"The oven door was open, and a great pan of high brown biscuits stood waiting there, 'Come in!' she said. 'Jus lucky I made plenty bread this morning." --From "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

The biscuit, hot from the oven and offered in abundance, has long been a symbol of American hospitality. Whether those biscuits were offered at Ma Joad's poverty-stricken Depression table or at the abundant groaning boards of the pre-Civil War tobacco plantations in Virginia, the message was the same, "Stay, you're welcome to break bread with us."

Biscuits were made so easily that a fresh hot batch could be baked while the coffee was perking or the bacon frying. They could be made fresh for each meal when yeast bread wasn't available. They were made in summer, when yeast dough would rise too quickly to make a good dough and when the longer-baking bread would heat up the kitchen too much. Biscuits sop up honey and red-eye gravy. Gold rush prospectors and pioneers crossing the prairies would bake them by burying a cast-iron dutch oven in the hot coals of a camp fire. They were fast, they were easy, they were delicious.

But the biscuit, like so many other quintessentially American foods, has its roots in Europe. Scones, light sweet biscuits enriched with cream and raisins or currants, are as necessary to the English tea table as tea. They are served hot from the oven with a great dollop of thick Devonshire cream and a spoonful of good preserves. These rather plain little pastries are also very democratic, as they are apt to appear on the tea table at Buckingham Palace as well as at the town postmaster's cottage. London's finest hotels serve them at high tea, as do many of the airlines that fly into England, though with a great difference in style.

Irish and Welsh housewives, for their everyday fare, depend on soda bread, a kind of quickly formed biscuit dough which can be baked in flat patties, even over open peat fires. Yeast breads are more likely today to be a special Sunday treat bought from the baker on market day. Ireland's soft wheat flour is especially suited to the making of biscuits and soda bread because of the low gluten content. The gluten so necessary in good bread baking, where it forms the structure of the bread and holds in the air, only makes a soda bread tough.

The American biscuit took on its own character and evolved in new directions. Buttermilk biscuits, cream biscuits, crackling biscuits, dilly herb biscuits, plain baking powder biscuits and that favorite of the old South, the beaten biscuit, have become standards of native American cuisine.

The perfect biscuit is light and flaky with a pale brown top and bottom crust. It should be eaten while still warm and is at its best for only a few hours because it dries so quickly. Although other ingredients may add to the flavor, the most important taste is that of the wheat.

Biscuits are made light either by mechanical means, as in the beaten biscuit, or by chemical means as in the baking powder biscuit. They are enriched with butter, shortening, lard or heavy cream. Occasionally yeast or sourdough starter is added for flavor, but this does not affect the leavening of the biscuit because the dough never rests long enough to allow the yeast to begin working. And over the years creative cooks have added a multitude of ingredients to make biscuits more exciting -- dried fruit, herbs, seeds, cracklings, beer, lemon peel and cheese.

The liquid used will determine the type of chemical leavening used. If the liquid is acid, like buttermilk, the leavening is baking soda. But if the liquid is not sufficiently acid, it is necessary to use baking powder, which contains its own acid in the form of cream of tartar and tartaric acid. The acid is necessary to release the carbon dioxide molecule from the bicarbonate of soda and create bubbles in the dough.

There are only two important rules in making biscuits: use a light hand in mixing and pop them into the oven as quickly as possible.

This scone recipe came from England, but it required much adaptation because our ingredients are very different. The original called for less butter and more cream; however, that cream was thick Devonshire cream with a high butterfat content. It was adjusted by adding more butter and less cream. The flour, too, needed to be adjusted. Either raisins or currants may be used but the currants are more attractive.

CREAM SCONES (Makes 20 to 24 2-inch biscuits) 2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar 1/2 cup currants or raisins 1 stick butter 2/3 cup whipping cream (no substitute) plus 2 tablespoons 1 egg yolk

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Stir in the currants. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until it resembles grains of rice. Add the 2/3 cup whipping cream and toss well. Form the dough into a ball, kneading only enough to combine.

Lightly flour a board and roll the dough into a circle about 1/2-inch thick. Use a 2-inch biscuit cutter to cut. Gather any leftover dough and press together. Roll and cut it. When all the dough is cut, place on a buttered baking sheet and glaze with the egg yolk mixed with 2 tablespoons cream. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Serve with Devonshire cream and strawberry preserves. The Devonshire cream is available at specialty groceries.

WHOLE-WHEAT IRISH SODA BREAD (Makes 2 loaves) 4 cups sifted flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 2 teaspoons salt 2 cups buttermilk

Sift together the dry ingredients. Stir in the buttermilk. When it forms a soft dough, turn out on a floured board and knead lightly for 1 minute. Shape into 2 flat, round patties, about 8 inches in diameter. Slash a large cross in each top. Place on a buttered cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. If it is done, the bread will sound hollow when tapped with the knuckles. Cool 5 minutes before cutting.

