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Classic Cookbooks: Ham Biscuits

Book Cover“The women of Freetown were amazing because they participated in the work of the fields and barnyard and yet would step right out of the field work when an unexpected friend or traveler turned up,” Edna Lewis writes. “They would make a quick fire in the wood cookstove, and in a few minutes emerge from the kitchen with a pot of hot coffee, a plate of biscuits—flannel-soft, a thin slice of ham inserted in each—a bowl of home-canned peaches, and perhaps some sugar cookies. Often the biscuits were made with chipped pieces of ham.”

Would you not pledge eternal devotion to someone who brought you coffee, biscuits, peaches, and cookies when you showed up unannounced on a summer afternoon? Easy-peasy cream biscuits tenderly entered my repertoire a few years ago, but biscuits made with lard, butter, or shortening were still in too-challenging territory for me (I have a fear of overworking dough) until The Taste of Country Cooking convinced me that I had to learn to make these ham biscuits, simply regular biscuits with minced ham folded into the dough before baking.

Got the Pork, But Where's the Lard?

Lewis calls ham “the basic black dress” of food: “If you had a ham in the meat house any situation could be faced.” Lacking a meat house I turned to the supermarket, where the closest approximation of Virginia country ham I could find was the Niman Ranch uncured jambon royal. Next, I needed lard. I’ve been hoping to have a cooking adventure with lard for a few years now, but this week it was not to be. Fairway, Whole Foods, and the Amish Market told me over the telephone that they did not have any lard on hand. A Hell’s Kitchen pork store called Esposito & Sons could provide it, but in the heat of the afternoon an hour-long round trip to buy solid animal fat sounded like a bad idea. So, begging Miss Lewis’s forgiveness, I settled for shortening.

As I mixed up the biscuits, I asked Andrew to check on the internet whether vegetable shortening needed to be refrigerated after opening. “No,” he said. A brief silence as he read a little more about shortening, and then he said, “Are you sure shortening is something you want to be cooking with?” Well, not really. I haven’t used shortening in years, but I thought we’d live if we had it just this once.

Shortening and Overworked Dough: Not Recommended

The biscuits were good, but not pure delight—no tender layers, no airy puff. This could be chalked up to the shortening, or to the way I mixed and kneaded the dough, or perhaps my cutting technique, or any number of other factors. (If anyone would like to offer an interpretation of the kneading instructions below I’d be glad to hear it. Should each of the four edges of the circle of dough be folded in once and that’s it? I know overworking is death to this kind of dough, and I think that’s what happened to me.) I’ll keep trying until I get to that “flannel-soft” biscuit, and if I have to eat a lot of good but not great specimens between here and there, so be it.

About the author: Robin Bellinger recently escaped a career in book publishing, which was cutting into her cooking time. Now she's a freelance editor and can bake bread on Tuesday afternoon if she feels like it. She lives in Midtown Manhattan with her husband and blogs about cooking and crafting at home*economics.

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