There's a legendary story that gets retold on occasion at my family's gatherings, about my great-grandmother and g-grandfather. My great-grandmother was an amazing woman. She was still cooking and hosting and playing piano and writing music and painting well into the 1990's. There was a show of her art and a write-up in a Nashville newspaper about it when she was 90-something (?) years old. One of my treasured possessions is a little print of one of her paintings, in an original handpainted frame she made herself--all the great-grandkids (and there are lots of us) got a different print for Christmas one year. I have a book of her original hymns. There was, however, one thing this amazing woman apparently couldn't do.
As the story goes, one morning my great-grandmother decided to get up early and cook a special breakfast instead of just a normal breakfast. Eggs, bacon, biscuits--the whole Southern breakfast deal. Instead of the usual canned biscuits, because this was a special thing, she made biscuits from scratch: mixed them up, rolled them out, used a biscuit cutter. My great-grandfather ate his breakfast and his special homemade biscuits without comment, until the end of the meal, when my frustrated great-grandmother prompted him with the question, 'what did you think about the biscuits?' to which the reply came, 'I b'lieve I like t'other brand better.'
Biscuit FAIL. But apparently she did successfully resist clobbering him with her skillet. She was, as I've said, an amazing woman.
But truthfully, who has ever made homemade biscuits that are as yummy and fluffy as the canned ones? No one can replicate with regular old butter and flour and baking powder what those mysterious chemicals and preservatives do for canned biscuits.
Over Christmas my mom made us a batch of biscuits using a Cook's Illustrated recipe for Southern biscuits, and if I hadn't watched her do it, I would have sworn it was impossible that they were from-scratch. Tall and fluffy and buttery and WOW. Of course, they're a helluva lot more trouble than opening a can, but they are totally worth it. The ingredients are pretty basic except for an increase in the liquid to dry ratio, but the real secret is in the handling of the dough and the shaping of the biscuits. From now on in my house they will be called "Nana Biscuits" and no one in my family will ever have to say, I b'lieve I like t'other brand better.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 T sugar
4 T cold butter, cut into little cubes
1 1/2 cups cold buttermilk
1 cup extra flour for handling
2 T melted butter to brush the tops
Mix the dry ingredients together by buzzing a few times in food processor, then add butter cubes and cut in by processing a few times more until the cornmeal-like consistency is achieved. (Personally, I have trouble getting this step to really work and end up cutting in the butter chunks with my pastry cutter, so I may eliminate the food processor altogether and see what happens.) Add buttermilk and mix until just incorporated. Using a 1/4 cup measuring cup, scoop the biscuit dough and place the mounds on a cookie sheet dusted with the extra cup of flour (the dough will be very wet and goopy). Consistent 1/4 cup scoops will yield 12 mounds of biscuit dough. Sprinkle some flour on the tops, then pick up each mound and toss in your hands until it forms a rough ball shape, and place in a well-greased round cake pan (9 biscuits on the outside, 3 in the middle). Brush melted butter on the tops (currently without a pastry brush, I just drizzle the butter over the tops and this seems to work too). Bake for 5 minutes in a pre-heated 500 degree oven, then lower heat to 450 and bake about 15 more minutes until well-browned on top. Let cool in pan 2 minutes, then turn out onto plate.