By Terese Allen, Organic Valley Food Editor
To make tender biscuits, start by whisking flour, salt and baking powder (double-acting and fresh, please) together in a bowl. You can also use a hand-held sifter or mix the dry ingredients in a food processor, but any way you do it, the goal is to evenly distribute the baking powder, preventing lopsided results and a potential harsh taste of chemical leavener.
Next, cut some cold butter into the mixture: You can go retro and use an old-fashioned pastry cutter or two knives (this takes a few minutes), or you can use a food processor (fast, but there’s more clean-up to do). Or try the method I learned from a restaurant chef: partially open a stick of frozen butter and then, holding the stick with the still-wrapped end, grate the butter against the large holes of a hand-held grater directly into the flour mixture. Now stir the mixture to evenly distribute the butter pieces. Not only is this method swift, it yields small, equal-sized bits of butter that are evenly distributed in the dough. During baking, these butter particles melt and create spaces where the baking powder's released gas collects and produces a rise.
Next stir in the liquid--low-fat or whole milk, buttermilk, yogurt or cream (texture is influenced by the amount of liquid used: more for soft biscuits, less for flaky ones.). Mix just until a soft, sticky dough forms; don’t overmix or you’ll toughen the dough. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead it gently and very briefly, to help develop some flakiness. (If you prefer a soft texture, skip the kneading.) Roll the dough out or pat it with your hand into a circle or square that's one half to one inch thick--the thicker the dough, the taller the biscuit. Cut out circles or triangles with a floured biscuit cutter or a sharp knife, but don't twist or turn the blade or you'll seal the edges and hamper a high rise. (You can also form the dough into rough balls with your hands.)
For crusty-sided biscuits, place them one inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. For softer biscuits, let the sides touch. Some cooks brush the tops of biscuits with milk or a mixture of egg and water to help them brown, but this isn't necessary. Once baked, even unbrushed biscuits look gorgeous and taste marvelous.
Once they've cooled enough to eat, dig in, because the best biscuits are very fresh biscuits. Leftovers should be wrapped and refrigerated or frozen for later reheating.
Closely related to biscuits are two other quick bread types, scones and shortcake. Minimally sweetened and often enriched with eggs or sometimes fruit juice, scones may be studded with chopped dried fruit, nuts or other additions (and sometimes they’re topped with a frosting or glaze). Shortcake is best known as the plain, biscuit-like base for that classic American dessert, strawberry shortcake, but there’s a kind of shortcake that can also be unsweetened, flavored with cheese, onions or other savory ingredients and baked into a round loaf. (My own name for this is biscuit bread).
The method for both scones and shortcake is much the same as for biscuits: whisk or shift the dry ingredients; cut in cold butter (a high-fat one like Organic Valley’s European-style works especially well here, for richness and texture); mix in egg, flavorings and a liquid like milk, cream or buttermilk until barely combined; and knead briefly. Then cut the dough into rounds or triangles (for scones) or shape it into a large round loaf (for biscuit bread) and bake.
What about greasing the pan? Some bakers claim that the fat on the pan interrupts the rise a bit, but if there are ingredients in the dough like raisins or cheese that may stick—as with scones, for example--I recommend the use of parchment paper or a light oil on the pan.
Batter-based muffins and tea breads are even easier to make than biscuits or scones. You mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet ingredients in another, and then combine the two. There’s no kneading or shaping of dough; just scoop the batter into muffin cups or spread it in a loaf pan.
That’s pretty simple, but there’s one thing that’s important for success: Since you’re aiming for tenderness (not flakiness, as in biscuits), the two mixtures should be mixed gently and only until they are barely combined; beating or overworking them yields tougher, flatter results. Use a rubber spatula and fold the dry and wet mixtures together for about 10 to 15 seconds total. If a few lumps or small streaks of flour still show, that’s not only okay, it’s what you’re aiming for.
For a high rise and easy removal, use greased muffin or loaf pans (muffin pans can also be lined with paper muffin cups). Typically, muffins and tea breads are filled about three-quarters full, but if the batter is thick, they can be filled to nearly the top. To prevent too much browning on the bottom, bake them in the middle of a preheated oven.
Muffins and tea loaves are done when the sides have begun to pull away a bit from the pan and when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. When you take them out of the oven, let them cool a bit (3-5 minutes for muffins, 10-15 minutes for tea loaves) before removing them from their pans. (This will prevent too much moisture from building up and creating soggy results.) Run a sharp knife around the edges to loosen them from the pan. Then, finish the cooling on wire racks.
Like most quick breads, muffins are best eaten on the day they are made, before they can dry out. Larger-sized tea breads, however, often have improved flavor on the second day.
Think of a coffeecake as a cross between tea bread and cake—it has the understated sweetness of the former and the richness of the latter. They rarely have frosting, but may be lightly glazed, topped with a streusel or dusted with powdered sugar. They are made much like muffins and tea loaves—from simple baking powder-leavened batters which are typically enriched with the likes of butter, eggs, buttermilk or yogurt. The difference comes in the texture: coffee cakes are lighter, more fragile and often moister--in a word, cakier--than muffins and tea loaves. And of course, they come in a different shape: usually a large, squat square or rectangle, but sometimes a round or in a bundt-pan shape.
Cobblers are also baked in large square, rectangular or round pans, but they have two layers: sweetened fruit on the bottom with biscuits or a biscuit-like topping above. (Coffeecakes aren’t required to contain fruit, but are such an excellent carrier of seasonal berries, cherries and other fruits, that these additions are typical.)
As with most types of quick bread, coffeecakes and cobblers start with two mixtures—one dry, one wet—that must be gently combined. Coffeecake batters are then immediately baked, but cobbler dough gets the “biscuit treatment” first—usually a light kneading and then a shaping of the dough.
Coffeecakes and cobblers are “crossover” pastries. That is, while biscuits, scones and muffins are served for breakfast or brunch, these two quick bread styles are often served as dessert. Unlike most quick breads, which are eaten out of hand, coffeecakes and cobblers require a fork.