Anyone Can Make Biscuits. Everyone Should

As I prepare to head back down South to my hometown, in Galax, Virginia, to cook with my Aunt Mariah, I've been perusing some of my Southern cookbooks, which of course has made me hanker, like crazy, for some biscuits.

Not that Aunt Mariah makes biscuits. She is known for her exquisite Parker House rolls, which are pillowy yeasty pale butter-browned wonders, and I've always wanted to learn how to make them. She'd better teach me.

Contrary to popular belief, you see, not everyone in the South spends half of their daylight hours cutting lard into flour and frying up country ham to make ham biscuits.  If that were true, I'd certainly still live there.

While I do miss those super-salty, leathery slices of pan-fried country ham, which is what always accompanied  biscuits--at least in my memory--when I was growing up (ham biscuits seemed to show up everywhere back then, at the Midtowner Restaurant, at bake sales, at the Fiddler's Convention, at church potlucks, and for sale at card tables at the VFW gun show and flea market in Hillsville)--it is important to know that country ham is not the boss of biscuits. 

Biscuits are good with a smoked salmon and goat cheese frittata at brunch, or a bowl of vegetable or tomato soup for lunch, or butter and jam with tea. Biscuits are like flowers, which, according to Aunt Mariah (the Emily Post in my life), are a perfectly wonderful thing to offer at any time.

But I had never baked any myself until I grew up and bought Marion Cunningham's perfect little book "The Breakfast Book."  These biscuits do not require the least bit of hard labor, or buttermilk, no beating or much kneading, and they do not contain lard (this may be a downside for you). Also, they are very pretty and they are not round but cut into squares (which reminds me of an old Southern math joke--they exist--the punchline of which is: Pie are not square. Cornbread are square. Pie are round.) So you don't even need a biscuit cutter. 

And I dare you to find and send me an example/recipe of/for an easier and more delicious biscuit. Oh, I'm forgetting my Southern manners, yet again. What I meant to say is: Please try them at your earliest convenience, and share your own recipe if you wish. I'll set up a biscuit blogroll!

Cream Biscuits, from Marion Cunningham's The Breakfast Book
Makes 1 dozen

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1 to 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup (5 1/2 tablespoons) melted butter (for coating biscuits)

  1. Preheat oven to 425. Use an ungreased baking sheet. 
  2. Combine the flour, salt,  baking powder, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Stir with a fork to blend and lighten. 
  3. Slowly add 1 cup of the cream to the mixture, stirring constantly. Gather dough together. When it is tender and holds together, it is ready to knead. If it seems too shaggy and pieces are falling away slowly add enough cream to make the dough hold together. 
  4. Place the dough on a lightly floured board and knead for one minute. That is not a very long time!
  5. Pat the dough into a square that is 1/2 inch thick. Cut into 12 squares and dip each into the melted butter to coat all sides. Place the biscuits 2 inches apart on baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.


Some Salmon for Ya

This is a recipe I entered in the weekly recipe contest at Food52.com. Since I didn't win that week (but I was an editor's pick, which makes me unspeakable proud), it seems like a perfectly  good idea to share it here at Cook the Wolf. The contest was for Your Best Couscous. (If you're not familiar with Food52.com, you should check it out; it's more fun than a barrel of Marcona almonds. Way more.) I got the idea to share it when I read the terrific Food52 blog Jenny's in the Kitchen, which, you'll note if you log on, features an equally fabulous salmon recipe that uses one of the same (perhaps surprising) ingredients that mine does (cinnamon) and would be wonderful and even quicker. Anyway,  here's what I entered:
 One of my favorite easy dishes is fish baked in foil. And I love tagines on couscous, the tiny pasta sopped with big flavored stewy juices.This is not a tagine, technically speaking. But it has some of the flavors and textures that make the classic Moroccan dish so alluring to me. And it only takes about 15 minutes to prepare, and 20 to cook. I don't really measure when I make fish in foil, but this is a close estimation; it's an easy dish to tinker with and you should feel free to do so. But try it this way first.

