The French are envied for their artistic towers of flaky puff pastry. In the Middle East, paper-thin phyllo dough is a source of pride, whether left crispy or turned soggy with syrup. Italians treasure their deep-fried cannoli tubes.
Americans, on the other hand, have for their own a little disk. Yet, it is a disk of which they should be proud. After all, what is strawberry shortcake, but a dressed-up biscuit and berries?
Once the easy technique for making biscuits has been mastered, you can not only delight in strawberry shortcake, but also in the aroma of biscuits baking for breakfast, waiting to be topped with butter and jam or honey. And, you can bake scones for a proper English tea, to top with clotted cream and jam.
While biscuits are American, strictly speaking, scones are an overseas cousin in that the technique is similar, although the formulation and recipe are very different.
Scones, which are Scottish in origin, contain eggs, while biscuits do not, but it is very likely that our biscuits developed from scones, since many Scottish settlers ended up in the South.
Biscuits are also similar to real shortcakes, which are not to be confused with the hockey pucks seemingly made from cellulose sponges found next to the red glop glazing-stuff in the produce department. And, if you can make biscuits and shortcakes to top with fruit, you can make fresh fruit cobblers, crowned with a similar dough. They are called bird's nest pudding or crow's nest pudding in New England.
Biscuits are part of the culinary vernacular in England as well as the United States. While the word, whether used there or here, is derived from the Latin bis, meaning twice, and coctus, meaning cooked, what the English consider a biscuit we would call a cracker. The closest American equivalent to the English prototype is the "beaten biscuits" of Maryland and Kentucky, for which the dough is literally pounded to achieve maximum gluten development and to toughen them, usually regarded as a negative in baked goods.
Classic baking powder biscuits (also referred to as baking soda or buttermilk biscuits) were first described by John Palmer in his "Journal of Travels in the United States of North America and in Lower Canada" in 1818.
Biscuits can be made almost anywhere, and in very little time. That's why Texas cowboy slang coined the ranch cook the "biscuit roller," since making biscuits could be accomplished even out on the range.
Easy Does It Start by sifting the dry ingredients -- flour, baking powder and/or soda, salt, sugar, etc. Some older recipes specify self-rising flour. This is equivalent to adding 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to each cup of all-purpose flour. These proportions work well for basic biscuits, and once you know this equation you'll not be frustrated when seeing a recipe calling for self-rising flour when your cupboard is bare.
The next step is combining the fat with the dry ingredients. The fat smooths and moistens the texture. In biscuit dough, it tenderizes the gluten formation, while in cake batter fats incorporate air bubbles and help lighten the mixture.
Cut in the butter or shortening until the mixture resembles a fine meal, similar to coarse bread crumbs. While a wire-blade pastry blender is useful, you can use two knives, or pulse a food processor fitted with the steel blade on and off a few times. Or, it's just as easy to work it in with your fingertips.
Quickly Does It Next comes adding the liquid. The trick is to accomplish this quickly, so that the ingredients are just blended enough to hold together. It's tempting to do more, but that's what makes biscuits (or their first cousins) tough.
The reason is gluten formation. Flour contains many substances, including proteins, starch, lipids, sugars and enzymes. When the proteins in flour are added to the water, strands of tough and rubbery gluten are naturally formed. The idea is to barely handle the dough so this is controlled.
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, such as a counter or a pastry board, and use the same restraint that went into adding the liquid. Don't knead it more than 10 times.
The kneading activates the gluten enough to give the biscuits an extra push in the oven, but not enough to make them chewy like a yeast bread. While drop biscuits are easier since this step is omitted, the minimal amount of kneading makes the biscuits rise higher and taste lighter.
Rolling With the Punch Now either roll or pat the dough into the proper thickness -- not more than one inch -- and cut it into the desired shapes. If you don't have a fancy cutter, use an empty juice can or a glass, diping it in flour between cuts.
Once baked, biscuits should rise about twice their original height, and be light, fluffy and tender on the inside, while the exterior is crisp, and an even golden brown.
That's all there is to it. And there's no more delicious way to glorify summer's bounty of fruits.
BASIC BISCUIT (Makes about 20 biscuits)
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons vegetable shortening
2/3 cup buttermilk
Sift the flour with the baking powder, salt and baking soda. Cut in the vegetable shortening until the mixture resembles bread crumbs, and then stir in the buttermilk with a wooden spoon until just blended.
Turn the mixture onto a floured surface, and knead 10 times. Pat the dough into a rectangle 1/2-inch thick. Cut with a 3-inch cutter, and place close together on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in the center of a preheated 450-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve immediately.
Note: While biscuits are best right from the oven, they can be made a day in advance and covered tightly in aluminum foil. Reheat in a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes before serving.
Per biscuit: 83 calories, 2 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 133 mg sodium.
STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE (8 servings)
FOR THE SHORTCAKE:
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, with 2 tablespoons melted
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
3 hard-boiled egg yolks, pushed through a sieve
FOR THE BERRIES:
3 pints strawberries, rinsed, hulled and sliced, reserving 8 perfect berries for the top
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup Grand Marnier or Framboise (optional)
Sift the flour with the sugar, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Cut in the unmelted butter with a pastry blender or alternate method until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the cream and egg yolks, and stir with a wooden spoon until just blended.
Scrape the dough onto a floured board, and knead lightly. Roll to a 3/4-inch thickness, then cut into rounds of 3 to 4 inches, and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Top each with 1 teaspoon of the melted butter, then cut out 2 1/2-inch rounds, and place one on top of each larger round. Brush the tops with butter.
Bake in the center of a preheated 375-degree oven for 15 to 17 minutes, or until brown. Cool on a wire rack.
To serve, mash 1/4 of the berries, the sugar and liqueur together with a fork. Add the remaining berries and allow to sit for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Top the bottom shortcake with the berries, then some whipped cream. Replace the top shortcake, and top with one of the reserved berries.
Note: The shortcakes can be made a day in advance and kept in an airtight container. Any berries can be substituted for the strawberries, or berries such as blackberries and raspberries can be used in combination.
Per serving: 711 calories, 9 gm protein, 72 gm carbohydrates, 42 gm fat, 25 gm saturated fat, 225 mg cholesterol, 722 mg sodium.
-- Ellen Brown is a Washington-based food writer and prize-winning author of "The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook."