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Beaten biscuits, a very old, very traditional Southern bread, are most often mentioned as the best vehicle for country ham. But float these buttery nuggets atop your favorite soup; they retain their crunch for quite a while before finally yielding to the soup’s warm embrace. Because of their hint of sweetness, they go better with a bland, creamy soup, or one that’s a bit sweet anyway—such as corn chowder—rather than with a very spicy or acidic (tomato–based) soup.
The following recipe (to which we’ve made some slight changes) comes from the message board on bakingcircle.com. Here’s what the contributor says: “The best biscuits for country ham are beaten biscuits, not breakfast-style biscuits. Beaten biscuits were made by preparing a dough, then beating the dough with a rolling pin (usually outdoors on an old tree stump!) until the dough blisters (around 500 licks). There are several recipes around, but I like this one as it reduces the work a lot by using the food processor to do the beating. (And yes, I did make them the traditional way once to see if all of the effort was worth it—the answer is no.)”
Note: In order to replicate the “500 licks,” we suggest a food processor. If you don’t have a food processor, it would probably be best if you didn’t try this recipe.
2 cups (8 ounces) unbleached pastry or unbleached all-purpose flour (8 1/2 ounces)*
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick, 3 ounces) soft unsalted butter or lard (or a combination)
1/2 cup (4 ounces) whole milk
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Place the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in a food processor equipped with the metal blade and process for 5 to 10 seconds, just until blended. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, 10 to 15 seconds, or slightly more.
3. Add the milk and process for at least 3 minutes. The dough will be soft and putty-like, almost like melted mozzarella.
4. Remove the dough from the processor, transfer it to a clean, very lightly greased work surface (a light spritz of vegetable oil cooking spray works well), cover it, and let it rest for 15 minutes; this gives the gluten a chance to relax, making the dough much easier to roll.
5. Roll the rested dough into a rectangle about 12 x 17 inches; it will be about 1/8 inch thick. Fold it in half crosswise and roll lightly to bind the two layers together.
6. Using a very small, round biscuit cutter—between 1 1/2 and 2 inches—cut out as many biscuits as you can, placing them on a parchment-lined or ungreased baking sheet close together, but not quite touching. You can reprocess the scraps from the first cutting using the same method (wait 15 minutes, roll out, fold over, roll to bind). But the best-looking biscuits will come from the first roll-out, so try to use as much of the dough as you can the first time around.
7. Lightly prick the biscuits with a fork. Bake them for about 20 minutes, until their tops are a very light golden brown and their bottoms a deeper brown (but not burned). (The biscuits will cool in the oven, and will continue to bake after you’ve turned the heat off, so don’t over-bake them. In fact, some Southern recipes say that the trick of beaten biscuits—and the sign of a really good biscuit baker—is that they be thoroughly cooked, crisp and dry, but a pale creamy-white color, with no hint of browning.)
8. Turn the oven off, crack the door open, and allow the biscuits to stand in the oven until they’re totally cooled (or just barely warm). Store them in an airtight container at room temperature, where they’ll keep for two weeks. To serve with country ham, use room temperature biscuits, or lightly heat them in a low oven for a few minutes.
*You want to use a “soft” flour here, with a lower protein level. If you’re using all-purpose flour, put 1/4 cup cornstarch in the bottom of a measuring cup and fill the remainder with flour.
Makes 3 1/2 dozen 1 3/4-inch biscuits.