Splendid and Simple Salmon and Vegetable Couscous
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 4 pieces salmon filet, 6-8 oz each, skin removed
  • 1 medium zucchini, very thinly sliced
  • 1 small red bell pepper, in very small dice
  • 1 small to medium red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 1 large tomato, seeded and diced
  • 1 small bunch parsley, roughly chopped
  • 12 large basil leaves, chiffonade
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 pinches red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (more to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 4 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 lemon (cut into quarters)
  • 1 cup dry white wine, divided
  • 1 cup cream, divided
  • salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 cup couscous
  1. Place a large oven-proof casserole or baking dish in oven and preheat to 450.
  2. Cut four sheets of tinfoil, about 18 inches long. Stack them; one by one, in the center of each, layer a quarter of the ingredients: a bit of olive oil, a bed of zucchini (about the size of fish filet), the fish, bell pepper, tomato, onion, parsley, basil. Sprinkle each with 1/4 of the cumin, the garlic, the pepper flakes, cinnamon, coriander. Squeeze the juice of a lemon wedge on each piece. Top with a tablespoon of butter.
  3. Fold the foil into a little boat shape to hold in liquid. Then splash each filet with a quarter of the wine and a quarter of the cream. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Fold the foil packet like an envelope and seal the edges along sides and top so that no steam or liquid could possibly escape. Remove the hot baking dish from the oven. Place packets of fish in the dish and bake for 20 minutes. They should begin to make a sizzling noise after ten minutes--cook for 10 more minutes after they do. Do not check for doneness until 20 minutes has elapsed.
  5. Make the couscous once the fish has baked for 15 minutes. Boil 1 1/2 cups water, to which you have added 2 teaspoons of butter. Add the couscous, quickly stir, then cover with lid for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.
  6. Divide the couscous among 4 bowls; open the foil packets from the top, being careful not to burn yourself. Tip the packets over each bowl so that the broth runs out; use a spatula or spoon to place the fish and vegetables over each portion. Serve with more fresh parsley if you wish.


Pizza: You Can Do It

Yes, one of the greatest things I've ever done in my life is buy a pizza stone. It's my version of Olympic gold; I got into pizza making out of curiosity, on a whim, to escape some challenging circumstances in life that might otherwise have made lesser beings give up forever, but I saw it as a chance to overcome my setbacks, and it turned into a reason to be, a chance to show the world that I could be number one at something.

Not really. Anyone can do it.

Actually,  I didn't even buy the pizza stone for myself. That would be too easy for a cook like me, who would rather crack a giant chunk of stone off of a mountain and heat it over an open fire pit I dug on my own, then grind the wheat for the dough and catch the pepperoni in the forest. Buying a pizza stone for myself would have been so self-indulgent, so weak. So. . . normal.

But it was a great gift for the architect, because I have turned him into the true pizza expert around here. Making pizza is incredibly easy when you have a stone and a peel, which are worth the investment because homemade pizza is also a very cheap meal, as long as you don't like lobster and caviar pizza. And to paraphrase my friend Mark Bittman once you start putting too much kooky stuff  on it, it's no longer pizza.

Anyway, let me share with you here the easiest and most triumphant pizza dough recipe in all of the Olympic Village. I don't have a giant mixer, with a dough hook (as I've complained about  a million times, probably); I mix it by hand, and not to punish myself. It's just really easy. I got the recipe from Simple Italian Snacks, a book you should own if you like, um, simple Italian snacks. And what crazy person doesn't? As the chef/author Jason Denton points out, this is a nonobsessive dough--"no eye on the clock, and no theories on rise times." Also, he suggests using a pizza pan OR a stone, so don't think you have to use a stone like we do. But they are cool.

Before I got this book, I would make an uncooked sauce of canned Italian tomatoes (San Marzano, as we all know, are best), with a bit of chopped garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. It was delicious, but before we got the hot idea of buying a peel to get the pie in and out of the oven, it was a way-too-wet sauce, which made it almost impossible to transfer and thus marred the joy of pizza-making.

We now use the cooked sauce from Simple Italian Snacks, too. It's wonderful. I make the dough. The architect assembles and supervises the pie baking. But all you need to do after you spread out the dough is give it a thin layer of sauce and top with your favorites: pepperoni, torn basil, slices of mozzarella, drizzle of olive oil, red onion, olives, arugula, mushrooms--whatever.

