American baking in Cornwall: baking powder biscuits

I’ve been browsing through too many blogs lately, so I don’t remember where I found the question “what do Americans mean when they say ‘biscuit’?” (I’m paraphrasing. If I didn’t remember to make a note of where I was, raise your hand, please, if you think I had the foresight to copy the actual words. No hands? I didn’t think so.) I left an answer, then thought that in the interest of intercultural mayhem, which I do so much want to promote, I should answer it here as well. So for anyone who (a) isn’t American or (b) is American but is somehow unaware that biscuits are bliss, I’m going to print a recipe. Just as soon as I manage to shut up.

Which may not before a while. Feel free to scroll down if you’re bored. I’ll never know.

Irrelevant photo: It's spring! Crocuses by our back door.

Irrelevant photo: It’s spring! Crocuses by our back door.

Since I moved to Cornwall and began my campaign to mess with the purity of English cooking, I’ve learned to call biscuits baking powder biscuits to distinguish them from cookies, because that’s what anyone British would think I meant otherwise. Although they also say “biscuits” to mean crackers. While we’re at it, crackers are also something non-edible that show up on the table at Christmas. Are you confused yet? That tells you you’re not British. In case you weren’t sure.

Don’t you just love the English language?

In the U.S., I was more likely to call baking powder biscuits either just plain biscuits or buttermilk biscuits. But let’s stick to the phrase I’m currently using: Baking powder biscuits are a cousin of the scone, but they’re not as sweet. Or if you’re comparing them to savory scones they’re not as—oh, you know, scone-y. Sadly, they’re also not as good cold. The leftovers tend to taste kind of salty. But that only means you have to eat more while they’re warm, because they’re light and glorious then.

I didn’t grow up in the American biscuit zone, which is made up of (a) the South and (b) the African-American community in any part of the country. Those are generalizations, I know, but they’re accurate for the present purpose, which is to say that in spite of my geographical and ethnic limitations, I’ve been around both parts of the zone enough to know good food when I see it, and since Wild Thing’s originally from Texas, learning to make biscuits seemed like a good idea. I mean, if she can not only eat but pronounce both challah and knishes, I can surely make biscuits. She swears mine are better than her mother’s, but I only dare say that in public because her mother’s dead. The difference, I suspect, is that I use butter. You can use margarine if you like, or (probably, but what do I know? I’m a Jewish atheist New Yorker and a distinctly amateur cook, which makes me no expert on the subject) lard or pretty much any other hard fat.

The trick is to use as little liquid as possible—just enough to get the dough to form a ball. Too much liquid and the biscuits will be tough. That much I do know.

 

Baking Powder Biscuits

(makes 8 or 9)

2 cups flour

1 scant tsp. salt

2 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. sugar

2 ½ oz. (5 tbsp.) butter

¾ cups (approximately) buttermilk or milk with vinegar * (see note below)

Sift the dry ingredients together—or if you’re as lazy as I am, dump them all in a bowl and take a whisk to them. I swear it works just as well. Cut in the butter  or crumble it in with your fingers. Your fingers will warm the butter, so cutting it is better. If you can find a pastry blender, that’s ideal. Don’t lose sleep over how small the bits of butter are; as long as you don’t leave it looking like gravel, it’ll be fine. Stir in just enough buttermilk to form the dough into a ball. Knead if very briefly—no more than 30 seconds—just to bring the dough together fully .

Dust your counter with flour and roll the dough out so it’s about ¾ inch thick. Understand that I’m making up the thickness. Mine vary all over the lot. Cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter or a glass. (My biscuit cutter had a diameter of 2 ¾ inches. Just so’s you know.) Set them on a greased baking sheet, which in the U.S. I called a cookie sheet. It doesn’t matter if they touch.

Bake in a 450 F. / 220 c. oven for 10 to 12 minutes.

Since the thickness of my biscuits varies from batch to batch, I pry one open to make sure they’re done in the center. You’ll want to split them when you eat them anyway, so it doesn’t show.

Eat warm with any combination butter and/or honey, jam, or gravy.

 

* If you don’t have buttermilk (and it’s not as widely available in the U.K. as it is in the U.S.), you can add some vinegar to the milk—roughly one teaspoon to a cup seems to do it. I sometimes add more. It doesn’t seem to be finicky. Just don’t use a flavored vinegar, or a red one unless you want pink biscuits. White or cider work well.

