I’m always working on polishing my secret weapons. You know, the things you whip up with whatever’s in the cupboard when a houseful of people pop in. That comforting something that takes fifteen minutes to make from scratch and keeps your kitchen smelling like butter and home all night.
Even though they’re not in my family’s recipe stash, I’m turning biscuits into my default weapon. I’ve tried making them several times and failed, but I think I’m finally on to something. Last month in Savannah, we had the best biscuits of our lives at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. It’s one of those places people wait hours in line for, no matter what day of the week it is, or how bad the weather is (Wednesday morning, pouring rain, 2 hours). It’s like Di Fara Pizza here in Brooklyn (also Wednesday, 90 degrees, no line at 10am), or Hot Doug’s in Chicago (Saturday afternoon, 40 degrees, 2 ½ hours). People lose all sense of logic and sanity waiting in these food lines.
I’ve been conspiring to dust myself off and try biscuits again after our Savannah pilgrimage. After Mrs. Wilkes, I couldn’t imagine trying to master any other recipe. Her restaurant is an actual dining room, where people sit around communal tables of 15 or 20 and share family-style plates. And even though you’re sitting with strangers, you don’t care the second you start passing biscuits and fried chicken to one another. The sweet tea flows, the black-eyed peas and corn bread cross hands, and before you realize what’s happening, you’re all brothers and cousins at grandma’s house, fighting over the last dollop of mashed potatoes.
We sat with some guys from Nashville, who taught my Yankee brother to slather biscuits in syrup. My friend Janice, a Savannah native who edited the Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House Cookbook, graced us with stories about Obama’s trip to Mrs. Wilkes’, her funeral (where all of her cooks from the last several decades filled the front pews, waving soggy handkerchiefs), and little secrets about every plate on the table.
So even though biscuits don’t have a lineage in my family, it only feels right to honor a recipe that’s been shared by families and strangers-turned-family for nearly 70 years. If I can bring a little piece of that into my home, and share those warm vibes with my friends and kids, I think we’ll be alright.
Oh, and for once, I think these turned out pretty well.
Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House Biscuits
Adapted from Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse Cookbook by Sema Wilkes
2 cups self-rising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons shortening
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon water
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Grease an 8″ x 8″ x 2″ baking pan.
Sift the flour baking powder, and sugar into a bowl.
Cut in the shortening and butter until the mixture resembles course cornmeal. Make a well in the center of the flour. Combine the buttermilk and milk with 1 tablespoon of water and pour into the center of the flour well.
Mix lightly and quickly with your hands to form a dough moist enough to leave the sides of the bowl.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Knead by picking up the sides of the dough away from you while pressing down with the palms of your hands and pushing the dough away. Repeat 6 or 7 times.
Work the dough into a large ball while kneading. Keep your fingers dry by frequently dipping them in dry flour.
Pinch off portions of dough for desired size biscuit. Press lightly to make the biscuits look flat on the pan. Or you can flatten the ball into a square and cut the biscuits in a grid pattern. Make sure the biscuits touch each other.
Bake for 15 minutes.