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A winter quest for the perfect biscuit

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Elspeth Hay
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Lesley Marchessault of Provincetown has gotten serious about her biscuit recipes.

She decided to try a variety of recipes because as a kid, she only knew about drop biscuits. "I had no idea what this other world was really in biscuit making," she said.

The other world Lesley’s talking about is rolled biscuits — the kind that are cut into circles or squares and often served as part of a breakfast sandwich. These rolled biscuits rely on a technique called lamination.

It's when you take dough and fold it.

"It's what happens when you make a croissant. That’s how you achieve those layers in croissants. But with the biscuit technique, you want the flour and the butter to not really marry. And a good way of making your biscuits have those layers is by doing just a couple of folds," Lesley says.

Basically instead of doing lots and lots of folds, for biscuits you just do a few so that the butter is still visible. And there are some other secrets as Lesley shows me. First of all, she’s already grated her butter and then frozen it, so that it melts as little as possible while she mixes. Then she tosses it with the dry ingredients and very gently mixes in buttermilk and heavy cream. Finally, she turns the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and pats it gently into a rectangle. Then it's time to start folding.

"So now I’m going to take this bench scraper and just kind of go underneath the dough and what we want to do is just fold it in thirds."

The dough is incredibly wet — Lesley has to dip her bench scraper in flour between each use — but she manages to fold it into thirds twice.

"And then when you cut it and you bake it you’ll have kind of have those, like the Pillsbury you know where you peel off one layer after another that I think a lot of people are really trying to go for," she says. "And then when you put it on your tongue it’s just this little piece of buttery air, buttery heaven really."

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Elspeth Hay
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Lesley Marchessault in the kitchen preparing biscuits.

Lesley says it's best to cook these biscuits almost touching to make them rise extra high, and the recipe she likes best recommends doing this in a cast iron skillet. And though Lesley really likes the look of round biscuits, she says square ones are much more practical, because you don’t want to keep reshaping scraps — it makes the biscuits dense instead of tender. These are her major tips for rolled biscuits. But Lesley also loves drop biscuits — and she’s been playing around with the basic outline of her beloved childhood recipe.

"I decided we could do a little Pepsi challenge and have the recipe as it you know exists from my childhood, just normal with Crisco and milk and then also one that’s a little jazzed up."

The regular one just has all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, and also Crisco and regular milk.

"The new jazzed-up one has that fancy pastry flour," she says.

Pastry flour has less protein than regular flour which makes it lighter and the one Lesley’s using in this new jazzed-up recipe comes from a local mill in Western Massachussetts.

"And then we’re going to add butter and buttermilk instead of Crisco and milk and see what kind of difference it makes."

The drop biscuits are much easier — Lesley simply mixes together the ingredients in a bowl and plops piles of dough about the size of a tomato onto a baking sheet — this time, with plenty of space between them. My daughter has come along on this interview, and tries to wait patiently for all three batches of biscuits to come out of the oven.

She counts, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Can I have one!"

They smell amazing.

There's a delightful sound of laminated biscuits coming out of the oven in a hot sizzling pool of butter. We taste all three and they’re each delicious in their own way. Lesley says in her quest to find the ultimate biscuit, she’s realized she likes variety. She has a favorite drop biscuit recipe and a favorite folded biscuit recipe which we share below. But she’s still constantly trying new flours or cornmeal or different butters — because it turns out the real fun is the experimenting and of course the tasting. 

Lesley Marchessault's Go-To Drop Biscuit's

These are adapted from a recipe Lesley has been cooking since she was a kid. They're her first choice for an easy biscuit, and for strawberry shortcake. The original called for milk and Crisco, but Lesley has swapped these out for buttermilk and butter. For the flour, she uses a locally grown soft wheat pastry flour from Ground Up Grain in western Massachusetts.

2 cups flour (see note)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold butter
1 cup cold buttermilk

Whisk together the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter, then add the buttermilk and gently stir until the dough just comes together. Bake at 450 for 12 minutes, turning once.

Best Rolled Biscuits

This recipe is adapted slightly from the Rise and Shine Biscuits in the Red Truck Bakery Cookbook by Brian Noyes. It makes roughly 15-20 biscuits.

5 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 and 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

kosher salt

2 sticks butter, grated and frozen for at least 1 hour

1/2 cup heavy cream

3 cups buttermilk

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar along with 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Add the frozen, grated butter and gently toss to mix with the dry ingredients—the butter should be coated with flour but not worked into it. Pour in the dry ingredients and use a spatula to very gently fold the mixture into a wet dough.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured countertop. It will seem too wet—that's ok! Gently pat it into a rectangle roughly 9" by 12" about 1" high. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour. Use a bench scraper to fold the dough into thirds, folding the right side in on top of itself and then the left side, as you would to fit a piece of paper in an envelope. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the process. Keep dipping the bench scraper in extra flour as needed.

Now cut the biscuits—use the bench scraper to cut the rectangle into 15-20 biscuits, depending on how big you like yours. Transfer them to either a cast iron skillet or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spacing them to they are just touching. Now put them in the fridge to chill for at least 1 hour (at this point, you can also freeze them and bake them later, which Lesley says she does often with great success).

About 15 minutes before you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the pan so that the tops brown evenly, and bake for another 12-15 minutes. They are done when the tops are golden and the places where the biscuits touch are just cooked through. Serve hot, with butter and honey or as part of a breakfast sandwich.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.