One of the cleverest culinary inventions was the chemical rising agent. With simple baking powder you can make sumptuous scones, fluffy muffins and airy biscuits--all without the hassle of proofing yeast. This was a real boon to the early pioneers, who obviously didn't have room in their covered wagons for colonies of yeast.
As our "food appreciation" classes continue their way south on a virtual world culinary tour, we had to stop and make some buttermilk biscuits to go with our collard greens and Hoppin' John. The acid in buttermilk easily reacts with the base chemical in baking powder to make our biscuits rise. Another secret is to find a lighter-than-usual flour to make the biscuits lighter than usual as well.
What you are looking for is less protein in the flour. You can do this by combining cake flour with all-purpose flour. Or seek out a lighter all-purpose flour such as White Lily, popular in the South. To make these biscuits, I scoured the local supermarkets and could find neither cake flour nor White Lily (my wife swears the Harris Teeter's store in Virginia sells it, but apparently not the store near us in the District of Columbia.)
But here's a little known secret: the ubiquitous Gold Medal flour also has reduced protein. You can tell by looking at the nutritional information on the side of the package. Gold Medal lists three grams of protein per serving. Virtually every other all-purpose flour lists four grams of protein. So we just used Gold Medal.
Biscuits will come out tough if the dough is worked too much. So just mix it until it holds together. The other requirement is to have a very hot oven and to set the biscuits on the middle rack so that they rise up and bake quickly--evenly--without burning. Our recipe is adapted from one given on the back of a bag of White Lily flour.
2 cups White Lily flour (or use Gold Medal)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chilled butter (4 tablespoons)
7/8 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 475 degrees
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt and whisk together well. Add the chilled butter to the dry mix in small pieces, then cut it in with rapid finger movement, pinching the butter and flour together until the butter is completely incorporated and the finished mix is more like sand. Pour in the buttermilk and mix only until the buttermilk is fully incorporated. The dough may still be in pieces at this point.
Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and press it together into a ball. Knead the dough just two or three times, then roll it out to 1/2-inch thickness or even a bit thicker. Use a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter to cut the dough into 12 rounds. Place these on an ungreased baking pan and bake on the middle rack of the oven just until they rise and begin to brown, about 8 minutes.
When the biscuits have cooled slightly, you can use a fork or a knife to pry them open. Spread them generously with butter and serve with the apple butter you canned in October.