M: In early 1800′s Virginia, our beloved cornbread wavered briefly out of fashion when musty cornmeal was linked to a number of diseases. Enter the beaten biscuit. Generally considered a luxury food of the time due to the cost of wheat flour and the time investment needed (compared to simple cornbread), a hard push was made to encourage mountain folk to leave their beloved cornbread behind as a matter of public health. Efforts were moderately successful and soon the beaten biscuit could be found in kitchens and chuck wagons throughout Virginia and into Kentucky.
So what’s with all this beating? It’s all about air. In the last half of the 19th century, baking powder would resolve the issue of producing a lighter biscuit, but until then, it was all about working the dough. The longer these biscuits (really something between the traditional biscuit and a soda cracker) are beaten, the lighter the result. Every day biscuits might do fine with a couple hundred mallet strikes. Up that to four or five hundred for Sunday company biscuits. On the trail, this labor intensive task was often left to unsuspecting trail neophytes.
As for me, I had a great time pounding out this dough. Swinging a meat tenderizer repeatedly and with great force turns out to be a grand ol’ time. Sometimes a beating is just the ticket to administrate your will. Focusing that attitude on a pile of dough seems like a good way to work that out.
But did I like these biscuits? I did. But I had to reset my expectations a little. These are not the fluffy buttermilk biscuits I’ve come to love. Think hard tack beaten to civility. With a little attitude adjustment on my part, this crispy little wafer has some personality. Served up with some country ham with red-eye gravy, I was ready for a day’s ride on the dusty trail.
OK, so come Sunday morning I’m much more likely to serve up some traditional biscuits or perhaps some fluffy angel biscuits. Still. Respect.
Recipe: Beaten Biscuits
Summary: Unleavened biscuits beaten to a state somewhere between a biscuit and a soda cracker. With a little jelly or some country ham, you’ll be the hit of the chuck wagon. From The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.
- 4 c All-Purpose Flour
- 1 tsp Salt
- 4 T lard, chilled
- 1 c Cold Water
- Sift flour into a large bowl.
- Cut in flour until mix is granular.
- Stirring constantly, add water in a slow stream until dough comes together.
- Turn on to a floured surface and knead until smooth.
- Beat 20 times with a mallet or rolling pin into a long rectangle.
- Fold into thirds, turn 90 degrees and beat another 20 times.
- Repeat folding, turning and beating at least ten times, but 25 times is even better (more repetitions yield better texture).
- Cut into small biscuits and place on a greased baking sheet.
- Prick to top of each biscuit several times with a fork.
- Bake in a 325 degree oven 20 to 30 minutes (biscuits will remain white or slightly golden).
- May be served hot, but usually served at room temperature.