Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
As a child, my grandparents' farm was my favorite place on earth. It was a magical place where baby cows were bottle-fed and chickens hatched before my eyes in incubators. But as much as I loved marveling at all the life buzzing on the farm, there were other -- better -- perks of staying there. My grandmother would let me sleep in until noon and, somehow, breakfast was always ready and piping hot when I woke up. I remember sitting cross-legged at her kitchen table in front of a plateful of eggs over easy, bacon, fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes from the garden, and made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits.
It’s the latter that tugs at my heartstrings the most. Her buttermilk biscuits sustained my grandfather as he worked in the Tennessee coal mines, and they’d been a staple at her dinner table through the Great Depression. Years later she’d bake those same biscuits for her children, then grandchildren -- and even her great-grandchildren! These biscuits are a beloved part of our family’s southern heritage.
The recipe is simple, but as delicious as it is humble. She rendered her own lard and used it often in the biscuits, but on occasion she’d use the bacon fat saved from morning’s breakfast -- it adds a whole new dimension of flavor, a smoky richness. Rendering your own bacon fat may sound complicated, but it’s really simple. Just fry bacon on the stove top as usual, and when the bacon is crisp and all the fat has melted into the pan, pour it into a heat-proof jar. The bacon dregs (if there are any) will collect on the bottom of the jar and the bacon fat above will turn white and solid as it cools. Store the jar in the refrigerator after it cools completely. You’ll want the fat to be cold for flaky-biscuit-making.
Put a little homemade apple butter on them, and you’ve got heaven.
A pastry blender will make quick work of cutting the fat into the flour, or you can use a simple hand chopper like I do. My grandmother’s method was even more low-tech. She’d rub the fat into the flour with her fingers.
After several minutes of blending, the fat should be roughly cut into pea-sized crumbs.
Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in the buttermilk.
Mix with a fork until the liquid and dry ingredients are just combined and a sticky dough is achieved. If your dough is too stiff, add 1 to 2 more tablespoons of buttermilk.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and then lightly sprinkle the dough with additional flour. Knead briefly and pat the dough flat with well-floured hands to 1 1/2" thickness.
Cut dough into rounds using a 3 inch round biscuit cutter or cookie cutter (here I’m using a can that once held mandarin oranges). Re-roll scraps and cut more biscuits until all of the dough is used.
Place biscuits, just touching, on a lightly greased 13 x 9-inch baking sheet.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown and fragrant. Brush with melted butter and serve.
2 cups self-rising flour
2 tablespoons cold bacon fat
1 cup cold buttermilk (full fat)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Photos by Heather Baird