Sometimes the presence of a single ingredient in the pantry takes us places we would not ordinarily go.
Part of my reward for helping farmer friend Mike Klein butcher his turkeys this year was a small bottle of genuine buttermilk. Well, it wasn't just any bottle. It was a Coca Cola bottle he'd cleaned and reclaimed because I suppose he didn't have anything else to put the buttermilk in. So along with our turkey, a stewing chicken and some pickling watermelons, I walked away from the farm with this Coca Cola bottle half-filled with a milky-yellowish liquid I wasn't quite sure what to do with.
Finding authentic buttermilk these days, like so much else that used to arrive in its natural state from the farm to the grocery store, seems darned near impossible. Sometimes at the farmer's market you will see a vendor making a big deal of selling quarts of "real" buttermilk. You may then walk away mumbling to yourself, wondering what the difference is between the "real" buttermilk being sold at the farmer's market and the stuff you buy in a plastic carton at the grocery stored labeled "buttermilk."
Originally, "buttermilk" was the liquid left over from the process of churning cream into butter. It is tart, low-fat, and sometimes flecked with bits of butter. Nowadays, "buttermilk" is a manufactured, cultured product made by adding lactic acid bacteria to regular or skin milk, then fermenting it for a period of days. It's that acidity that makes buttermilk ideal for a chemical rise in baking, as in pancakes and biscuits. Because of the acidity, it will also keep for months in the refrigerator without going bad.
Reading the labels on the "buttermilk" products at the supermarket can be a jolt to the senses. When we were in Maine over the summer, I found three varieties of buttermilk under three different labels at the local grocery. One of them listed the following ingredients: "pasteurized culture fat-free milk, modified food starch, mono and diglycerides, carrageenan, locust bean gum."
Who needs all that?
Anyway, last night the stars seemed to line up perfectly for that Coca Cola bottle of buttermilk sitting in the fridge. I had several different leftovers, including some of the intensely flavorful pilaf from last week's pot roast, pumpkin and wild rice pilaf, cooked squash, salad greens. The buttermilk called out to me. It wanted to be turned into biscuits.
The recipe I use is from Bill Neal's classic text, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie. This is a perfect example of a chemical rise in baking, or pairing acid and base ingredients with a liquid to create carbon dioxide, which puts the puff in the baked good.
As Neal explains, "The acceptance and availability of reliable commercial baking powders has become the general principle of Southern home baking, overshadowing yeast, eggs, and general arm power."
Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
In a bowl, mix 2 cups all-purpose flour, a heaping 1/2-teaspoon salt, 3 1/14 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 5 tablespoons chilled shortening (lard or butter or a combination). Using fingers, quickly work the shortening into the dry ingredients until every bit of the flour is combined with a bit of fat. Add 7/8 cup buttermilk and stir vigorously until a ball forms.
The secret to light, crumbly biscuits it to work the dough as little as possible, or only as much as necessary. You don't knead this dough hardly at all--more like pushing it this way and that until it holds together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, dusting the dough with a little more flour if it seems too sticky. Pat the dough into a circle about 1/2-inch thick and cut into 2-inch rounds (I use a biscuit cutter for this, dipping the cutter into flour to keep the dough from sticking).
Transfer the rounds to an ungreased baking sheet and place in the oven for about 8 minutes, or until the tops have turned golden. Serve warm with butter and your favorite jam or preserves.