AUSTIN, Texas – Martha Hopkins always has loved biscuits, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that she mustered the courage to start making them herself.
“My mother made biscuits three days a week, and on the off days, she made cornbread,” said Hopkins, the Austin resident who is best known as the author of “InterCourses,” the 1997 bestseller about aphrodisiac foods.
Hopkins said she recalled thinking: “She was a Depression-era baby and a stay-at-home mother to four kids. She never measured any ingredients, and it never took more than 10 minutes. It cannot be that hard.”
Because her mother, Carlene, didn’t follow an exact recipe, Hopkins had to experiment with different recipes to find the ones that tasted most like the biscuits she recalls, which were made with Crisco and slathered with Welch’s grape jelly.
Hundreds of batches later, Hopkins’ biscuits have evolved to suit her locavore (and lard-loving) taste, but they are more than the sum of their parts.
“I see biscuits as a vehicle,” Hopkins said, for jam, honey, sausage, gravy, bacon and buttermilk, as well as for memories of growing up in Memphis, Tenn., where she remembers making cheese toast in her Easy Bake Oven, and of her mother, who died in 2012.
Many people think of brunch as a laborious affair, but Hopkins was the host for a biscuit brunch party earlier this year that was one of the smoothest I’ve ever attended because she took advantage of how well biscuits freeze.
The week before the party, Hopkins made four kinds of biscuit dough and froze them on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. After they froze, she stored them in labeled plastic bags so that on the morning of the brunch, she could just take out the prepared biscuits (some vegetarian, some flavored with cheese and herbs, some all lard) and bake them off without having to actively make dough while the guests were there.
You don’t even need to thaw the biscuits before baking them, no matter if they are completely unbaked or leftover biscuits that have already been fully cooked, she said. (She and her partner, John, recently have discovered that one of the best ways to reheat a frozen biscuit is in a pop-up toaster.)
Part of the fun of hosting a biscuit brunch is letting guests sample an array of jams, jellies, marmalades and honeys. Hopkins, who grew up on Welch’s grape jelly, keeps a cabinet full of accouterments from artisans such as Confituras, Rosie’s Hip Jelly Jam and Savannah Bee Co., but you could invite attendees to bring their favorite spreads to share.
You also could take the savory road to biscuit heaven by making sausage and, if you’re really looking for a hearty party, gravy. At her brunch earlier this year, Hopkins made several batches of Dai Due sausage patties and simply served them on a platter so people could eat them as finger food or make their own biscuit sandwiches.
Watching Hopkins make biscuits recently in her kitchen, it’s clear that she’s summoned her mother’s confidence in transforming fat, flour and buttermilk into something heavenly.
“All I want is for people to not be scared,” Hopkins said as she started to measure out the flour into a bowl.
Less than 15 minutes after she started, she pulled out the tray of perfectly browned biscuits. Even though they are piping hot, she couldn’t resist spreading a little dab of butter on one and taking a bite.
“I just want them to look and taste like my mom’s,” she said.
Basic Buttermilk Biscuits
3 tablespoons European-style butter
3 tablespoons high-quality lard
2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Scant 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 to 1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons cream or melted butter, for brushing
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and cut a piece of parchment for a jelly roll pan.
Cut the butter and lard into small pieces and freeze until well chilled. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Toss in the cold butter and lard and, using your fingers, squeeze the small pieces of fat into smaller pieces of varying sizes, from pea-sized to thin sheets to the size of small lima beans. Work quickly so the fats don’t melt.
Pour in 3/4 cup of the buttermilk into the flour mixture. Use a spatula to stir and bring the dough together. If needed, add more buttermilk until all the flour comes together with the dough. (The dough will be quite sticky.) Dust a clean surface with flour and turn out the dough. Lightly dust the dough, just enough so your hand won’t stick. Knead 2 to 3 times, just until the dough comes together. Turn over, and dust the surface and dough with a bit more flour if needed. Pat out into a circle about 1 inch tall. Cut with a glass or biscuit cutter, being careful not to twist as it might keep the edges from rising.
Place the biscuits close together on the baking sheet and brush with cream or butter for better browning. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through. Serve hot.
Recipe courtesy Martha Hopkins.
3 cups self-rising flour (preferably Martha White)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary, or less if desired
1 tablespoon sugar
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) high-quality lard, chilled
1/2 to 1 cup grated manchego cheese
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the flour, salt, pepper, rosemary and sugar in a food processor and pulse just to combine. Add the lard and pulse just until the mixture becomes the texture of coarse meal, but with some large pieces of lard still remaining. (Alternatively, just use your hands and work the lard into butter-bean-sized pieces.)
Place the mixture into a large mixing bowl and add the cheese, tossing to combine. Add the buttermilk, and stir until just combined. Remove the mixture to a floured surface.
Using your hands, quickly pat the dough until it is about an inch thick. Cut the biscuits out of the dough and place on the baking sheet and brush with melted butter or cream. Bake for 13 to 18 minutes or until golden brown.
The biscuits are best split open, smeared with softened butter and eaten immediately or as a mini-sandwich of Serrano ham, sliced manchego, and a touch of mayonnaise to bind it all together.
Adapted from “InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook” by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge.
Black Pepper Biscuits
2 cups self-rising flour (White Lily preferred), plus more for dusting
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper (more or less to taste)
5 tablespoons butter (4 tablespoons cut in small cubes, at room temperature, and 1 tablespoons melted)
1/4 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup whole buttermilk (may substitute low-fat buttermilk)
For the topping
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and 1 1/2 teaspoond coarsely ground black pepper, mixed
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Make sure the oven rack is in the middle position.
Measure the flour into a large bowl. Mix in the pepper to distribute evenly. Incorporate the cubed butter and then the cream cheese into the flour, using your fingers to “cut in” the butter and cheese until the mixture resembles cottage cheese. It will be chunky with some loose flour.
Make a well in the center. Pour in the buttermilk and, using your hands, mix the flour into the buttermilk. The dough will be wet and messy.
Sprinkle flour on top of the dough. Run a rubber spatula around the inside of the bowl, creating a separation between the dough and the bowl. Sprinkle a bit more flour in this crease.
Flour a work surface or flexible baking mat very well. With force, dump the dough from the bowl onto the surface. Flour the top of the dough and the rolling pin. Roll out the dough to 1/2-inch thickness into an oval shape. (No kneading is necessary – the less you mess with the dough, the better.)
Flour a 2-inch round metal biscuit cutter or biscuit glass. Start from the edge of the rolled-out dough and cut straight through the dough with the cutter, trying to maximize the number of biscuits cut from this first roll out. Roll out the excess dough after the biscuits are cut and cut more biscuits. As long as the dough stays wet inside, you can use as much flour on the outside as you need to handle the dough.
Place the biscuits on a baking sheet with sides, lined with parchment paper, in a cast-iron skillet, or in a baking pan with the biscuit sides touching. (It does not matter what size pan or skillet you use as long as the pan has a lip or sides and the biscuits are touching. If you are using a cast-iron skillet, no parchment paper is necessary.) Brush the tops with the melted butter and sprinkle with the topping.
Place the pan in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 450 degrees. Bake 16 to 18 minutes, until light brown on top (or as dark as you prefer), rotating the pan once while baking.
From “Callie’s Biscuits and Southern Traditions: Heirloom Recipes from Our Family Kitchen” by Carrie Morey.