Eat like your ancestors with historically significant recipes
Last week we attended a function hosted by the preservation group, Friends of Old Dover. Described as an opportunity to “eat like our ancestors” the evening’s program was held at the historic Annie Jump Cannon House, home of Wesley College President, William Johnston and his wife Susan. The agenda included a presentation by Ed Okonowicz and a sampling of hors d’oeuvres.
Ed’s entertaining talk illustrated a range of familiar Delmarva food traditions, from the start of the broiler chicken industry to the persistence of local interest in stewed muskrat. The menu, catered by Aramark of Wesley, featured an all-Delaware bill of fare, including crab cakes, corncakes and sweet potato balls.
Scrapple made an elegant appearance: tiny fried squares (of pig parts) on toast points with apple butter. What I feared might be muskrat, turned out to be apple fritters, dredged in cinnamon sugar. My favorite selection was a surprising combination: roast duckling on pumpkin muffins with choke cherry jam.
While all the dishes were assembled from ingredients native to Delaware, the most historically significant were the beaten biscuits made by Susan Johnston. Not only did she invite us into her home, but this renowned water color artist spent the better part of her day transforming flour and lard into tasty biscuits for us to try.
Beaten biscuits are made just as the name suggests. Before we had leavening agents (baking soda and baking powder) cooks pounded and folded dough for nearly an hour until tiny air pockets formed. I forgot to ask Susan what she used, but our ancestors would have used any tool at hand: mallet, rolling pin, skillet, axe handle or flat iron. The continuously flattening and layering incorporates enough air so the biscuits rise a bit in the oven.
What’s so historically important about the beaten biscuit? It had a sturdy outside shell, flaky interior and a shelf life of almost a month. It was long lasting, easy to store and easy to carry – the perfect energy source to stuff into your pocket as you headed out in the morning to work on farm chores, walk to the schoolhouse or trek through a battlefield.
Over time, the well-made beaten biscuit became the sign of an upper class hostess, someone with the time and staff to invest in the labor-intensive process. By the late nineteenth century the “biscuit brake” made it much easier to make a beaten biscuit. This machine was designed with two metal rollers mounted on a slab attached to a heavy stand (think old-fashioned wringer washer). Dough was fed through the rollers, folded and fed through again, until it was ready for the oven.
I tried my hand at making beaten biscuits and discovered I’ve been away from the gym for far too long. My arms ached after just a few minutes, first beating the dough with my marble rolling pin, then the side of a meat mallet. Since we don’t have an axe, I switched to a cast iron skillet, which worked best.
When I’d been at it for about twenty-five minutes, the dough started to blister, almost shredding in layers as I pounded with the skillet. At long last, it was ready to cut into small circles and bake. These don’t brown when they cook, but stay pale, almost white (see photo). To cut the biscuit, slide a fork through the middle to separate top from bottom and expose the tender center – delicious filled with paper-thin slices of ham.
If you look for a beaten biscuit recipe today, you’ll find most will call for baking powder, which doesn’t make a great deal of sense. If you add a commercial leavening agent, why go to the arduous effort of beating the dough? In case you’d like to experiment with a few different types of biscuits, I’ve included three recipes: beaten, baking powder and angel (made with yeast).
Our thanks to the Friends of Dover and especially Susan Johnston for introducing us to beaten biscuits – hope you didn’t wear out your painting arm!
2 C flour
1/2 t salt
1/4 C solid vegetable shortening
1/2 C cold milk
Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Sift together the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Work in the shortening with your fingers or a pastry blender until it resembles cornmeal. Form a well in the center and add milk; stir to combine. Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until dough holds together. Pat dough into a square about one-inch thick. Pound the dough with a mallet, skillet or rolling pin. When entire surface has been flattened, fold dough in half and repeat. Continue to beat and fold until dough is well blistered (20 to 30 minutes). Roll out dough 1/2 inch thick and cut into rounds with a small biscuit cutter (1 1/2 inches). Reroll scraps and repeat until all dough has been used. Arrange biscuits on baking sheet and bake until golden brown (20 to 25 minutes). Serve hot. Yield: 18 biscuits.
Baking Powder Biscuits
3 C flour
1/4 t salt
1 1/2 T baking powder
1 1/2 T sugar
6 T butter
2 C heavy cream
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Sift the dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into chunks and add to the bowl. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, work in the butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Pour in the cream and mix together quickly until a soft ball forms. Roll out the dough about 1/2 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut into rounds with a floured 2-inch biscuit cutter; reroll scraps and repeat until all the dough is used. Arrange biscuits on the prepared baking sheet and bake until lightly browned on the bottom, about 15 minutes. Yield: 2 dozen biscuits.
1 package quick-acting yeast
1 t sugar
2 T warm water
5 C flour
1/4 C sugar
1 T baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 C butter
2 C buttermilk
Stir yeast and 1 t sugar into the water to dissolve. Sift the dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into chunks and add to the bowl. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, work in the butter until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Pour in buttermilk and yeast mixture. Mix together quickly until a soft ball forms. Knead the dough a few minutes on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Place in a bowl that has been buttered on the inside; cover with a dishcloth and allow to rise until doubled in bulk. Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Punch down the dough and roll out 1/2 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut into rounds with a floured large biscuit cutter; reroll scraps and repeat until all the dough is used. Arrange biscuits on the prepared baking sheet and bake until lightly brown, about 10 minutes. Yield: 3 dozen biscuits.