2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 stick cold unsalted butter
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
0. Shortly before you bake, preheat the oven to 450. Yes, that sounds hot. It is hot. Are you here to bake or not?
1. Mix all the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Order does not matter. In this one instance, all hierarchies may be left behind.
2. On a plate, cut the cold, unsalted butter into tiny pieces. No less than 32, but 64 would be better. If you are German, you may wish to devise a process to make such cuts in the most efficient way possible.
NOTE: If you have salted butter, instead of unsalted butter, decrease the salt by 1/4 teaspoon. It won’t be enough. It will never be enough. And yet you can’t omit the salt entirely. That would be too much. Do you understand? The amount of salt in a stick of salted butter is fundamentally unknowable. What is known is that the biscuits will either be too salty or not salty enough, and the only thing between these two poles is a seemingly inconsequential 1/4 teaspoon. Like so many things, these minute differences divide the successes from the failures, the blissful from the desolate. Which will you be? If you use unsalted butter, this question would not apply to you, and you would already have moved onto the next step, ignorant of the cliff face you just danced along. The point is that it is unknowable to you, and therefore, no matter what you do, the recipe will be off. As stated before, the biscuits will either be too salty, or not salty enough. Even if by some wonderful chance you happen to add in the exact balance of reduced salt to counter the salted butter that you should not have used in the first place, you will be discontent, wondering if the saltiness is what it should be, or if you—like so many others in this world—have veered off course, over-corrected in your efforts to conform, if your life is no longer the life you were intended to live and is now the life your mother always feared you would fall into. You should not have used the salted butter. In any case, if you insist on using a stick of salted butter, reduce the salt to about 1/4 teaspoon. It will probably work out ok in the end.
3. Re-refrigerate the cut up butter for 10 to 20 minutes, if necessary, to ensure that it is firm and cold. Not cool. Cold. Cold like death.
4. Add the tiny pieces of butter to the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter, or with your fingers. Either way, work quickly and dispassionately. Cut or roll the butter into ever smaller pieces among the dry ingredients, until the whole mixture resembles gritty sand. You should not see any recognizable chunks of butter, only a surface that, if you squint, might be mistaken for the surface of an arid moon.
NOTE: At this point, you may refrigerate the whole bowl for a time, both to recool the butter, or to wait until dinner.
5. Immediately before you intend to bake the biscuits, make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in 3/4 cup of buttermilk. Using a rubber scraper or wooden spoon, mix just enough to make the dough hold together—you may need to add more buttermilk to achieve the right consistency. Do this one tablespoon at a time, until there are no dry bits left.
6. Working quickly, create a single ball of sticky dough in the center of the bowl. Then, using a sharp knife, cut the whole ball into equal sized wedges (12 is ideal). Take each wedge and shape it into a rough ball, then place on an ungreased baking sheet. Don’t chase perfection here. Don’t roll out or overwork the dough in any way. The less you sully the dough with your imperfect human hands, the lighter and finer the results will be.
7. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes, until the tops turn golden. Take out of oven and remove from pan. Don’t forget to turn the oven off. 450 is not a temperature for the faint of heart, and even in this small way, you are expending energy, and thus contributing to the eventual heat death of the universe.
8. Enjoy! Biscuits are best when served immediately, but will still be palatable for another 24 to 48 hours. Equally tasty with either sweet or savory toppings. Cooled, they make an excellent base for strawberry shortcake.
Jocelyn Koehler is a writer camped out on the Northeast Corridor, working on fairy tales, fantasy, and satire. She likes kitties and hates centipedes. Learn more about her published stuff at teamblood.org.