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Biscuits make one think of farmhouse kitchens, enormous farm breakfasts and hot soups and stews, fare for the working man. Two centuries ago, biscuits were cooked over the coals on a cast iron pan with legs, similar to the girdle on a tripod. If you can imagine what this pan looked like, you can guess why it was generally known as a "spider." Perhaps your grandmother had a pan she referred to as a spider. You just have to remember that the original had legs.
It does seem in this country, in most cases, that when a baking powder biscuit is served with something savory, it remains a biscuit, and when it's served with something sweet, it becomes a scone. Whatever you decide to call them, biscuits or scones are unbelievably easy to make, they bake in minutes, and, if we slow our lives down enough to enjoy them with a leisurely breakfast, a savory supper, or with a cup of tea in the afternoon, we will have adopted a tradition worth keeping.
This recipe makes approximately a dozen biscuits, depending on how you shape them.
3 cups (12 3/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour*
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 to 4 tablespoons sugar (to taste; sweeter biscuits)**
4 to 6 tablespoons (2 to 3 ounces) butter or shortening
1 cup (8 ounces) milk, buttermilk, or water
*Substitute 1 cup King Arthur Traditional Whole Wheat Flour for 1 cup of Unbleached All-Purpose, if you wish; or use our Round Table Pastry Flour, unbleached or whole wheat, ideal for biscuits. Biscuits made with pastry flour won't rise quite as high, but they'll be melt-in-your-mouth tender. Experiment with combinations of our pastry and all-purpose flours to work out your favorite combination of "tender and tall."
**Use more or less sugar, depending on taste; obviously, sweeter biscuits are more suitable for desserts, while those with less sugar lend themselves to additions like chives and cheese. Also, for richer biscuits, use the greater amount of butter or shortening; for plainer, lower-fat biscuits, use the lesser amount.
Preheat your oven to 425°F.
Mix together the dry ingredients. With two knives, a pastry blender or your fingertips, cut or rub the butter or shortening in until the mixture looks like bread crumbs. Add the liquid all at once, mixing quickly and gently for about 20 seconds until you have a soft dough.
There are several ways to shape these biscuits. You can drop them by the spoonful onto a lightly floured baking sheet, or for tidier shapes, fill the cups of a greased muffin tin about two-thirds full. For cut biscuits, pat the dough into a rectangle about 3/4-inch in thickness. Fold it into thirds like a letter and roll gently with a floured rolling pin until the dough is 3/4-inch in thickness again. Cut into circles with a biscuit cutter for traditional, round biscuits. Or, to avoid leftover dough scraps, cut the dough into squares or diamonds with a bench or bowl scraper.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until they're lightly browned. Yield: about twelve 2 1/2-inch biscuits.
This recipe reprinted from The Baking Sheet Newsletter, Vol. III, No. 6, July-August 1992 issue.