Appalachia is famous for many things – bluegrass music, shape-note singing, moonshine, hillbillies and ramps. But a little known fact to most of those who live outside the region is that it is also home to the tastiest, most mouth-watering biscuits you’ll ever eat. Of course, many Appalachians preferred cooking cornbread – it has a long tradition – because it’s easy and quick. You could literally cook it on a hoe outdoors and you didn’t have to be a farmer to produce corn; it could be grown as a garden plant. Nor did you need kitchen help to fix it for your household. Cornbread was, essentially, the food of the people, requiring only local ingredients. And the recipe was adaptable and forgiving. It was the staple in most Appalachian households.
However, rounf about 1900, public health concerns began to surface about diet-based diseases and people both inside and outside the community in Appalachia came to believe Southerners were getting diseases because of their diets. Cornbread became a target.
An alternative offered was the beaten biscuit, a recipe that was crowned as the height of domestic achievement. The biscuit required not just wheat flour, hardly available to many households, but also elaborate equipment that included baking sheets, an oven with regulated temperatures and even a suggested marble slab for beating the dough a full 300 strokes (and 500 for company).
Though beaten biscuits were initially imported into Appalachia, and were clearly a middle class food requiring special ingredients, equipment and extensive cooking time, they eventually caught on and evolved into a uniquely Appalachian form. Here’s a taste of what the mountain folks have contributed to the common American biscuit.
APPALACHIAN CATS HEAD BISCUITS
Here’s one of those backwoods, vintage recipes that grandma used to make and would serve up with navy beans on a Thursday night. A biscuit in this case is what the English and the Australians refer to as a scone, but unlike the English and Australian versions, the Cat’s Head has qualities all its own. For example, the dough is generally rolled in your hands into a ball and placed in a skillet. Also, they are great served with sawdust and chocolate gravy (see recipe for gravy below). Why not give them a try and experience the joys of eatin’ the way it used to be up the holler.
Recipe Makes six large biscuits.
•2 1/4 Cup All Purpose Flour*
•3/4 Teaspoon Salt
•1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
•1 Teaspoon Double-Acting Baking Powder
•1 Cup of Buttermilk, Milk, or Plain Yogurt
•4 1/2 Tablespoons Lard, Shortening, or Unsalted Butter
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit (230 degrees Celcius).
2. Mix the flour, salt, soda, and baking powder together in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
3. Add the lard, butter, or shortening a piece at a time, then mix it into the dry mixture thoroughly with a pastry cutter or two butter knives slicing in a scissor fashion. The finished mixture should have the consistency of course-ground cornmeal.
4. Now comes the tricky part–the mixing. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and add all of the milk. Using a spoon, stir the mixture. Pay special attention to scraping the edges of the bowl so that the dry flour there has a chance to get wet. You only want to stir until the milk is incorporated into the dry mix and there are no large areas of powdery flour remaining. Don’t over-mix here. The dough after mixing should be lumpy, sticky in places, and a bit shaggy in the driest areas. Using your hands, leave the dough in the bowl and carefully knead it about three times. Just lift it out as best you can, fold it in half, then press it down. You may want to sprinkle some flour over it to keep your hands from getting coated.
5. To make “cat head” biscuits (so called because they are large–about the size of a cat’s head), simply pinch off a ball of dough about 2 1/2 inches across and pat it into a thick patty. Put the shaped biscuits into a stoneware pie plate or large cast iron skillet (or on a cookie sheet). Bake for 15 minutes or until the tops of the biscuits are a light golden brown.
6. Serve with butter, jam, honey, ham gravy, sausage gravy, sawmill gravy, or whatever your favorite biscuit topping is.
1 cup sugar
½ cup flour
2/3 stick butter
½ tsp. salt
3 cups milk
½ cup cocoa
1 tsp vanilla
Melt butter in skillet. Remove from heat. Stir in dry ingredients. Gradually stir in milk and mix well. Return to heat and stir constantly as it thickens. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Stir and sever over hot biscuits.
Sweet Potato Biscuits
My Aunt Helen once wrote to me: “Oh and that glorious sweet potato can be added for a biscuit you can serve stuffed with slices of smoked turkey or honey baked ham and a little hickory or Jack Daniels mustard. Lands sake, it’s a gorgeous color, a little sweet and the sweet potato harmonizes with the ham or turkey. Try it some time, nephew.” And that is exactly what I did. You should too! Here’s the recipe:
1 1/4 cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Tbsp. Baking Powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
3 Tbsp. Shortening
1 cup Mashed Cooked Sweet Potatoes
1/2 tsp. Ground Cinnamon
1/4 cup Sugar
1/8 tsp. Ground Nutmeg
1/4 cup Milk
Into large mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Using pastry blender or two knives, cut shortening into flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Blend in Sweet Potatoes and spices. Add milk all at once and stir with fork until mixture comes together. On lightly floured board, knead 10 times. Roll out on lightly floured surface to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut with biscuit cutter dipped in flour. Arrange on ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees F. for 12 minutes or until golden and puffed.
In my opinion, the cold, dreary months of July and August (in the Southern Hemisphere) have one redeeming feature : they’re perfect for cooking comfort food. The wind and rain and low temperatures would be so much harder to bear without the steaming pots of soup or chili or stew that go so well with them. Since biscuits are the theme of this posting, let’s finish off with a recipe for that most delectable kind of biscuit – which many West Virginians call a “bride’s biscuit” and other folks refer to as an “angel biscuit”. Here’s an old family recipe tha combines the best of the biscuit & roll worlds: the buttery flavor of a biscuit with the yeasty lightness of a roll.
It involves more work than your standard baking powder biscuit, but they’re worth the effort. This recipe makes a big batch. You can bake them all at once or keep some dough in the fridge for 1-2 days to bake as needed.
1 (about 2 1/4 t.) package dry yeast
1/2 c. warm water
5 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1/2 c. vegetable shortening
2 c. low-fat buttermilk
1 T. butter, melted
- Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water in a small bowl, and let stand for 5 minutes.
- Combine flour and next 4 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add yeast mixture and buttermilk to flour mixture; stir just until moist. Cover and chill 1 hour (I often just leave it on the counter for 1/2 hour).
- Preheat oven to 450°.
- Turn the dough out onto a heavily floured surface; knead lightly 5 times. Roll dough to a 1/2-inch thickness; cut with a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Brush the melted butter over the biscuit tops. Bake at 450° for 12 minutes or until golden.