There are some shameful, shameful things you just may never live down. For example, I’m a “Southern” blog, yet I don’t have a biscuit recipe? Worse yet, I don’t even know where biscuits come from? I mean, how embarrassing! I decided if I ever wanted to show my face around here again, I needed to fix that right away, so I delved into the history of biscuits. And you even get a recipe for buttermilk and chive biscuits that goes well with my Veggie Pot Pie Soup at the end, so it’s your lucky day.
The ancestors of modern-day biscuits go back all the way to the Roman army. Panis biscoctus (meaning “twice-baked”) were soldier’s rations of hard bread that lasted for a long time because they had no leavening or fat. And yes, biscoctus gave us biscotti, which are cookies that are actually twice baked. Language is fun, isn’t it? If you’re a fan of Civil War or pirate history, you may recognize panis biscoctus as “hardtack biscuits.” When I said they lasted for a long time, I didn’t just mean the individual biscuits! This type of biscuit was a military ration for hundreds and hundreds of years. That’s a lot of time breaking soldiers’ teeth and making them miserable.
In the post-war South, biscuits got a minor facelift in the form of “beaten biscuits,” which were still flat but a little lighter because of the addition of fat and the air that was beaten into the dough before baking. These were just for the rich, as Southern mills were not made for processing wheat. Poor Southerners ate cornbread instead (which is another topic I’ll have to cover one day). It wasn’t until more flour mills became available that the price of flour went down enough to let the common man enjoy wheat-based baked goods.
Biscuits weren’t ready to come into the form we know them as today until chemical leavening agents became widely available. Baking soda and baking powder, as common as they are in kitchens today, were not available for most of human history. That’s why you have things like meringues and Genoese sponges that are leavened purely with beaten air (see my Jaffa cakes recipe for info on Genoese sponge cakes). In the late 1800’s, things like pearl ash and baking soda became more popular and well-known. Where you have flour and leavening agents, you have biscuits – and that’s exactly what we use in our recipe today.
I love this biscuit recipe because it’s from one of those classic spiral-bound church cookbooks that my grandmother once owned. I came into possession of many of them, and I love looking at the old-time household tips and recipes. I just knew one would have a great recipe for biscuits, and I was right! To add some interest, I added spring onions from my garden to make a variation on buttermilk and chive biscuits. I also made the decision to replace any shortening in the recipe with butter, which is my fat of choice. I know many people argue butter vs. lard vs. shortening, but to me, butter just can’t be beat. I apologize to my grandmother, who loved shortening. I like to think she’d understand.
Take this recipe for buttermilk and chive biscuits and play around with it! The beautiful thing about recipes isn’t following them to the letter, it’s making them your own. While the basic chemistry is important (acid, leavening, fat), flavorings are up to you. Add some paprika, add some cheese, take out the chives/green onions/whatever you prefer to call them. This recipe is your canvas, and I invite you to paint.
Whew. I’m glad I got this recipe off my chest. Do you have any other Southern recipes you think I absolutely have to make? A vegetarian gravy, a hummingbird cake, some cornbread? I hope to explore and experiment with all of them, and look forward to sharing more of my culture with you. Until next time, here’s to good drinking, great eating, and even better living!
Buttermilk and Chive Biscuits
- Round 2 1/2" cookie cutter
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 Tbsp baking soda
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup butter (one stick, cold)
- 2/3 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup chopped green onions or chives
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks and add, then pulse a few times to combine. The butter should be in pea-sized lumps but still solid. Add the buttermilk and pulse just until a dough forms and there are no pockets of dry ingredients.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead a few times to make the dough come together smoothly. Wrap it and refrigerate for 15 minutes to help keep the butter firm.
- After 15 minutes, take the dough out and roll on a floured work surface to 1/2" thickness. Use your round cookie cutter to cut out biscuits, rerolling the scraps when you run out of dough to cut. You should be able to get 12. Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot with butter, sausage, or even apple butter for a savory-sweet kind of deal. Enjoy!