my fingers. I didn't even use an Implement. How's that for rustic?!

Then, just drop little blobs of the biscuit topping all over the surface of the fruit.  Sprinkle liberally with demerara sugar, and bake at 350 until the biscuit is nice and golden.  Comme ça:

From cutting the plums all the way to taking it out of the oven took about an hour.  Not bad.  You could cut down on that time by using berries--no need to cut them up.

From cutting the plums all the way to taking it out of the oven took about an hour. Not bad. You could cut down on that time by using berries--no need to cut them up.

I guess the baking part took about 30 minutes or so.

I served this with vanilla ice cream, but you could certainly use whatever type of topping you’d like.  For bonus points and a shout-out, answer this question in the  comments section:  What is the only dessert-type topping that Miss Jenni does not want you to use?

Other Stuff I Want To Say About This Dessert

  1. These biscuits were seriously good.  I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a “drop scone” in the UK, but there are certainly drop biscuits on my side of the Atlantic.  Regardless, I would surely make these little guys again and just bake them on their own, maybe giving them a wee knead (but maybe not).  They were Wonderful.
  2. Store this guy at room temperature for up to 3 days so your topping doesn’t get soggy and sad.
  3. You could easily turn this biscuit into a pastry/pie-type crust by cutting way back on the milk, letting the dough hydrate for a half hour or so in the fridge, then rolling.  In that case, leave some pieces of fat a bit larger, for flaky goodness.
  4. Use whatever fruit and whatever spices you like in either the fruit part, the biscuit part, or both.
  5. Oh, the other method I mentioned up in the title?  Stewing fruit.  If you don’t want the juices to be thick, leave out the cornstarch.  Otherwise, there you have it:  stewed fruit.  Add some vinegar and some onion to the mix and make a chutney, but that’s another story.
  6. Oh, did I also mention “a few techniques?”  Okay:  some sort of fruit with some sort of dough=cobbler.  There’s one.  Here’s another:  using starch to thicken liquid.  Usually your liquid needs to come to a full boil to completely gelatinize the starch and cook out that raw starch taste.  You want to stew fruit, this is how you do it.  And a third:  sweetening  Especially with the fruit, you just want it sweet enough, and nobody can tell you what that means.  You have to add sweetener (or not) until it’s sweet enough for your taste.  I used honey, because I thought that it would go well with the plums.  Of course, there are tons of other choices, too:  sugar, brown sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, stevia, etc.  Then, there’s baking itself.  If I had clamped a lid on top of the skillet and simmered it over low heat on the stove top, my biscuits would’ve steamed (moist method) instead of baked (dry method).  Then, I wouldn’t really have a cobbler; I’d have a grunt.  Don’t get caught up in all the fruit dessert lingo, though:  cobbler, betty, crisp, crumble, grunt, slump, etc–they’re all very similar.
  7. If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, don’t worry about it.  Any heavy Baking Vessel will do.

And that pretty much takes care of things, I think.

And Then, Inspiration Struck: What. How. Why.

9 Jul
Hello, lovely biscuits

Hello, lovely biscuits

So, here I am again.  First, I must say thank you, truly, to all of you who left comments yesterday and helped me to feel like I am on the Right Track and that this blog is meeting the needs of some folks.  Yay!  So, here’ s the inspiration.  First, I’m gonna tell you what to do (but nicely, so you don’t get Huffy), then how to do it and then why we do it that way.  How fun is that?  I guess that could take the form of a recipe, with what being the name of the dish and the ingredient list, how being the procedure and then why being a discussion of said procedure/s.  ‘Cept I don’t want to start with a recipe, so I’m not going to.  Let’s start with a mixing method that we haven’t discussed since Way Back When I Started, you know, back before I had Readers and Such:  The Biscuit Method.  Here’s what I had to say about it Long Ago.  And now, here’s the rest of the story:  This Method is also called the pastry method, because it’s basically the same method whether you’re making biscuits or pie crusts.  So, here we go.

