Martha Hopkins has always 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,” says the Austinite who is best known as the author of “InterCourses,” the 1997 bestseller about aphrodisiac foods. “She was a Depression-era baby and a stay-at-home mom to four kids. She never measured any ingredients and it never took more than 10 minutes. It cannot be that hard,” she recalls thinking to herself.
Because her mom, 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 remembers, 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 says, 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 mom, who died last year.
Making biscuits with Hopkins in her Brentwood kitchen last week, 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 says as she starts to measure out the flour into a bowl.
Hopkins explains that you need a low-protein flour like cake flour for really good biscuits, and a low-protein self-rising flour is good because it already has baking powder and salt.
(If the commercial varieties of self-rising flour are too salty for you or you’d just rather make your own, mix together 2 cups flour with 2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt.)
She also puts a scant amount of sugar in the bowl. “Do it or don’t do it; it doesn’t really matter,” says Hopkins, who in recent years has shifted her focus from writing books to publishing them through her company, Terrace Partners, and acting as an agent for authors who sell their books to other publishers.
But one ingredient you can’t skip, at least in Hopkins’ mind, is buttermilk.
When I tell her that I’ve only used buttermilk in baking and that I didn’t think I liked to drink it, she scoffed. “You’ve got to try it again as an adult,” she tells me and hands me what looks like a shot glass of buttermilk.
Sure enough, my tastes have changed. The buttermilk tastes like a buttery version of the White Mountain Bulgarian yogurt that I love, thick, tart and immediately stimulating to the Pavlovian probiotics in my intestines.
“It’s like I’m drinking my kombucha,” she says, citing another cultured — and slightly more en vogue — drink.
Hopkins makes her own buttermilk by combining a small amount of already cultured, live buttermilk with raw milk in a Mason jar. She lets it sit on the counter overnight to clabber.
She loves the tang of buttermilk so much that she sometimes uses cultured butter, too, but most of the time, she uses a combination of regular butter and lard.
Hopkins is a big fan of Dai Due’s lard, which you can buy through its online butcher shop (daidueaustin.com). Not that one bakes biscuits as a health food, but Hopkins points out that lard is almost 50 percent monounsaturated fat, aka the “good” kind.
Instead of using a pastry cutter or fork, Hopkins rubs the butter and lard into the flour with her fingers, pressing the tiny cubes of cold butter and lard into flat discs that look like flour-covered dimes. (At this point, you could add herbs, cheeses or even little pieces of ham or bacon. See recipes for a few variations.)
After Hopkins combines the fat and the flour, she adds the buttermilk, gently stirring the dough with a spatula.
When the shaggy, wet dough starts to come together, she dumps it on her flour-covered counter. She doesn’t exactly knead the dough, but she does press it together and fold it on top of itself once or twice, pressing the dough into a flat circle that’s shy of an inch thick.
A drinking glass will work to cut out the biscuits, but not as well as biscuit cutters. Hopkins has several nesting sets, so she can make biscuits small or big or with fluted edges or smooth, depending on her mood.
She dips the cutter in a small bowl of flour and cuts each one out, placing it on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Hopkins likes to place them close enough to touch but only slightly. There’s enough air between them to get the crispy edges, but they are close enough to push up against one another so they’ll rise up tall.
Before popping them in the oven, she brushes the top of the biscuits with butter (cream also works) to add a little extra flavor and color to the finished product.
Less than 15 minutes later, she pulls out the tray of perfectly browned biscuits. Even though they are piping hot, she can’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.”
Basic Buttermilk Biscuits
Biscuits freeze beautifully, before or after baking. If before, do not brush with the butter or cream. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet, making sure they don’t touch one another, and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to a resealable plastic bag and freeze until ready to use. Bake directly from the freezer, brushing with the butter or cream before sliding in the oven and adding on a few minutes of baking if necessary. If freezing the already baked biscuits, reheat straight from the freezer in a toaster or oven until warmed throughout.
3 Tbsp. European-style butter
3 Tbsp. high-quality lard
2 cups self-rising flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
Scant 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 to 1 Tbsp. sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 Tbsp. 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.
— Martha Hopkins
Hopkins published a version of this recipe in her bestselling book, “InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook,” which first came out in 1997. They were originally cut in wedges like scones, but if you cut them in circles, they become biscuits, and Hopkins says that most scone and biscuit recipes are as easily interchangeable. You could use just about any combination of herbs and cheese you’d like in place of the rosemary and manchego.
3 cups self-rising flour, preferably Martha White or White Lily
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Tbsp. finely chopped rosemary, or less if desired
1 Tbsp. sugar
8 Tbsp. (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 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 eaten immediately, split open with a thick smear of softened butter 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” (Terrace Publishing, $29.95) by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge
Black Pepper Biscuits
Carrie Moray knew her mom, Callie’s, biscuits were something special, but little did she know when she opened a biscuit business in 2007 based on Callie’s signature recipe that she’d land on the Martha Stewart show and get her own cookbook.
This fall, Moray published “Callie’s Biscuits and Southern Traditions: Heirloom Recipes from Our Family Kitchen” (Atria Books, $30), which features her mom’s famous recipe. The distinguishing ingredient here is the cream cheese, and this black pepper adaptation is just one of many featured in the book. You’ll also find plenty of non-biscuit recipes, too, like roasted pimento cheese chicken and split pea soup with biscuit croutons.
2 cups self-rising flour (White Lily preferred), plus more for dusting
1 1/2 to 2 Tbsp. coarsely ground black pepper (more or less to taste)
5 Tbsp. butter (4 Tbsp. cut in small cubes, at room temperature, and 1 Tbsp. melted)
1/4 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup whole buttermilk (may substitute low-fat buttermilk)
Topping: 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and 1 1/2 tsp. 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 ½-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” (Atria Books, $30) by Carrie Morey
Biscuits for brunch
We think of brunch as a laborious affair, but Hopkins hosted 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.
Hopkins says 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 and her partner, John, have recently 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 like Confituras, Rosie’s Hip Jelly Jam and Savannah Bee Company, 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.