Here is a story I wrote many years ago about Kate Almand in 1987, to be exact, and was published in my book, Nathalie Dupree's Matters of Taste.
I will miss Kate, and I always knew it. She passed on today, January 10, 2011
GRANNIE KATE'S BISCUITS
It was a hot night, and the sun was setting later and later each day. Worrying about her grandmother, the small child couldn't sleep. She was staring at the ceiling, when her mother came in to tuck her in. Since she normally fell to sleep when her head hit the pillow, her mother asked if anything was wrong. “No,” Jamie replied. “Are you sure?“ her mother asked again. “Well,” the tot replied, knowing somehow she wasn't concerned about her grandmother's mortality as much as her own self-interest, “I was just wondering—who's going to make biscuits for us when Grannie Kate dies?"
At a young age, the child had hit upon something most of us only learn late in life. There are certain foods that will linger in our memories and hearts long after the people who made them are gone. And it's important to learn from them how to make their treasures so they will live on.
Grannie Kate, still in robust good health, is the best biscuit maker I know. Her biscuits are tender, light, a bit smaller than the average, just large enough to hold sautéed pork tenderloin or a sausage without crumbling until the very end when the juices break it up. Whenever Kate Almand is around, everyone else is tempted to take a backseat and let her make the biscuits, Although I frequently tell people she was born with a biscuit bowl in her hands, she's only been making them since she was a small child herself. One of thirteen children, she was told by her dad one day, when her mom was gone, to make the biscuits. She tried, and made a mess. The next day he had her make them again, and told her how, and she's been making them ever since.
Biscuits are quite cheap to make—just flour, baking powder, salt, and shortening in most cases, with a bit of milk or buttermilk. But it's like learning to hit a golf or a tennis ball; the chances are you aren't going to be happy until you practice a bit, and study the basics.
First, the right ingredients help. Kate uses a southern soft winter wheat flour, White Lily, because it is low in protein, and that contributes to the fluffy lightness of the biscuit. She also likes Crisco better than any other shortening. She prefers sweet milk (the southern term for homogenized milk) to buttermilk, but she can make a biscuit out of any flour and shortening because she has the technique down pat.
She doesn't measure her flour. This probably goes back to the days when she bought it in huge sacks and used those sacks to make her daughter dresses. The flour, in an opened flour sack then, was as susceptible to change as it is today. In a dry season, it will absorb water differently than in a rainy one.
When possible, she uses a biscuit bowl, larger in circumference than it is deep. She places a large quantity of flour in it, makes a well in the center, then cuts in shortening and milk in a soft motion that kneads the flour briefly as the liquid is mixed in. She winds up with a very soft dough, which she turns and coats in flour, leaving it nearly wet in the middle, but dry enough to handle on the outside. She pulls off a piece of her dough, dips the wet portion in the flour, and rolls it lightly in her floured hand. She places it on a baking sheet, keeping all the biscuits close together, so they will stay tender When finished, she sifts any leftover flour back into a container, ready for the next day's use.
Too much kneading will make a tough biscuit. Too little will not give you as nice a rise. Too much shortening makes a crumbly dough, too little robs it of tenderness.
This recipe is from the upcoming book, Southern Biscuits, by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart
KATE'S UNFORGETTABLE WOODEN BOWL BISCUITS
About wooden bowls: Wooden bowls are the easiest to make biscuits wiped out and ready for use again. They are large and shallow enough to allow the sweeping motion required, combining the ingredients without spilling flour everywhere; and if used regularly, they don’t require washing. Any remaining dough scrapes out easily.
Makes 12 to 18 biscuits
The method of making biscuits in a traditional wooden bowl, without a recipe, was traditionally practiced by home cooks all over the South. A sack of flour was emptied into the bowl, a well was made in the flour, and then the number of biscuits desired was miraculously shaped by the addition of fat and liquid. The remaining flour mixture was then sifted and returned to the bowl, covered with a tea towel or flour sack, or to the sack itself until the biscuits were made again later in the day.
Alas, this process is so intimidating to novice cooks, until they get the “feel,” that I have to caution the novice to try another recipe first. Please come back and try these after practicing with easier versions, because this version makes biscuits the way they are supposed to be—meltingly light, tantalizingly tender, flaky, moist—and unforgettable. I have never had a better biscuit than Kate’s.
1 (5-pound) bag self-rising flour, to use 2 1⁄2 cups flour
1 portion sweet (fresh) milk, approximately 1 cup
1 handful chilled lard, hard shortening, or butter, approximately 1⁄3–1⁄2 cup
Softened butter, for brushing
Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.
Fill a wooden biscuit bowl 2⁄3 full with as much of the bag of flour as possible. Use the back of a hand to form and simultaneously pack an 8-inch well in the center of the flour, leaving a small amount on the bottom. Gently pour the milk into the well-packed center of the well. Scoop 1⁄3 cup of room temperature lard into the milk. Using the fingers of one hand, mush together the milk and fat until it looks like thick lumpy pancake batter. Making a massaging motion with the fingers of one hand, slightly akin to playing the scales on a banjo, move the batter around the well in a whirlpool. Continue moving the fingers steadily around the bowl as a rotary mixer would, like a centrifuge. The batter will gently pull in the packed flour. After a few rotations, it will have pulled in sufficient flour to make a very wet dough in the center of the bowl, cradled by the rest of the flour. Re-flour both hands in the remaining flour and scrape the wet mess off the gooey hand back into the dough. Re-flour both hands and slide under the dough, turning it completely over in the remaining flour with the wet portion of the flour at the bottom of the dough and the top portion completely floured. Re-flouring hands as needed, pinch off an egg-sized portion of the dough sufficient for a 1 1⁄2-inch biscuit. The portion pulled from the dough will be wet. Dip it into the flour so the total exterior of the dough is now floured. Cup one hand, making sure the palm is floured, and move the dough on top of the palm. Use the palm of the second hand to smooth the top of the dough with pinkie and thumb to keep it round. Using a