As any good Southern cook knows, ham biscuits are a must-have on New Year's Eve. AND New Year's Day.
Or so I'm told, by friends down South. Me, I'm a New Englander through and through and through (except for the part of my heart that still feels a pull for Wisconsin, the state of my birth).
So what could I possibly know about ham biscuits? Or any kind of biscuit, truth be told... Aren't Southerners the best biscuit bakers on earth?
Truth? Maybe. My Georgia relations turn out biscuits that literally melt in your mouth. I enjoy them (with syrup) every time I'm down in red-clay country.
But I've got just as much respect for the biscuit bakers Down East, those no-nonsense wives and mothers I knew from my years in Camden, Maine and environs.
The American Legion in Camden held a family supper every Monday evening, and we'd look forward to that meal all week: the sliced ham and baked chicken, green beans and peas and carrots and corn, mounds of mashed potato with gravy – and biscuits, of course.
Bakewell Cream biscuits. Served with the supper itself, then again afterwards, transformed with strawberries and heavy cream into shortcake.
Bakewell Cream biscuits? Read on...
First, let's choose our flour. Which should it be for biscuits?
King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose, with its 11.7% protein...
...or King Arthur Perfect Pastry Blend (a.k.a. Mellow Pastry Blend), with its lower protein (10.3%)?
What's the difference? Lower protein yields softer, more tender biscuits. If you have it, use it. If you don't, there's a reason our standard flour is called “all purpose” – by handling the dough gently, King Arthur AP will make beautifully light and tender biscuits.
And what's this? It's the Maine biscuit baker's secret: Original Bakewell Cream. Here's what the manufacturer, New England Cupboard, says about one of its favorite products:
“Bakewell Cream has been a staple in the cupboards of Maine families for generations. This unique leavening agent was created during wartime shortages in the 1940s as a substitute for cream of tartar. Its creator, Byron Smith of Bangor, Maine, named his mixture ‘Bakewell’ because he found that it did just that – bake well!
With that endorsement, let's get going and make some “bake well” biscuits.
Preheat the oven to 475°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment, for easiest cleanup; if you don't use parchment, there's no need to grease the sheet.
Place the following ingredients in a mixing bowl:
4 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Perfect Pastry Blend
4 teaspoons Original Bakewell Cream*
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon mustard powder, optional
¼ teaspoon onion powder, optional
Whisk to combine.
Add ½ cup (8 tablespoons) cold butter, cut in small cubes.
Using your fingers, a mixer, a pastry cutter, or a fork, work the butter in until the mixture is crumbly; some larger, pea-sized pieces of butter may remain intact.
Add 1 cup finely diced ham, and 1 cup grated or shredded cheddar cheese.
OK, confession time: I neglected to take photos of the next couple of step. Heat of the moment in the test kitchen... But I did have some standard biscuit pictures on hand, so bear with me here; you won't see the bits of ham in the next four pictures, so just imagine they're there.
Add 1 1/2 cups cold milk.
Stir just until everything is moistened. Scrape the dough into the center of the bowl, and knead it gently a few times with your hands.
Your goal is a cohesive ball of dough.
Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface (a silicone mat works well), and fold it over once or twice.
Pat it into a ¾"-thick circle, a generous 6” in diameter.
Cut the biscuits with a round cutter, making them whatever size you want. I'm using a 2 1/2” cutter here.
Place them on a large ungreased baking sheet.
Want to make easy drop biscuits? Increase the milk to 2 cups.
Scoop the sticky dough in 1/4-cupfuls onto the baking sheet; a muffin scoop works well here.
A little sloppy looking? Here in the test kitchen we call that “rustic.” Or craggy. Perception is everything...
For best rise, I like to chill my biscuits before baking. Tent with plastic, and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Brush the chilled biscuits with milk or melted butter.
Sprinkle with grated or shredded cheese, if desired.
Place the biscuits in the oven, and bake for 6 minutes (yes, this isn't a typo; just 6 minutes), then turn off the oven.
Leave them in the oven for an additional 7 to 10 minutes, until they're golden brown.
Remove the biscuits from the oven.
Serve warm, as is, or with butter.
Here's a rolled and cut biscuit (l) and a drop biscuit (r). Note the difference in height. Their taste is identical, their texture very similar; the drop biscuit is a bit more cake-like; the rolled biscuit, more layered.
And here's cheese topping (l), vs. plain milk (r). To each his own.
Warm biscuits, wrapped loosely in a towel and served in a basket – this is an absolutely classic breakfast treat, South OR North!
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