DILLY HERB BISCUITS (Makes about 12 3-inch biscuits)

These Dilly Herb Biscuits are an old family recipe. The egg adds color and texture. And the dill flavor tastes especially good with honey. The use of 2 tablespoons of baking powder may seem an unusual, but it produces a light biscuit. Try serving these with a breakfast of sausage and eggs or at dinner with southern fried chicken. 2 cups flour 2 tablespoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon dill weed 1 tablespoon minced chives (fresh are best but dry will do) 1 stick butter 1/2 cup milk 1 egg, beaten

Stir together the dry ingredients including the herbs. Use a pastry blender or two knives to cut the butter into the dry ingredients. When the pieces of butter are the size of grains of rice, beat the egg and milk together and stir in. Knead lightly to form a ball of dough. Roll out 1/2-inch thick on a lightly floured board. Cut in a 3-inch circle using a sharp biscuit cutter. Bake at 450 degrees for about 12 minutes.

CRACKLING BISCUITS (Makes about 12 3-inch biscuits)

Crackling Biscuits have their own unique taste and texture. But they do require a little more work than other types. For the best taste you must make your own lard and cracklings -- the crisp pieces left after rendering pork fat. Some supermarkets sell cracklings and you can use these, but the flavor isn't as good. 2 cups all-purpose flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup lard (recipe follows) 1 cup cracklings (recipe follows) 2/3 cup milk

Sift the dry ingredients together and cut in the lard until it looks like cornmeal. Add the cracklings and toss. Add the milk and stir. Form into a ball and knead lightly on a floured board. Kneading should take no longer than 30 seconds. Pat or roll 1/2-inch thick and cut with a 3-inch biscuit cutter. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.

LARD AND CRACKLINGS 2 pounds pork fat (you may include skin if you want) 1 cup water

Cut the pork fat into 1/4-inch dice. Add water and allow to soak overnight. In a deep ovenproof casserole, heat fat and water in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 250 degrees and continue to cook for 2 hours. Pour off all fat and water and continue baking the crisp bits until lightly browned. Chill the water and fat. When the fat is cold, pour off the water. Use the lard in biscuits while still cold.

BEER BISCUITS (Makes 18 2 1/2-inch biscuits) 2 cups flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 stick butter 3/4 cup warm beer

Mix dry ingredients. Cut butter into dry ingredients. Stir in beer to form soft dough. Knead for 30 seconds on a lightly floured board. Roll 1/2-inch thick. Cut in 3-inch rounds using a sharp biscuit cutter. Place on a buttered baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 12 minutes. The beer gives these a yeasty flavor.

BUTTERY LEMON BREAKFAST BISCUITS (Makes about 24 3-inch biscuits) 3 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1 cup sugar 2 teaspoons baking soda 2 sticks butter 1 cup currants 2 eggs, beaten Grated rind of 2 lemons Juice of 2 lemons 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract (optional) 1/2 cup milk

Glaze: 2 tablespoons cream 1 egg yolk Granulated sugar

Stir together the flour, sugar and soda. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until the size of grains of rice. Stir in the currants. In another bowl, beat the eggs and add the lemon juice, rind and extract to them. Stir the milk into the eggs. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and stir. Gather into a ball and knead lightly for 30 seconds on a lightly floured board. Roll to 1/2-inch thick. Cut with a 2-inch biscuit cutter. Gather any scraps and roll out again. Cut more biscuits. It is necessary to work quickly with this dough as the acid and soda work fast and only once. Place on a buttered baking sheet. Combine the egg yolk and cream and brush on the top of each biscuit. Sprinkle heavily with the granulated sugar. Place in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes. If you prefer this dough may also be baked in two large patties, which should be cut into wedges before baking.

BEATEN BISCUITS (Makes about 36 1/2-inch biscuits)

The beaten biscuit, once a staple of southern cuisine, is seen less and less each year. After all, this simple, cracker-like biscuit requires several hours of really hard work. Machines -- which look like a marble-topped treadle sewing machine with the wringer of an old fashioned washing machine -- have been designed to do the work of beating or rolling the dough until blisters of air appear. But a pasta machine can also do the job. 1 pound flour (about 3 1/2 cups unsifted) 2 teaspoons salt 2 teaspoons sugar 4 tablespoons homemade lard (see above recipe) 1/2 cup ice water 1/2 cup very cold milk

Sift the flour, salt and sugar together several times. Cut in the lard until the flour looks the texture of cornmeal. Add the very cold water and milk and mix to form a stiff dough. Knead for 5 minutes (I use a timer). The dough should be smooth and elastic. Flatten the dough to form a strip thin enough and narrow enough to fit into your pasta machine. Dust lightly with flour and roll through the widest setting. Fold in thirds and roll through again and again, at least 15 times. The dough is ready when it is very smooth and elastic, and blisters appear on the surface. Fold the dough in quarters and roll it by hand to form a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle of dough. Cut into 1 1/2-inch biscuits. Prick each with a fork. Brush with melted butter. Bake at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes or until the biscuits are a pale golden color and baked through