“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.
- Yield:about 1 1/2 dozen
- 3 cups sifted flour
- 1 scant teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 4 teaspoons Royal Baking Powder
- 2/3 cup lard
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
- 1 cup minced ham (optional, for ham biscuits)
Take a large bowl, sift into it the measured flour, salt, soda, and baking powder. Add the lard and blend together with a pastry blender or your fingertips until the mixture has the texture of cornmeal. Add the milk all at once by scattering it over the dough. (If you are making ham biscuits, add the minced ham now.) Stir vigorously with a stout wooden spoon. The dough will be very soft in the beginning but will stiffen in 2 or 3 minutes. Continue to stir a few minutes longer.
After the dough has stiffened, scrape from sides of bowl into a ball and spoon onto a lightly floured surface for rolling. Dust over lightly with about a tablespoon of flour as the dough will be a bit sticky. Flatten the dough out gently with your hands into a thick, round cake, and knead for a minute by folding the outer edge of the dough into the center of the circle, giving a light knead as you fold the sides in overlapping each other. Turn the folded side face down and dust lightly if needed, being careful not to use too much four and causing the dough to become too stiff.
Dust the rolling pin and the rolling surface well. Roll the dough out evenly to a 1/2-inch thickness or a bit less. Pierce the surface of the dough with a table fork. (It was said piercing the dough released the air while baking.) Dust the biscuit cutter in flour first; this will prevent the dough sticking to the cutter and ruining the shape of the biscuit. Dust the cutter as often as needed. An added feature to your light, tender biscuits will be their straight sides. This can be achieved by not wiggling the cutter. Press the cutter into the dough and lift up with a sharp quickness without a wiggle. Cut the biscuits very close together to avoid having big pieces of dough left in between each biscuit. Trying to piece together and rerolling leftover dough will change the texture of the biscuits.
Place the biscuits 1/2 inch or more apart on a heavy cookie sheet or baking pan, preferably one with a bright surface. The biscuits brown more beautifully on a bright, shining pan than on a dull one, and a thick bottom helps to keep them from browning too much on the bottom. Set to bake in a preheated 450°F oven for 13 minutes. Remove from the oven and let them rest for 3 to 4 minutes. Serve hot.