0

The art of southern biscuit making - Rhonda Rich

They are words that every decent southern woman hopes to hear from her mother.

My mama said 'em, but I never thought I'd hear 'em.

She bit into one of the crisp, buttered biscuits delivered to the kitchen island directly from my oven. I saw the look before I heard the words. It melted over her face like the butter melted across the top of the hot buttermilk biscuit.

"Hmm." She savored another bite. "These are the best biscuits I've ever tasted."

I grinned from ear to ear. She stopped chewing and looked at me suspiciously. "I didn't even know you could make biscuits. Where'd you learn how to do this?"

The rest of the family dug into the fresh-baked batch, all affirming their deliciousness and each echoing Mama's sentiment with various refrains of "Where did you learn to make biscuits like this?"

It's quite simple. I got serious about the art of southern biscuit making. After all, if you're going to be a southern woman of the highest possible caliber, you've got to know how to make great buttermilk biscuits.

I have studied it prodigiously, or as Mama would say, I just set my mind to it. I realized the vast importance of southern biscuit making when I watched a public broadcasting documentary, first broadcast in Nashville, called "The Rise of The Southern Biscuit." Now, you know that southern biscuits are of monumental national importance when PBS is doing an entire documentary on them. This is serious stuff.

At the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, I bought the PBS documentary and began my thesis on the subject. Then, I turned to the next most notable authority on southern biscuits - Martha White Flour. I dug out a recipe book that the Martha White folks had given me a few years ago, when we did a book event together in Birmingham. I studied every word.

Then, I took the newly acquired information, turned my kitchen into a test kitchen and set about becoming an accomplished biscuit maker.

My primary education began in Mama's kitchen, a good starting place since the woman has made thousands of biscuits in her lifetime. Two things she taught me: To have the lightest, fluffiest biscuits, work the dough quickly and make them out by hand. Rolling the dough and cutting them out makes for a slightly tougher biscuit.

So, I flour my hands, pinch off a piece of dough, roll it quickly once or twice in my hand then pat it into the greased pan.

The other day, when Mama was sick with a stomach ailment, I took her a small batch of biscuits, hot from the oven. After all, nothin' says lovin' like a hot biscuit. She called the next day.

"You haven't made any biscuits today, have you?"

"No."

"I've eaten every one of those. They're delicious. How do you make those biscuits so crisp and browned so perfectly on both sides?"

It's thrilling when your mama, who's so good at something, asks for your advice. I launched into a dissertation.

"You have to leave a quarter of an inch between the biscuits to have crisp ones. If you press them together, they won't be crisp. And, too, Martha White says to bake them at 425 degrees. You bake yours at 500 degrees. I've baked them at both settings. You'll always have a better biscuit at 425. But it'll take about 25 minutes to bake."

I was on a roll. I wasn't stopping.

"Five minutes before they're finished, I pull 'em out, put butter on the tops and poke a hole into 'em so the butter can melt down into the biscuit. Put 'em back in the oven." By the way, I figured that one out by myself.

Mama listened indulgently then commented, "Oh, I just thought you had a perfect oven."

Well, that too.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."