Bake It Up a Notch is a column by Resident Baking BFF Erin Jeanne McDowell. Each month, she'll help take our baking game to the next level, teaching us all the need-to-know tips and techniques and showing us all the mistakes we might make along the way.
When your mother bakes like mine did, childhood is filled with no shortage of sweet memories: I grew up with warm loaves of bread, customized birthday cakes, and cookies so good they had a real reputation at school bake sales. But as soon as I moved away from home, I found that above all else, there was one of my mother’s specialties I was missing most: Her famous scones.
Now, my mom called these delights “scones,” but they might not look exactly like the scones you’re thinking of. They remind me more of drop biscuits, which is how I’ve referred to them since I first requested the recipe from her. The dough is simple to make, and not too sweet; when baked, the biscuits are lightly crisp on the outside, and undeniably fluffy inside.
When my mom would make them, she would always do it in batches: Some would be baked plain to be enjoyed with jam; some would be studded with toasted nuts or dried fruit; and some would be speckled with mini chocolate chips for us kiddos. The biscuits always filled the house with the most delicious baked buttermilk aroma—and honestly, that smell alone is half the reason why I still love to bake them.
No matter where I am, this dough has an incredible quality of making me feel at home. I’ve baked these biscuits so many times and for so many people over the years. I baked them on my first days living on Block Island, a tiny pork-chop shaped island off the coast of Rhode Island where I did my pastry internship after my first year of school. I rented a room in a house that I shared with a sweet family from Peru. One weekend day, I heard the whole family leave early in the morning, and I snuck down to the kitchen to bake the biscuits while I had the house to myself. I left them on a plate in the center of the kitchen table for them to find when they returned home. Turns out, they had gone fishing; when they got back, they devoured the biscuits while they cleaned their catches, then invited me to the most delicious ceviche dinner at sunset.
Back at school, I baked them in the dorm kitchen on a rainy day and left them—still-warm and foil-wrapped—hanging from my friends’ doorknobs. I baked them on vacation all the time, because they really only needed one bowl. I baked them for friends who moved into a new house, got a promotion, or lost a loved one. And I baked them for myself whenever I felt homesick (which, turns out, was a lot).
After graduation, I received an email from the Food52 editorial team for an opportunity to come in and help in the kitchen for a shoot. This meant a lot to me; I loved that Food52 celebrated home cooks, because home cooking is how I fell in love with food, too. The night before the shoot, I was so nervous—and there was nothing to do to cure it but bake. A personal recipe was just the ticket, not only to calm my own nerves but to bring in as a shoot-day treat; I felt the staff would appreciate that it was special, even without telling them of its role in my baking life. I kept the biscuits plain, but made homemade molasses butter to serve alongside.
The editors took turns photographing the biscuits from their desk, then tore into them, swiping soft butter over the airy crumb. I think at some level I was convinced that if these biscuits were good enough, they’d invite me back for another shoot. And they did—though I fully credit the biscuits for that, and the biscuits alone.
Not long after, I started tweaking the recipe and making it my own, adding more liquid to produce a cakier result, or leaving some out to create a crumbly streusel-like topping. One summer, when I was invited to a potluck, I pressed the dough into a sheet pan and turned it into an easy-to-slice slab shortcake. And when I signed my first book contract, I reinvented it into a towering three-layer cake I affectionately nicknamed a “not-so-shortcake.” I’ve baked this recipe more than any other, and I’m still not tired of it. It still provides comfort, and it still makes me feel as close as possible to hugging my mom, even though she’s miles and miles away.
After a few of the craziest years possible, I think there’s no better time to make this recipe—it’s so easy, but still so special. Whether you make these biscuits just once, or hundreds of times as I have, it I know they will bring you warmth and make your house smell amazing without fail. And who knows? 20 years from now, they might even be the recipe that your kids will call you, begging to learn—because they, too, are homesick, and nothing else will cure it the same way.
What's your favorite family recipe—one that you've returned to hundreds of times? Let us know in the comments.
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