Biscuits are containers of memory and emotion.~ Chef Scott Peacock
In March 2019, when the camellias were fully open and the redbuds were still thinking about it, I packed my car, turned west on Interstate 20, crossed over the state line from Georgia into Alabama, and headed south . An hour from Birmingham, I arrived in the heart of what’s known as the Black Belt of Alabama, so-called for its rich topsoil. There’s history here, but not a lot of people, about 3,000.
The voice in my car told me to pull up to a Greek Revival mansion named Reverie. I was there to learn how to bake biscuits from Chef Scott Peacock, the author of one of my favorite cookbooks, “The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks” (Knopf), written with the legendary chef Edna Lewis. The next 24 hours were all about cookbooks, camellias and biscuits.
Setting the Scene
There is a backstory. I publish food stories on this blog, A Cook and Her Books. That’s misleading, I know. I’ve never authored a cookbook, or any book for that matter. Somewhere between three and four hundred cookbooks occupy the shelves and corners of my house. From my childhood copy of “The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook,” to my newest favorite, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” cookbooks are my constant companions and security blankets. “The Gift of Southern Cooking” has stood the test of time for me and in my kitchen. Every summer, I pull it from the stack and make tomato gravy with summer’s best tomatoes (read the story on Food52), and sugared raspberries and countless other recipes.
In all my years with this book, I’ve never baked the biscuits.
In early December 2018, Scott Peacock put an invitation on Instagram to come to Marion and learn how to bake biscuits in a historic mansion and my fingers flew to sign up. It was like my favorite cookbook coming to life. And so now I present my Biscuit Experience with Chef Scott Peacock.
The Kitchen at Reverie
Baking Biscuits with Chef Scott Peacock
Three lovely ladies joined in the Biscuit Experience, all fans of the chef and the book, and all eager to improve their biscuit game. The conversation was lively, with talk about favorite Alabama authors, best Southern grandmother names (my vote is for “Butter”) and favorite flour and butter for biscuits.
This biscuit recipe is 30 years in the making. Over that time, and with that many biscuits (thousands, tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands?), the rituals of biscuit making become intuition, second nature. As with the simplest of recipes, technique and ingredients drive success.
Scott begins by sifting the baking powder. He uses a homemade recipe of 1/4 cup cream of tartar and two tablespoons baking soda. Store in a jar in the pantry and use within six weeks.
In the bowl: five cups of flour with 10 tablespoons of very cold Plugra butter. Scott demonstrated “counting the money” ~ his term for kneading the chilled fat into the flour. Next, two cups of cold Marburger’s buttermilk were poured in, followed by a vigorous stir with a wooden spoon.
“Biscuits can smell fear,” Scott says. You need to work quickly and authoritatively to gather the dough into a mass. And go easy on the flour ~ you only need a dusting on the countertop.
Shape the dough and roll it out, all with the lightest of touches.
Poking holes in the dough lets steam escape, creating a higher rise in the biscuit.
This was the hardest part for me: learning to stamp out the biscuits with out twisting the cutter the habitual half inch. The twist seals the edges of the biscuits and impairs elevation in the oven. Instead, employ a mindful stamp and flip for perfectly formed biscuits.
This is interesting: the biscuits are unadorned with butter or cream or any sort of finishing fillip. Scott says the butter in the dough is enough richness for the biscuits and you won’t need the extra step.
Bake the biscuits in a very hot oven ~ 500 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 minutes.
Perfection is in the details and that’s why there are 15 steps to the biscuit recipe. There’s a lifetime of knowledge, technique and practice in this recipe.
Chef Scott Peacock’s Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes 2 dozen 2-inch biscuits
5 cups sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon homemade baking powder or store-bought baking powder (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
10 tablespoons butter, cold from the refrigerator
2 cups buttermilk, cold from the refrigerator
- Assemble equipment: You’ll need a baking sheet with parchment paper liner. (I use a half-sheet baking pan). A biscuit bowl is nice, but any large, deep bowl will work. Get out your best rolling pin and a biscuit cutter. I like a 2-inch cutter, but you can use any size that fits your bliss. You’ll also need a whisk, a wooden spoon and a dinner fork.
- Heat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.
- Dice the very cold butter into 1/2 inch pieces and toss into the flour. Get your hands in there and use your fingers to press the butter into the flour. Work quickly; the goal is to have pieces of butter of varying sizes throughout the flour.
- Clean your hands by rubbing them together and shaking off the floury bits.
- Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the cold buttermilk. With the spoon, quickly stir the ingredients together. It’s okay to stop before you incorporate all the stray floury bits; the dough should be very sticky.
- Lightly flour your countertop and immediately turn the sticky dough on to the counter. With a quick and gentle touch, gather the dough and shape it into a ball. Persevere and resist the temptation to add more flour.
- Dough will be craggy and sticky, but if you taste it, you’ll know that you’re creating a masterpiece.
- Use your hands to gently flatten the dough to about an inch thickness.
- Flour your rolling pin, but not over the biscuits. You have put a lot of work into these biscuits so far, do not ruin them with excess flour.
- Take the rolling pin and center it over the dough. Roll once from center to top and lift. Center again, roll from the middle to the bottom and lift. Repeat one or two more times, just enough to even out the tops of the biscuits.
- Dip the dinner fork in flour and pierce the dough every inch or so. Grab your biscuit cutter and dip it in flour, stamping out biscuits and arranging on parchment-lined baking sheet. Cut out biscuits, but do not twist. The twist deflates the biscuits. A little flip is all you need to lift the biscuits from the dough.
- When you’ve stamped out all the biscuits that you can, place the extra dough bits wherever they will fit on the pan. I filled my baking pan with 75 percent pretty rounds and one quarter misfit toys.
- Place tray in 500 degree Fahrenheit oven and bake for eight to 10 minutes until biscuits are crusty and deep golden brown. (At home, I use convection oven: 475 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 minutes. If your oven heats unevenly, rotate the pan at the 7 to 8 minute mark.)
- Remove pan from oven and let cool for a few minutes on the counter. Serve biscuits warm with a pat of butter and a drizzle of honey or spoonful of jam.
Homemade Baking Powder
1/4 cup cream of tartar (organic preferred)
2 tablespoons baking soda
Sift together ingredients and store in a glass jar. Sift again before using ~ the ingredients tend to clump when stored. Store in a cool, dry place like a spice cabinet for up to six weeks.
After each of us had a turn mixing and baking and we gloated in the glory of our beautiful biscuits, we sat down at the table for a feast of sliced country ham, red eye gravy and a salad made with red-speckled Bel Fiore radicchio. We talked about Marion, Judson College, the Black Belt, and Miss Lewis. We concluded with a book signing session and the chef posed for portraits on the staircase at Reverie. I brought along a few associated titles that Scott graciously signed (above).
You, too, can book a Biscuit Experience with Chef Scott Peacock. You’ll learn about the Black Belt and Marion, and soak up the gospel of biscuits.
Check out John Kessler’s lovely Biscuit Experience story in the April 2019 issue of Garden and Gun.
Text and images copyright 2019 Lucy Mercer.