Pizza Dough, from Simple Italian Snacks
The book claims it makes 2 12-inch pizzas; we always end up with 3

1 package active dry yeast
2 cups warm water (about 105 degrees)
1 tablespoon of salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 1/4 cups all purpose flour.

  1. In the large bowl of a standing mixer (I do this in regular mixing bowl, and do all the mixing by hand. You can too), combine the yeast with the warm water. Add salt and olive oil and stir to combine.
  2. Using the paddle attachment (or a human arm and a big spoon, like I do), slowly add half the flour to the yeast mixture. When they are well combined, add the rest of the flour. With the mixer now set to medium and refitted with a dough hook if you have one (hahahahah!), continue mixing until the dough comes together in a smooth ball. Mix for 2 minutes, until the dough is soft and pliable. Turn it out ont a lightly floured board and knead it gently with your hands for a few minutes. (This part, contrary to popular belief, is not difficult but in fact fun and makes you feel very impressed with yourself, and a bit like Laura Ingalls Wilder).
  3. Shape  the dough into a ball and place it in an oiled bowl. (I oil the ball of dough, too). Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let the dough rise for 30 to 40 minutes, while you clean up and prepare toppings. The risen dough can be wrapped in plastic wrap (not too tightly; it expands and will pop through the plastic) and refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator. (I actually think this dough works better after it has been in the refrigerator for a day.)
  4. Turn out the dough onto a floured board, then cut it into half (as I mentioned, we make three generous pizzas with this amount of dough, so you can freeze one ball for later). Press and stretch the dough to form rounds, or 12 x 6 rectangles if you are using cookie sheets.

    Note from me, on putting the pie together: if you are using a pizza stone, place it it the oven at 500 degrees for at least a half hour. Put it on the middle rack. We made our last pizza this way: layer of sauce (recipe to come) slices of pepperoni, thin slices of buffalo mozzarella (don't use crappy cheese; get the good stuff), torn basil, drizzle of oil. Don't overload your pie; this is not a lasagna you're making. The architect brushed a little olive oil on the exposed ring of crust, then slid it into oven at 450 or 500 degrees. You want to take it out when the crust browns. Keep an eye on it.
    Assemble your pizza on a floured peel, or on a floured rimless baking sheet. You need something to slide it onto the stone (or your preheated pans or cookie sheet). 

    Simple Red Sauce, from Simple Italian Snacks
    Makes enough for 3 pizzas

    3 tablespoons olive oil, plus 2 additional tablespoons
    2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (I used 3; we love garlic)
    1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes

    Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice. Using kitchen shears or a knife, cut the whole tomatoes into small pieces. Add salt and pepper and cook until the sauce is thickened and reduced by about a third, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Re-season with salt and pepper to taste, and refresh by stirring in a tablespoon or two of olive oil.

    As the Barefoot Contessa might say, how easy is that?


    And Another Thing

    My continuing crush on Thomas Keller's latest cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, has been good for me, because I tend to like extremely simple recipes. Simple, because I have a kitchen the size of an olive, and no mixer or food processor or very much that makes a cook's life very easy. I have some guilt issues apparently, and treat every joy in life like a hairshirt. 

    In this cookbook, which is simpler than you might imagine (coming from one of the country's greatest chefs), even those recipes that are a (longwinded) breeze are good for the aspirational cook--which is what I am now, for better or for worse--because you learn new tricks to play around with.

    You really need to want to learn some new tricks, however.

    And let me say right from the get go that some of the recipes require you to have ready have at the ready concoctions made from other recipes in the book, before you can proceed. For instance, if you want to eat Keller's Catalan Beef Stew (with fennel, leeks, fingerlings and olives) on the spur of the moment, you'd better just pop in on Keller himself at home. Unless your refrigerator already contains his Braised Beef Short Ribs. And 1/2 cup of his Soffrito. Both of which are in the list of ingredients. Not that there's anything wrong with that. How sweet a world it would be if everyone did have all those things in their fridges all the time. 

    I'm obsessed in this case with a technique, employed in the perfectly innocent sounding Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup. Get some lentils throw them in a pot with some sweet potatoes, right?

