CHARLESTON, S.C. — Lauren Vinciguerra's biscuit-making process is poetry in motion.
She pours, mixes, rolls and shapes with sureness and efficiency. When she's done, just a few minutes after she started, five pounds of flour, a pound of butter, 11/2 pounds cream cheese and a half- gallon of buttermilk have been transformed into 126 biscuits filling a sheet pan, ready to go into the oven.
As manager of Callie's Charleston Biscuits, Vinciguerra is used to baking in quantity. Her bakery makes about 80,000 biscuits a month, all by hand.
"That's our forte," she says.
Nathalie Dupree takes a different tack. Her recipes make enough biscuits to mound in a bread basket, not to make a mountain. Instead of buttermilk, she mixes cream and plain yogurt.
"The reality is, most people have yogurt in the house more than they have buttermilk," says Dupree, author with Cynthia Graubart of the new cookbook Southern Biscuits (Gibbs Smith, $21.99).
Despite the differences, they make biscuits more by feel than by measure. So whether you're making a large batch or just a few, here are tips for light, tasty biscuits.
■ Most recipes call for cold butter, but Vinciguerra lets it come to room temperature before rubbing it into the flour. Soft butter is easier on your hands, and the biscuits won't suffer.
■ Vinciguerra's biscuit dough is studded with chunks of cream cheese the size of small peas. "We call this a little insurance — you bite into the biscuit, and there's a little bit of love: the cream cheese."
■ Both bakers recommend using a mixing bowl that's wider than it is deep.
■ Use your hands to mix the flour-butter mixture into the liquid ingredients. "You stir around, making an eddy, adding more flour as you need it," Dupree says.
■ Dough "wet like lava" makes the lightest biscuits, Dupree says.
■ When you're ready to clean the dough off your hands, rub them with dry flour. "You don't want to put water on them — they'll get sticky," Vinciguerra says.
■ Vinciguerra uses unbleached flour, a requirement of Whole Foods, which sells Callie's Charleston Biscuits. (They're also available at Calliesbiscuits.com.) Dupree uses bleached flour because the biscuits bake up whiter. Both use White Lily self- rising flour, which has a lower protein content than flours sold in northern states.
■ Dupree doesn't sift flour. "That's a nuisance. I simply take a whisk or a fork and lightly go through it." Stir lightly, however, or you will over-aerate the flour. Spoon the stirred flour from the bag or canister into a dry measuring cup, and level off the top with a straight edge.
■ Most recipes instruct bakers to cut the butter or other fat into the flour when combining them. "My motion is a snap," Dupree says. "Cut is a terrible word if you're a literalist — like my husband — who would get a scissors."
This recipe makes 120 biscuits; for fewer, see note.
Callie's Charleston Biscuits
Melted unsalted butter, for pans
1 bag (5 pounds) White Lily self-rising flour
1 pound salted butter, at cool room temperature
1½ pounds cream cheese
½ gallon buttermilk (not non-fat), divided
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Brush two half-sheet pans or several smaller pans with melted butter.
Set aside about 2 cups flour; pour remaining flour into large bowl. Cut salted butter into large chunks and add to bowl. With your fingers, mix butter into flour until sandy. When no chunks of butter remain, cut cream cheese into large chunks and add to bowl. Work mixture with hands, pulling cream cheese into pieces about the size of small peas.
Pour in 2½ to 3 cups buttermilk. Use hand to scrape flour mixture into buttermilk, folding and kneading. Add more buttermilk as needed. You might not need the entire ½ gallon. Dough should be moist and sticky.
To clean hands, rub off dough with some of remaining dry flour. With floured hands, scrape dough from bowl onto floured surface. (Unless you have a large surface, roll out dough in three or four batches.) Sprinkle dough with flour, and roll out gently to about 1 inch thick.
Flour a 2-inch biscuit cutter, and push straight down into dough without twisting. (You can twist cutter gently to remove it.) Arrange biscuits, with sides touching, on pans. If desired, reroll dough scraps once. (Those biscuits won't be as tender.)
Bake, rotating pan once, until golden, about 15 minutes.
Serve immediately or let cool completely, then wrap well and freeze. To reheat frozen biscuits, wrap a few in foil, and bake in a preheated 450-degree oven about 20 minutes or until hot. Open foil and let the tops brown for a few minutes, then serve.
Note: To make 30 biscuits, use as many as 5 cups flour, ½ cup (1 stick) butter; 6 ounces cream cheese and as many as 2 cups buttermilk.
Nutrition information per biscuit: 105 calories, 5 g. fat, 15 mg. cholesterol, 2 g. protein, 12 g. carbohydrate, 1 g. sugar, 0.5 g. fiber, 245 mg. sodium, 70 mg. calcium.
Yogurt and heavy cream biscuits
Softened or melted butter
2 ¼ cups self-rising flour, divided
¾ cup heavy cream, divided
½ cup plain yogurt (not reduced-fat or non-fat)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. For biscuits with soft exterior, use 8- or 9-inch cake pan, pizza pan or ovenproof skillet. For biscuits with crisp exterior, use baking sheet. Brush pan with butter.
Place 2 cups flour in large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep. Using back of hand, make deep hollow in center of flour. Stir together ½ cup cream and yogurt; pour into hollow. Stirring with rubber spatula or large metal spoon, use broad circular strokes to quickly pull flour into liquid. Mix just until dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from sides of bowl. If any flour remains on bottom and sides of bowl, stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons of remaining cream, just enough to incorporate remaining flour into the shaggy, wettish dough. (If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.)
Lightly sprinkle board or other clean surface with some of remaining flour. Turn out dough onto board and sprinkle top of dough lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold dough in half, and pat dough into a 1⁄3- to ½ -inch thick round, using a little additional flour only if needed. Flour again and fold dough in half a second time. If dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat dough into a ½ -inch-thick round for normal biscuit, ¾-inch-thick for tall biscuit, and 1-inch-thick for giant biscuit. Brush any visible flour from top.
For each biscuit, dip 2-inch-biscuit cutter into reserved flour and cut out biscuit, starting at outside edge and cutting close together, being careful not to twist cutter. The scraps can be combined to make additional biscuits, although those biscuits will be tougher.
Using metal spatula if necessary, move biscuits to pan. Bake biscuits on top rack of oven for 10 to 14 minutes or until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate pan from front to back and check if bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide baking sheet underneath to add insulation.
Lightly brush biscuit tops with butter. Invert biscuits onto plate and lift off pan; let cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.
Makes 12 to 14.
Nutrition information per biscuit (based on 14): 120 calories, 5 g. fat, 20 mg. cholesterol, 3 g. protein, 16 g. carbohydrate, 0.5 g. sugar, 0.5 g. fiber, 265 mg. sodium, 85 mg. calcium.
Adapted from Southern Biscuits by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart