How to Make Pillowy (and Pretty) Angel Biscuits
In a world inundated with every conceivable type of mash-up, it can be hard to keep straight which ones are ridiculous (see: Kimye) and which are brilliant (hello, Cronut!). After all, both kinds are stalked by insatiable crowds and can last a lot longer than anyone ever anticipated.
Keeping that in mind, I'm here to introduce you to a variety of biscuit that follows this same hybrid pattern, yet predates imagiwords (heck, if everyone else can indiscriminately smash two words together, I can too), and keeps a much lower profile: Meet the angel biscuit, also known as the "bride's biscuit" and "combination biscuit." I like to think of the angel biscuit as half biscuit, half soft roll, because it uses both baking powder and yeast for leavening. Just don't start with any "rollscuit" or "biscoll" business.
The beauty of using both yeast and baking powder is that these biscuits are pretty much guaranteed to rise. Similar to traditional biscuits, butter is cut into the flour and then the liquids are mixed in. The only differences between these and traditional biscuits are the added time needed for the yeast to proof the dough, and a little bit of additional kneading.
The final result is pillowy and soft with a buttery, unmistakably biscuit-y flavor. They'd make a great vehicle for sliders or sandwiches, but are equally good split in half and served with butter, honey, or jam. I like mine warm with mild, melted cheese and a couple slices of good country ham.
A Bit About Yeast
The most important thing to remember about yeast is that it's a living thing. These tiny, single-celled microorganisms break down sugar for survival and reproduction. The byproduct of this process is carbon dioxide and alcohol, adding flavor and causing the dough to swell with trapped gas and rise. In baking, unlike in brewing, the alcohol evaporates in the oven.
In order to keep the little yeasty beasts happy, they require some attention. Here are some of their requests:
The ideal temperature for yeast is between 78° and 82°F, the range of optimum fermentation. Still, you can go a little outside of that range without disastrous results, but if the dough gets warmer than 120°F fermentation will start to slow down; above 140°F and the yeast will die. On the lower end of the spectrum, yeast will hibernate below 34°F; they'll remain active in cold temperatures above that, but fermentation will happen at a significantly slower rate. (This is why you can slow proof bread in the refrigerator.)
While yeast will break down the sugars in starch, adding a little bit of granulated sugar to a dough gives the yeast a quick boost of energy. Feed the yeast too much sugar and it will start slowing down. It's not very different from how we all feel after a major sugar binge: There's the big initial energy spike followed by a precipitous collapse. For yeast, the key is to keep the overall sugar percentage under 5% by weight of the total recipe formula.
Never put salt in direct contact with yeast, since it inhibits fermentation. Obviously this doesn't mean that you can't add salt to bread—that would be tragic. The solution is to add the salt to the dry ingredients before adding the yeastl the other dry ingredients will act as a buffer and prevent the salt from getting to the yeast in high concentrations.
Now that we've covered some yeast basics, let's get on with the angel biscuits.
Angel Biscuits, Step by Step
Step 1: PROOF THE YEAST
In a small bowl, dissolve the active dry yeast in lukewarm water. Active dry yeast is what you typically find in packets at the grocery store in the baking aisle. It should not be confused with "instant yeast," which does not need to be re-hydrated. (The drying processes used with active dry yeast dehydrates the yeast to about 10% moisture and therefore, re-hydration is a necessary step.)
Once the mixture begins to foam slightly, add a pinch of sugar. Let it stand for about 5 minutes.
Step 2: PREPARE THE BUTTER
Using a knife or bench knife, cut your butter into marble-sized pieces. Store the cut butter in the refrigerator until you're ready to combine it with the other ingredients, so that it stays nice and cold.
Step 3: MIX DRY INGREDIENTS
In a large bowl, combine flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Whisk the dry ingredients thoroughly to ensure that everything is evenly distributed.
Step 4: CUT IN THE BUTTER
Toss the butter into the flour mixture, making sure that each piece of fat is fully coated. Work quickly (don't let the butter melt!), rubbing the butter between your fingers, maintaining large enough pieces that they are clearly visible.
If it's particularly warm, or if you have hot hands, this step can also be done in a food processor. With the food processor, 2 to 3 quick pulses should do it!
Step 5: KNEAD IN THE MILK AND YEAST
Add the milk and foamy yeast to the dry mixture, then mix using a wooden spoon until a very shaggy dough forms. Next, gently knead the dough 4 to 6 times, until it becomes a rough but cohesive ball. You should still be able to see small pieces of butter throughout the dough.
This step varies from most biscuit recipes because some gluten formation is desirable here. As with most breads, gluten formation helps trap the carbon dioxide as it's released during fermentation—as the dough traps the carbon dioxide, it expands like a balloon. Because of the half-biscuit, half-roll nature of this dough, you have to balance two opposing needs: Mix too much and the dough will warm up and form too much gluten, melting the butter and toughening the biscuits; too little and the gluten won't form, making it difficult for the dough to trap the gas and benefit from the contribution of the yeast. To key is to work quickly and keep the dough looking somewhat shaggy.
Step 6: TRANSFER, COVER AND PROOF
Transfer the dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Slow-proof the dough in the refrigerator overnight. (At least twelve hours, although the dough can stay in the fridge for up to two days.) Proofing the dough slowly in the refrigerator, rather than more quickly at room temperature, keeps the butter solid, creating a more tender final product.
Step 7: ROLL AND CUT
Transfer the biscuits to a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out to about 1/2 inch thick.
Using a 2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out the biscuits as close together as possible. Knead together any scraps, re-roll and cut out more biscuits. Discard any remaining scraps. (For those of you who are fans of the square biscuit, feel free to avoid scraps by cutting the biscuits with a knife.)
Step 8: BAKE AND EAT!
Lightly grease a large baking sheet and brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter. Cover loosely with a towel (or plastic wrap) and let the biscuits rest for another 30 minutes at room temperature (unless you kitchen is particularly hot; if that's the case, pop the sheet pan into the fridge for an hour). Bake at 375°F until lightly golden. The biscuits can be transferred to a cooling rack and enjoyed warm.