    No. You must make the "parchment paper lid."  When I first read the instructions, the words "no way" floated around in my skull, like a feather on the wind.  I had to call in an architect, who lives here with me. He seemed to think it was fun following Keller's demands that he make a fan out of a rectangular sheet of paper, then "place the tip over the center of the pot to be covered and mark the edge of the pot the pot with your thumb, the cut the edge off there." I had to really think about what this meant. He did not.

    The point is, I ended up loving the lid, which had a hole cut in the middle, fit inside my giant pot and acted as a sort of spa steam treatment that imbued the vegetables beneath it with the aroma and flavor of bacon, but not in an overwhelming way.  It was delightful. And I'm planning on folding parchment paper lids for other purposes. And maybe writing some haiku about it. 

    Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup, adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home
    Serves 6

    8 ounces applewood-smoked slab bacon (I just used sliced applewood smoked bacon)
    3 tablespoons canola oil (Keller doesn't believe in cooking with olive oil, because high temperatures effect its flavor)
    2 cups thinly sliced carrots
    2 cups coarsely chopped leeks
    2 cups coarsely chopped onions
    3/4 to 1 teaspoon yellow curry powder (he gives a recipe for this in the book) or Madras curry powder (which is what I used; you can buy it at the store, but I've also made it using a recipe from Raghavan Iyer's great book 660 Curries; it's a snap)
    kosher salt
    1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes
    2 sachets (more on this later; you'll need some cheesecloth but I have often used a wire mesh tea ball as a substitute in similar situations)
    2 cups French green lentils (they hold their shape and don't turn to mush like your average lentil, so buy some of these definitely)
    8 cups chicken stock (Keller gives directions on how to make this; I didn't do it. Canned chicken stock is not very good, obviously, but I used it anyway. I often make lentil soup with water and it is quite good. My goal in life is to make my own chicken stock. I do have frozen vegetable stock, however, and this makes me feel virtuous and discriminating.)
    1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (which I also add to my own lentil soup recipe. It does something great to lentils).
    Freshly ground black pepper
    Cilantro leaves
      1. Cut the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces. Heat the canola oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the bacon, reduce the heat to low, and render the fat for 20 to 25 minutes. The bacon will color but not crisp. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon, and set it aside (you're going to crisp it up later).
      2. Add the carrots, leeks, onions, and curry powder to the pot and stir to coat in bacon fat and incorporate the curry powder. Season with salt (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons), reduce the heat to low, cover with Parchment Paper Lid (! instructions to follow), and cook very slowly for 30 to 35 minutes. 
      3. Meanwhile peel the sweet potatoes; trim and cut into 1/2 inch dice. Put the potatoes, one of the sachets, and 2 teaspoons of salt in a large saucepan, add cold water to cover, bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Drain and spread them on a tray to cool. Discard the sachet. 
      4. Add the lentils to the pot of bacon fat and vegetables, along with the second sachet, and stock; bring to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the lentils are tender. 
      5. Place the bacon in a small frying pan and crisp over medium high heat. 
      6. Add the vinegar to the soup, then the potatoes. Cook until heated through. Season with salt and pepper. Serve the soup garnished with bacon and cilantro leaves. 
              Sachet: lay out a 7-8 inch piece of cheesecloth. Place 1 bay leaf, 3 thyme springs, ten peppercorns, and a clove of garlic, smashed and peeled, at the bottom, then roll it up the way you would a paper tube. Tie the ends with kitchen twine with kitchen twine. Don't forget you're making two of these. 

              Parchment Paper Lid (verbatim) "To make a parchment paper lid, fold a large rectangular piece of parchment paper in half to give you a square bigger than the pot ot be covered. Beginning at the crease, fold over the edge to create a narrow triangle. Continue to fold the triangle over until you have reached the opposite side of the parchment paper. To gauge the size, place the tip over the center of the pot to be covered and mark the edges of the pot with your thumb, then cut the end off there. With a pair of scissors, cut 1/4 inch off the narrow tip of the triangle. Trim the pointed edges of the triangle to form a smooth rounded edge. Unfold the triangle. It will be a circle the size of your pot with a steam hole in the center. Put the paper lid in the pot so that it rests gently on the food you're cooking.