What?  The Biscuit Method

Ingredients that are generally included:

  • flour(s)
  • fat
  • salt (duh)

Other ingredients that generally go into biscuits:

  • sugar (maybe)
  • chemical leavener
  • dairy (cream, buttermilk, etc)

Other ingredients that generally go into pie crust:

  • egg (maybe)
  • sugar (maybe)
  • a wee bit of liquid, usually ice water

How?  Like This:

  1. Have all your ingredients Really Really Cold.
  2. Whisk dry ingredients together Really Really well.  This means flour(s), salt, (sugar), any dry flavorings, such as spices.
  3. Cut up the cold fat into chunks about 1/2″-3/4″ (this is just a guideline. Kindly put the ruler down).  Or, cut up the fat and then chill it.
  4. Toss the fat in with the dry ingredients.
  5. Cut or rub in the fat with your fingers or Another Implement.
  6. Once the fat is the size that you want it (more on that later), stop.  Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
  7. Add in the liquid until you have the desired consistency.  Stir minimally.
  8. And there you go.

Why?  Well, since you asked…
This will go by numbers, so any discussion of Step 1 under “How” will be covered under “1” down here.  Keen, huh?!

  1. Your ingredients need to be cold to keep the fat from melting.  The beauty of biscuits and pie crust is that, your can manipulate the flakiness or tenderness of a product without changing the ingredients.  If you rub all of your fat into your flour (which yields a very sticky and sad-looking dough), your dough will be very tender, but it won’t so much hold together.  You’ll end up with shortbread, because you will have done some crazy creaming of fat and flour and mucked up your biscuits/pie crust.  Keeping everything cold helps you from getting carried away in the later steps.
  2. You want your dry ingredients to be all evenly distributed with no lumps (baking soda and brown sugar are especially notorious for being clumpy).  If not, you’ll have sections that are too salty (or not salty enough), too sweet (or not sweet enough), or with too much leavening (or not enough).  You get the idea.  Even distribution at the beginning makes for even mixing down the line.  And that makes for a consistent end product.  A secondary reason for whisking the dry ingredients is aeration.  Yup, you will probably achieve the wee-est bit more rise if you’ve properly whisked your dry ingredients.
  3. Cutting the fat into even pieces has a lot to do with even distribution.  It also has to do with the speed with which you can throw your biscuits or pie crust together.  If you leave it in one lump, it will take a lot of manipulation, and if you are doing it by hand, it will also mean a lot of heat transfer from your 98.6F-ish hands to the fat that is Supposed To Be Chilled.  Plus, it will take longer to bust it into wee pieces.  So, do yourself a favor and pre-cut your fat before cutting it into the rest of the ingredients.  You’ll be able to work more quickly and your fat will stay nice and cold.  Everybody wins.
  4. No discussion here–just toss it in.  I recommend an Underhand Toss.
  5. Cutting in and rubbing in sound so Mysterious, don’t they?  I know that I always thought there was some magic involved.  Here’s the deal:  cutting/rubbing in of fat=making bigger pieces of fat into smaller pieces of fat.  Seriously–that’s really all it means.  If you cut it in, you’re most likely using forks, a pastry cutter or a couple of knives (although the knife thing takes Forever).  If you’re rubbing in, you’re probably using your fingers.  I prefer rubbing in, because I can literally feel the texture/consistency/temperature of the dough that I’m making.  Of course, rubbing in means introducing your hot little fingers to all of the cold ingredients, so you have to work fast.  If you’re new at this, I’d stick with a pastry blender or a couple of forks just to begin with, until you get a feel for it.  Or, you can also Pay Attention to the temperature of your dough and throw it in the fridge for fifteen minutes or so if your fat starts getting greasy and soft-feeling. So far, this particular discussion is still about the how of cutting/rubbing in.  But, I figure that the how is Vital, especially because it seems so mysterious. How to cut in
    Press the pastry cutter or a pair of forks down through the fat and flour until you reach the bottom of the bowl.  Twist, and bring it back up again.  Repeat until the pieces of fat are of Appropriate Size:  usually anywhere from lima-bean sized to pea-sized to meal-sized, depending on what you’re making.  The twisting motion will help to rub some of the fat into the flour, giving you a certain amount of tenderness.  Eventually, some flour/fat stuff will get all goobered up in the pastry cutter/fork tines.  Just use your finger to swipe them back down into the bowl.

    How to rub in
    First of all, let me just say that I know that heading sounds Very Rude.  Ignore the giggling middle school student inside and focus.  If you’re using your fingers to rub in, use both hands and take a Piece of Fat in each hand, pinching/rubbing between your thumb and forefinger (and maybe your middle finger, too) to break the piece into two.  The rubbing action works some of the fat into the flour for tenderness while the pinching turns big pieces into small pieces, preserving some wee chunks of butter for flakiness.

