When she was in beauty school, and later, after she had opened her beauty shop on Vine Street in our home town of Eunice, Louisiana, Momma called on Mildred Williams quite often – to babysit us little ones, cook, clean, and do things that needed doing in the house. Some of us became so attached to Mildred, Momma worried that she’d been replaced. Well, Momma (the woman had nine babies!) never had time to make scratch biscuits. But Mildred sure did. I was too young to sort out her exact recipe, but I often watched her when she made them. Especially her method: blending the dry ingredients together with the fat – she used lard or Crisco – crumbling it all together with her fingertips, adding buttermilk and then making a ball of dough, then rolling and folding and rolling and folding just so. “Don’t be too rough on that dough,” she’d say.
Fast-forward a couple decades: I was all grown up and one day Mildred went ahead and died without sharing her biscuit recipe with me. She was preceded in death by her husband, Percy, who, like his wife, had worked with our family for a number of years – he as a general helper around the house and at Daddy’s ESSO station on Laurel Avenue. The last time I saw Mildred and Percy was the day after Momma’s funeral. They had come to the motel to express their condolences. When Percy knocked at the office door, Daddy, who, in his grief, did not recognize him after so many years, shooed him away with something like, “We’re not open today. Come back another time.” Thankfully, one of my siblings (don’t remember which) did recognize them and a few of us went outside to thank them for coming and let them know Daddy was just too upset to see clearly. I think they understood, but it would have been a sweet memory had they come in and met the family after all those years.
Anyway, back to those biscuits. Seven hundred years later, I was living in NYC and decided it was time to take a shot at making biscuits like Mildred’s. Over a couple months of Sunday mornings, it would take me several batches to get them as close to just-right as I could, using my tongue’s archival DNA to guide me. I looked at a few recipes online and they all seemed to take a broadly similar path, so it was just a matter of finessing the final result by taste and rise and flakiness. Each of those characteristics changes with the slightest adjustment in ingredients or technique. Of course she’s not here to corroborate my result, but below is a biscuit recipe that I do believe would not mortify Mildred, and that I’ve named in her honor. I’ve swapped the lard/Crisco for butter/Crisco (and sometimes just butter), but have kept her technique of folding and rolling out the dough a couple of times before cutting it. (I tried skipping that step or shortening it, and the results were, literally, flat.)
So try your hand at Mildred’s Biscuits and let me know how they turn out. If you mess up, no worries. You can try again – just like I did. Feel free to give me a holler before you do so I can walk you through the process:
2 cups of plain (can be unbleached) flour (not all-purpose or self-rising)
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt (I use Kosher, but I’ve used other types without much difference)
2 tablespoons of sugar
3/4 stick of frozen, unsalted butter, cut into 1/4″ cubes
1/4 cup of frozen Crisco shortening, divided into dabs about the same size as the butter cubes (you can replace this with butter if you wish).
3/4 cup of buttermilk (the homemade kind will work: whole milk plus 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice – stir and let it curdle at least 5 minutes)
2 tablespoons of ice-cold water
1 – Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees.
2 – In a big, deep mixing bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together.
3 – Add the fat to the dry ingredients. Using your fingertips, crumble each piece of fat individually (this is very important if you want to get a good rise and flakiness). Once all the fat has been incorporated, make a well in the center of the mixture, add the buttermilk. Using a fork, blend it all together until it combines thoroughly. If it doesn’t come together, incorporate one or two tablespoons of the cold water. Working quickly with your hands, shape the dough into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.
“Don’t be too rough on that dough.”Mildred Williams
4 – Flour a work surface and a rolling pin. Gently roll out the chilled dough to about 1 inch thickness. Fold the dough in half and gently roll it out again. Repeat – being sure to treat the dough carefully. (Too much contact with the heat of your hands will cause the fat to melt prematurely.) After rolling and folding the dough three times, you should end up with a final, rolled-out dough of about 1 1/4″ thick. (The thicker the final dough, the higher your biscuits will be – but don’t go overboard!)
5 – Using a cookie cutter, cut out 2″ diameter biscuits, and place each one on an ungreased baking sheet. This recipe makes about 12 biscuits. You can make the biscuits smaller in diameter, and end up with more than 12 biscuits. Mildred had all her biscuits touching. This will help them rely on each other to rise. I usually give them air because I like the sides to get a bit crunchy. Either way will work, but having them touch does help them to rise a bit higher/faster in the oven.
6 – Let the biscuits rest in the refrigerator at least 10 minutes.
7 – Bake at least 12 minutes (depending on your oven). Some ovens will necessitate slightly longer baking time (no more than about 14 minutes total should be necessary.)
8 – Remove the biscuits once they have a color you like. (I prefer them to be lightly brown, but not too brown.) Brush tops with melted butter, and serve them immediately. Leftovers can be frozen.
9 – Thank Mildred Williams, may she (and Momma) rest in peace.
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