The famous gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." If he is right, then this time of year I start to resemble a biscuit, while becoming a passionate advocate of frozen butter.
It's braising season, and nothing looks better next to a hearty bowl of steaming stew than a crisp, golden, freshly baked, homemade biscuit. I mean, isn't cooking a stew for hours just an excuse to bake off a lickety-split batch of biscuits?
I've been cooking with truffles, caviar and the latest trendy ingredients, creating seven-course menus and investing in dubious kitchen gadgetry for many years - none of which impresses my six-year-old son. Yell "foie gras pâté" up the stairs and inexplicably he keeps chasing his dinosaurs. But if even a hint of freshly baked biscuit aroma happens to drift his way, look out. He lands in the kitchen faster than a raptor racing a T. Rex. He's impressed, but I lose him when I start prattling about frozen butter.
Years ago, cooks zealously guarded their secrets. My mom's biscuits were famous, but if you asked for the recipe, you usually got a piece of pap with some hen scratch and a few details missing. She didn't mind sharing her recipes - just not that one. She'd spend hours going over the nuances of apple pie with a friend or writing out, with step-by-step precision, her beef stew recipe. But not her biscuits. They were sacred. Everybody eventually gave up asking. Except me. But even my highly trained chef's eye couldn't figure it out.
All I knew was they tasted buttery and it didn't take long to get them in the oven - until I spotted a block of butter in her freezer. Then it hit me. One of the key steps in great biscuit making is to combine the butter and the flour in such a way that they stay distinct from each other. That's what all that old-school business of cutting butter into pieces is for. You need tiny pieces of butter in the works to melt and keep the layers distinct. The water in the butter bursts into steam and helps loft the biscuit. If you melt the butter, the water combines with the flour and makes the dough tough.
But if you freeze the butter solid, you can grate it into perfect little pieces with a standard box grater. The little shards of frozen butter easily stir into the works, skipping the whole cutting process and dramatically speeding up the preparation. And it's butter; let's just say it adds a little flavour.
Next time mom came for supper, I quietly made biscuits. She ate one, smiled and said nothing, but I knew better. Sure enough, I later caught her peeking in the freezer.
These are my gold standard biscuits. After you try these a few times you'll be able to bake them in under 20 minutes - and clean up the mess, too!
Frozen Butter Biscuits
What you need
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup frozen butter
1½ cups milk
A sprinkle or two of salt and pepper
What you do
Preheat the oven to 400 F.
Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together until evenly mixed. Shred the frozen butter through the large holes of a box grater or potato grater directly into the dry ingredients. Toss gently with your fingers until the butter shards are spread evenly throughout the flour.
Pour the milk into the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon upside down to form a dough mass. (The handle of the spoon is gentler on the dough than the bowl.) Fold the dough over a few times with your hands until all the ingredients comes together. If necessary, add a bit more milk to help gather up any stray flour. This kneading will strengthen the dough a bit, but not enough to toughen the biscuits. It'll also help them form a crisp crust when they bake.
Pat the dough out on a lightly floured cutting board, forming a loose round shape. Cut it into wedges - like a pie - or any other shape you'd like.
Position the wedges on a baking sheet and sprinkle a bit of coarse salt and coarsely ground pepper. Bake for 15 minutes or so. You'll know they're done when they turn golden brown.
Biscuits are easily scented with herbs and spices. Feel free to add a spoonful or so for lots of flavour. I tend to use aromatics that reflect the rest of the meal, but anything goes. Try dipping caraway biscuits into beef stew or add a touch of nutmeg to your breakfast biscuits. Rosemary, thyme and curry all taste great.
Makes eight to 10 large biscuits.
Chef Smith is the award-winning host of the Food Network's Chef at Home, Chef at Large and The Inn Chef.