56 thoughts on “American baking in Cornwall: baking powder biscuits

  1. Biscuits. One of the best comfort foods on the planet. Yours are only slightly different from mine–I usually do a ‘drop’ version instead of rolled. (And I’m from Michigan). Here, I insist on calling them just ‘biscuits’. And then I add “it’s a bread food.”

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  2. Glad to have this confirmed.
    Now, please write a post about “pudding” and the differences between the UK and North America. My first experience of pudding was from a box labelled “Jello” – which, as I write this, I realize is a point of confusion, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Today I learned 2 new things …. there’s a biscuit zone in the US, and a technical term I’ve never heard before ‘scone-y’ :)
    Today is off to an excellent start! I might even be inspired to make biscuits.

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  4. I love both types of biscuits. Yum. As with all American vocabulary, I always fail to remember to use the word “cookie” but I do enjoy eating them. My husband loves biscuits with sausage meat gravy. Cheesy biscuits are delectable. So I’m a biscuit convert too. I used to substitute milk mixed with lemon juice for buttermilk back home in Scotland. I never thought to use vinegar though it’s obviously the same science. Now – after this discussion – I need to build biscuit baking into my day….

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  5. Jeez, I’m British, and you’ve confused the life out of me! haha Seriously though, yes we do call what is eaten with cheese biscuits sometimes, but not so often – the only example I can think of is a digestive, which we would occasionally eat with cheese (however we much prefer crackers). The UK – US baking terms always get me scratching my head – I have asked my American friends several times what a biscuit is, and I am yet to have a straight-forward answer!

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  6. Biscuits, cookies, crackers etc. in American vs. British English: proof of the saying “two nations separated by a common language!” ;)
    Have a good one, as they say here in Texas,
    Pit

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  7. As a Canadian, my world became a better place when I discovered American (baking soda) biscuits. They don’t exist up here in the Great White North! I’ll be keeping this recipe close by.

    (I don’t understand the gravy addition to biscuits for breakfast though).

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    • Biscuits and gravy are as traditional as biscuits and honey, and maybe more so. In Wild Thing’s family, the gravy was red eye gravy (see my answer to Next Step to Nirvana for a description). If you think of biscuits as a quick bread, it begins to make sense. Or maybe not if you’re not originally from the Biscuit Zone. I don’t eat them that way myself, but then I’ve already established that I’m an outsider.

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  8. Hahaha! I loved this post for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve made hockey pucks, I mean biscuits, before. To get them just right is nirvana. And as we say in the south (well, central Florida, anyway), it ain’t easy. Don’t even get me started on Cuban bread.

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    • I hope it works well for you. I’ve never tried to make the traditional (at least in Wild Thing’s family) gravy for biscuits, which is red eye gravy, made with bacon fat. We just don’t cook a lot of bacon. (It’s also called striped gravy, but you have to pronounce the -ed: stripe-ed gravy.)

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  9. Biscuits are popular in New England, but not as much as in the south for sure. Bob Evans restaurant chains have a nice biscuit, but there is none like homemade. It’s true, the less you work the dough the better and the sharper your cutter the better. They are very rustic.

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  10. First of all, lovely purple croci!
    And I began to smile as I read about biscuits.. When I’m with my British friends, I always have to remember that a biscuit is far different than my first thought… Buttermilk and flaky biscuits for breakfast!
    PS: you’re from NY? Where exactly?
    Cheers and thanks for the recipe!

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  11. My family and I love baking soda biscuits. When I was growing up my mom would sometimes save the extra flour required to roll them and would instead drop them on a baking sheet. She called them “dropped biscuits” or “cat’s head biscuits” because they looked a bit like that. And although we grew up in the northern US with honey or fruit preserves, she also introduced us early to biscuits and red-eye gravy, and hominy grits. I’m hungry now. Have a great day and thank you for sharing!

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  12. I’m a Yorkshire girl, and we have gravy on Yorkshire puddings (now there’s an art form I’ve never mastered). I’ve seen biscuits on US films and have always wondered how anyone could have the time to bake bread rolls for breakfast. Now I know they don’t!

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