When Southerners begin to talk of the foods that most comfort us in times of grief, joy, or homesickness, biscuits almost always come into the conversation. So it's no surprise that when the Covid pandemic forced us into lockdown, soft-wheat flour, shortening, and buttermilk disappeared from grocers' shelves and were hard to come by for months.
Luckily, I had just restocked those things, and we're a small household, so I never felt the pinch of the shortage. And I probably made more biscuits during that first month than I'd made in the previous couple of years combined.
Most of them were cream biscuits, a simple formula of flour, baking powder, salt, and heavy cream. They're disgracefully easy, practically foolproof, and I'm lazy. The dough is simply stirred together, folded a few times, then cut and baked.
But they do have one big drawback: if you really want the old-time comfort of a buttermilk and lard biscuit, they're not going to give it. Without buttermilk to lend its tang and extra-fluffy texture, they're a little flat—perfect for filling with ham or jam, but not for eating on their own.
Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be a way to get that flavor and texture without the chore of cutting shortening into the flour. Sour cream, used in drop biscuits and those irresistible ladies' luncheon nibbles baked in a mini-muffin tin, wasn't the answer. It gives the bread a heavy texture and doesn't have the same tang. So when there was company or I just needed the comfort of a traditional biscuit, there was nothing for it but to get out the buttermilk and lard and take the extra time and energy required to cut that shortening into the flour.
But then a colleague mentioned Sharon Benton's biscuits, made just like those cream biscuits but with whole milk buttermilk. She said they had the flavor we loved, but without the extra fat in shortening or cream, weren't quite as light and tender. I wondered: would a blend of whole-milk buttermilk and cream do the trick? After a very little experimenting with the proportions, it did.
And I may never cut lard into flour (at least, not for biscuits) ever again.
Buttermilk Cream Biscuits
This amount answers perfectly for my small, two-person household, but if your family is larger or you're baking for company, it easily doubles. For the best color and texture, use a heavy, dark-bottomed baking sheet and bake them in the lower third of a very hot oven.
Makes 8-10 small (2-inch) biscuits
5 ounces (about 1 cup) all-purpose flour
1 rounded teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
4 ounces (½ cup) whole milk buttermilk (not low-fat; see notes below)
About 3-4 ounces (1/3 to ½ cup) heavy cream
1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 450° F. Put the flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl and lightly whisk to blend them. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the buttermilk and about 1/3 cup of cream. Stir it into the flour until you have a soft, sticky dough, adding cream by splashes until you get the right consistency. It should be sticky but not too wet and should hold its shape.
2. Lightly flour a work surface and turn the dough out onto it. Flour your hands and pat the dough out ½-inch thick. Fold it over on itself, and again pat it out ½-inch thick. Repeat this 3-4 times more, dusting the work surface as needed to keep the dough from sticking, then pat it out ½-inch thick.
3. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter dipped in flour, cut out as many biscuits as you can (I usually get 6), laying them in a small baking sheet as you go. I prefer separate biscuits with crusty sides and leave at least half an inch between them, but some like to have them touching one another, which gives them soft sides and a bit more of a rise since they'll "climb" against one another.
4. Gather the scraps and gently work them into a ball. Pat it out ½-inch thick and fold it as described above 2-3 times, then cut as many biscuits as you can from it (I usually get 2-3 more), again laying them on the baking sheet as you go. These will usually rise more than the others. Gather any remaining scraps into a loose cluster and add it to the baking sheet to bake as your cook's treat. Let the pan sit in a warm spot for 5-10 minutes, then bake in the lower third of the oven for about 8 minutes, or until golden brown.
5. While they bake, line a bread basket with a tea towel folded in half or large napkin. As soon as the biscuits are done, transfer them to the cloth-lined bread basket, loosely fold the edges of the cloth over them, and serve at once with butter and jam, or split, butter, and stuff them with warm cooked country ham.
A note on "whole milk buttermilk": Strictly speaking, that expression is an oxymoron. Real buttermilk is the liquid left behind after butter is churned from soured milk. It therefore has very little fat left in it and is no longer "whole." What we call "whole milk" buttermilk is actually closer to clabber, milk that has been soured either with its natural bacteria (possible only with unpasteurized milk) or from an added bacteria culture. But real clabber usually isn't skimmed much, if at all, so it's got a higher fat content than commercial "whole" milk, which is only four percent fat. It's similar to, but not quite the same as yogurt.