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From the Oven

Biscuits, cornbread and muffins

My best efforts to make biscuits betray me when I come to the part of gently mixing the ingredients together to form a soft, smooth dough. Why? Because the dough is always too wet (too much buttermilk) or too dry (too much flour). All the rest I can manage perfectly well, thank you.

It isn’t that my research is lacking. I have watched Shirley O. Corriher, chemist and renowned cookbook author, make them in person, standing no more than two feet from her bowl at a food writers’ conference. And my mother’s biscuits were the best on the planet. I can’t count the times I’ve hovered over her floured hands to record her unwritten recipe.

All great biscuit makers will tell you that the handling of the dough has everything to do with it. Mix it but don’t overwork it. Be gentle. Handle it like a newborn baby.

I put making biscuits in the same category with making pralines. One time you do it well; the next time you fail.

But I’m a purist on the ingredients. You have to use buttermilk to give them great flavor, the right amount of salt and a pinch of sugar. A bit of baking soda offsets the sourness of the buttermilk, and you must be careful not to injure the taste with too much baking powder or salt. No problem. Then comes the newborn baby part.

While I’m not always a winner when it comes to biscuits, I have mastered the art of cornbread, another of the South’s great contributions to the culinary arts. It is quick and easy to make and always turns out the same with just a simple stir. No fondling or patting just so. Add a couple of extra ingredients and you have the Mexican version, which can’t be beat with a pot of chili or soup. Cornbread partners well with vegetables such as mustard, turnip and collard greens as well as field or black-eyed peas, green beans and squash. Nothing fancy, just good country food, cornbread can be fashioned into muffins – using the same recipe – or into fritters – spooning the batter out into a skillet surfaced with hot oil.

Savory muffins also complement meals, especially a soup or vegetable lunch or dinner. I recently tried these rosemary-cheese muffins, a recipe I snitched from the Internet and changed to suit my priorities – less sugar, pepperjack instead of mozzarella cheese and a handful of cooked, crumbled bacon. Wow! With a pot of chili, that took me off my diet.

We still have some chilly days left to enjoy these quick breads. It won’t be long before it’s too hot to light the oven.

Buttermilk Biscuits
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch baking soda (about
      1/8 teaspoon)
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons
1 1/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spray baking pan with non-stick spray.

Measure dry ingredients and place them in a food processor. (This can be done by hand, but it’s easier in a food processor.) Pulse until mixed. Add shortening in spoonfuls and pulse until mixed with some pea-sized lumps still present. Add buttermilk gradually while pulsing until dough comes together almost like a ball. Turn onto a floured surface and gently pat dough together with floured hands. Discard any loose flour. When formed into a ball, roll out with a floured rolling pen, or pat with hands, until dough is about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Do not over-handle. Cut with a biscuit cutter and place in pan with biscuits touching.

Put pan on top shelf in oven and bake for about 15 minutes. Biscuits should be slightly brown on top and bottom.
Makes about 12 biscuits.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 cup cornmeal
1 heaping tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar or 1 packet
1 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place oil in an 8-inch baking pan and place in the oven. While the oil is heating, crack the egg in a medium bowl and whisk. Add dry ingredients and whisk well. Add buttermilk and stir with the whisk until smooth. By this time, the oil should be hot in the oven. Carefully remove pan from oven and set on a heatproof surface. Pour cornbread ingredients into the hot oil. The bread will begin cooking immediately. Return to oven. Bake for 15 minutes or until the bread is firm to the touch. If not brown on top, place under the broiler for just a minute or so, but watch carefully so as not to burn. Serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6.

Mexican Cornbread
Make recipe above with the addition of 1/2-cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, 1/2-cup minced jalapeño pepper and 1/2-cup cooked corn kernels. Mix these ingredients in after the buttermilk has been added.

Rosemary Cheese Muffins
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 1/2 cups shredded
      pepperjack cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup minced onion
2 teaspoons crushed garlic
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup milk
4 slices thin-sliced bacon,
      cooked and crumbled

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray muffin pan with non-stick spray.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and rosemary. Gently toss in cheeses, onion and garlic.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg and butter and then milk. Make a well in the flour mixture and gradually pour the egg mixture into the well, mixing just to moisten, scraping the bottom of the bowl. Fold in bacon. Do not overmix. The batter will look lumpy. Pour batter into muffin tin in 12 even portions.

Bake for 15 minutes or until browned. Cool in pan for about 5 minutes before removing from pan.

Makes 12 muffins.

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