At Farmers’ Almanac, we always enjoy food holidays. So when we found out September is National Biscuit Month, we thought, what better way to celebrate than with a small bite of history and a few delicious recipes to share?
Said to be derived from the Latin words bis meaning twice, and coquere or coctus, to cook, biscuits were originally prepared in a two-fold process: baked first and then dried out in a slow oven.
Generally flour-based, depending on where you are in the U.S. or the world, biscuits can be soft, hard, flat, slightly raised (usually with the addition of baking powder or baking soda), and mean the same product even if they go by the name cracker or cookie. In fact, after the Revolutionary War, the words cracker – or cookie — were both synonymous with a hard-baked product. In Italy, the term biscotto refers to a hard, twice-baked biscuit, a product that’s become a culinary celebrity today dipped in chocolate and dunked in hot, creamy cappuccino.
Egyptian sailors are said to have consumed a flat, brittle millet bread called dhourra, and the ancient Roman buccellum is described in Apicius, the earliest known cookbook, as “a thick paste of fine what flour…boiled and spread out on a plate.” When it had dried and hardened, it was cut up and then fried until crisp, then served with honey and pepper.
In the 7th century A.D., Persian cooks reportedly understood how to augment their biscuit batter with eggs, butter, and cream, and also honey and fruit. In 992, Armenian monk Gregoire de Nicopolis brought the earliest known spiced biscuits (predecessors of what we know as gingerbread) to Europe, teaching French priests and Christians how to prepare it. And in order for sea goers to survive protracted months and years on ships, 18th and 19th century bakers left out any wet (or sweet) ingredients to make hardtack (standard, unpalatable fare!) as dry and hard a product as it could be, baking it four times, as it would soften and spoil with age.
Today biscuits come in all manner of flavor, texture, and derivation. Savory (biscuits and gravy, anyone?) or sweet (just add eggs and sugar to basic biscuit dough to make yummy scones), with ingredients that run the gastronomic gamut from buttermilk to ginger, molasses, bacon, cheese, oats, black pepper, jam, and more. There are few foods so versatile, accommodating, and portable as the time-honored biscuit. No wonder it has its very own month of homage!
Cracked Pepper Pecorino Cheese Biscuits
2 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup butter, cold
3 scallions, finely chopped
½ cup grated pecorino cheese, or can substitute cheddar or parmesan
1/3 cup parsley, chopped
3/4 cup buttermilk
Coarse salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 425F. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, black pepper, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Dice butter into small pieces. If they get too warm, place in a bowl and put it in freezer for about 10 minutes before continuing. Toss diced butter with flour mixture until well coated. (If the chunks are too big, run a pastry blender through it quickly.) Add scallions, parsley, and cheese and toss until well coated.
Add buttermilk and mix with your hands until it just comes together. You may find you need an extra dribble of buttermilk, if so then go right ahead but do so judiciously. Do not over-knead.
Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead once or twice just to bring it together. Form into an 8×8-inch square and cut into 2×2-inch squares; top with a bit coarse salt if using. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until golden.
Light and Sweet Biscuits (scrumptious under berries and whipped cream!)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 additional cup all-purpose flour, for patting out the dough
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup powdered sugar
¼-lb ice cold unsalted butter
3/4 cup half-and-half
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F; place a rack in lowest position. Combine dry ingredients. Cut in butter. Stir in liquid until it just begins to pull from the sides; it will be moist.
Spread 1/4 cup flour on a pastry board and place the dough on flour. Gently turn the dough until all sides are covered with flour. Knead by gently rubbing the dough into the flour, a scant 8 to 10 turns. Pat dough into a 1-inch thick slab.
Cut into rounds with a sharp round biscuit cutter. Try not to knead too much or dough will toughen. Place on insulated cookie sheet about ½-inch apart. Bake for 12- 15 minutes. Edges will be golden.