"A biscuit recipe without butter shouldn't be trusted. Without butter, how would the biscuits become soft and tender? They'd lack that important buttery flavor...it's just not right."
These were the thoughts that went through my head as I entered a third round of biscuit-making and recipe testing, after first tackling flaky biscuits and drop biscuits. But my doubts about whether cream-only biscuits could measure up to their butter-rich counterparts were shattered once I took my first bite. The cream biscuits were light and tender with a rich, milky flavor. They formed a delicately thin crust that contained an almost downy-like interior. I could go on, but the biscuits are blushing.
Short of a box mix, the cream biscuit is by far the simplest biscuit formula out there. You just whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar, and then gently stir in some heavy cream. That's it. In fact, the biscuit dough will probably be done before your oven has fully preheated. How could something so basic and easy be so tasty? It comes down to beautiful, full-fat heavy cream.
The Magic of Heavy Cream
There may not be butter in cream biscuits, but there's still a lot of butterfat. This recipe works because heavy cream is essentially an emulsion of butterfat globules suspended in milk. It's this fat that gives cream its characteristically thick, mouth-coating texture. The fat crystals are so small that they're undetectable in the mouth, yet, at the same time, they are large enough to give cream a full-bodied consistency. In the United States, heavy cream contains between 36- and 40-percent fat. In other words, it plays the roll of both a fat and a liquid, giving the dough tenderness and flavor from the fat, as well as moisture from its water content. This is why we don't use any buttermilk in this recipe; it's simply not fatty enough to provide a tender crumb.
What about Self-Rising Flour?
During my biscuit adventures, I came across many cream biscuit recipes that used self-rising flour. You could use self-rising flour in this recipe. Since self-rising flour already contains baking powder (and typically salt), simply omit those ingredients and replace the all-purpose flour with an equal weight of self-rising flour. The final result will be nearly identical, although the self-rising flour creates an ever-so-slightly cakier texture. I use all-purpose flour in this cream biscuit formula because it allows for more control over the exact amount of leavening and salt content. For example, self-rising flour typically contains about 1 tablespoon of baking powder per two cups of flour, while our biscuit formula contains 1 1/2 tablespoons per two cups. Is this going to make or break the recipe? No it won't. (Plus, you could always add additional baking powder to a self-rising flour...but doesn't that defeat its convenience?) Basically, if you're a recipe control-freak like me, self-rising flour doesn't allow for exact leavening or salt measurements.
Cream Biscuit, Step By Step
Step 1: Mix the dry ingredients
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. For those of you who might be raising an eyebrow to the addition of sugar, this recipe uses it as more of a seasoning than a sweetener. The small amount of sugar enhances cream's natural flavor, without making the biscuit noticeably sweet.
Step 2: Add the heavy cream
Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in the heavy cream until the dough is just moistened. The beauty of this recipe is that it takes very little effort to incorporate the liquid and, therefore, the risk of too much gluten formation is minimal.
Step 3: Cut out the biscuits
Turn the dough into a floured surface. Using your hands, fold it one or two times so it becomes a cohesive mass and press it down to an even 1/2-inch thickness.
With a cookie cutter, cut into 2-inch rounds.
Step 4: Bake
Bake in a 400°F oven for about 12 minutes, until golden. These biscuits are best when they're freshly baked, so allow them to cool slightly and then serve them warm.