    Now, on to the whys:
    I’ve been talking about this mysterious tenderness/flakiness balance.  Here’s the deal.  The more you coat your flour with fat, the more tender the end product because you’re retarding gluten formation in the flour.  The more you leave pieces of fat whole (visible as pebbly guys), the flakier.  If you turn your flour/fat mixture into Pla-Doh, you’ve ended up more or less completely coating your flour with fat, so gluten production will be almost nil (see #1 under why).  If you leave the flour mixture generally pretty sandy and, well, floury, you’re leaving enough naked, non-fat-coated flour to allow some gluten to form, lending your dough structural integrity.  The leftover bits of fat that are left pebbly melt in the oven, leaving fun little buttery pockets and helping to provide some rise (from steam).  If you finish your dough by lightly folding it a few times, you are, in effect, layering in pieces of fat, and this lends to flakiness.

    I sense another why here.  If you take your finished dough (after you add the liquid and mix a little) and fold it over a few times, you’ll have strata of relatively gluten-rich (tougher) dough, relatively gluten-free (tender-er) dough and small pieces of fat.  As you fold, the layers get thinner, and then when the fat melts and the water turns to steam in the oven, this helps push the tougher layers apart, leading to flakes.  Get it?!

  6. Given the same amounts of flour and fat, leaving larger pieces of fat equals more gluten formation and, therefore, flakiness.  Leaving smaller pieces of fat equals less gluten formation and, therefore, tenderness.  It’s up to you to decide when to stop.  If you’re making regular biscuits, go until everything is mealy.  If you’re making flakey biscuits, leave the fat in larger pieces.  If you’re making a crumbly pie dough, go mealy.  If you want a flakier crust, go with pea-to-lima-bean sized pieces.  I think I’ve answered the rest of that why in #5.
  7. Biscuits will have more liquid than pie dough.  The consistency should be anywhere from wet to sticky (depending on the recipe).  Actually, one of the secrets to Ridiculously Light Biscuits is to have a very wet dough–so wet that you need heavily floured hands to shape it into vague biscuit shapes before dropping them onto a baking sheet.  But hey, doesn’t this cause more gluten formation?  Not if you don’t mix like a crazy person–all that extra liquid=a bunch of extra steam=extra lift in the oven.  Alton taught me that–it was the way his grandmother made biscuits.  Thanks, Alton and Alton’s grandma.  Pie crust should look like it doesn’t contain enough water–it should still be relatively sandy and only hold together when you press it.  For a good discussion of this (if I do say so myself), see my post on pie crust.
  8. Upon consideration, the “and there you go,” might beg further explanation.  In the case of wet biscuits, do as I described in why #7, or you’ll just make a Fat Mess.  If you’re making biscuits with a slightly more sturdy dough, a couple of gentle turns/kneads might be in order, then just pat it into a vague rectangle and cut biscuits the size you want.  And here, might I just exhort you to eschew Circular Biscuits, please?  Cutting circles leaves scraps which then must be re-rolled.  These scrap-made biscuits are never as light as the first roll.  Also, they don’t rise as much.  Just say no.  The why for this part is you’ve made more gluten form by working the dough into the shape you wanted it.  Gluten is tricky stuff.  Stick with rectangular or square biscuits, and you won’t have any scraps to worry about re-rolling.  Genius Lightbulb Moment!If you’re making pie dough, I suggest you roll the dough between two sheets of parchment and then refrigerate it to firm up and allow the flour to fully hydrate.  And doesn’t that sound all crazy and mysterious?!  When you first add the water, the outside of the flour gets wet, but it takes a bit for the water to soak all the way through each wee granule of flour.  This refrigerated rest gives it time for that to happen.  And incidentally, this is why you should stop adding water before the dough comes together.  After that hydration rest, your perfect dough will be too wet.  Trust me; I’ve been there.  I use parchment because that means I don’t need to add extra flour.  And that means that I don’t get extra gluten formation.  Hooray.

Okay, I think that about covers it.  And how are we feeling about biscuits and pie crust now?  More comfortable, I hope?  If you still have questions, shoot them my way, either in an email or in the comments.

And after all of that, I guess there’s nothing left but The Biscuit Method Certification.  Congratulations, students, and thank you for coming. 🙂

No, it’s not my picture up there:

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