For a long time, I was afraid of James Beard. I know; it sounds silly even as I write the words, and if I were to tell you the reason you’d likely think it even sillier. So of course I’m going to tell you.
My folks had a smallish collection of cookbooks when I was growing up, and among them was one by Beard, New Fish Cookery. My dad, who cooked on (the rare) occasion, consulted it when baking or roasting fish. A large photo of the author filled the entire back jacket cover. There he was, this bald bear of a man, wearing a slightly sinister grin and gripping a big fish in his enormous hand. Here is the picture I’m talking about (I eventually acquired my own copy of the book). My child’s mind immediately associated this menacing-looking bald man with two other menacing-looking bald men of the era: the muscle-bound, earring-wearing Mr. Clean; and the muscle-bound, earring-wearing Yul Brynner in The King and I. They were, plain and simple, scary and I wanted nothing to do with them. (I would go so far as to leave the family room when a Mr. Clean commercial came on).
I don’t know what James Beard was like in real life. I’ve just started reading his memoir, Delights and Prejudices, and he seems perfectly nice, if opinionated, certainly not menacing. Not surprisingly, my fears eventually faded (and in the case of Yul Brynner were replaced by a brief crush). A copy of James Beard’s American Cookery appeared in our house and soon enough I was devouring the pages. The recipes I was most taken with were the plainest ones, such as fried ham slices with redeye gravy, maple sugar pie, and simple baking powder biscuits. To one growing up in a home where pasta, calamari, and ricotta torte were the norm, these dishes that recalled America’s colonial days held nearly exotic appeal.
I’ve been cooking from that book a long time now, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I noticed a variation of those basic baking powder biscuits that called for replacing all of the shortening in the recipe with cream. What you get is a light and tender biscuit with crispy edges that flake and crumble as soon as they make contact with your teeth. My kids love them. Here’s what Beard says about them: “These were a specialty of my mother’s. I find them very light and thoroughly different from other biscuits.” The biscuits have since become known in our house as James Beard’s Mother’s Biscuits.
In his memoir, Beard described his mother as someone who “swept through a room or down the street with an air of determination and authority” and who was “always ready for an adventure.” I’ve never seen a photo of her, but I picture her as a more attractive, female version of her son (with more hair), someone who enjoyed life and had enough confidence in the kitchen to turn out feather-light biscuits.
You can bake these biscuits on a rimmed baking sheet or in a cake pan. Most recently I baked them in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet and loved the results–the biscuits rose nicely in the oven, and their bottoms were beautifully browned (but not too much), crispy and flaky. It doesn’t hurt that the biscuits are dipped in melted butter before they’re baked–definitely an indulgence but worth it now and again, especially on a cold winter morning.
Dipping the pre-baked biscuits in melted butter is completely optional. Obviously it makes for a richer–and yet, somehow, light–biscuit, but even without this extra step your biscuits will be delicious. I have mixed the dough by hand, as James Beard instructs in his recipe, and (in my lazier moments) in the food processor. Either way works fine. Just be sure to use the ‘pulse’ setting on the food processor to prevent overmixing. (From James Beard’s American Cookery.)
Makes 8 to 12 biscuits
2 cups sifted unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
About 1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons salted butter, cut into pieces (optional)
Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. If mixing by hand, pour in the cream and use a fork to stir the mixture until the dough begins to cling together. If using the food processor, sift the dry ingredients onto a sheet of wax paper and carefully transfer them to the work bowl of the food processor (fitted with the metal blade). Process briefly, just until the dough begins to come together. For both methods, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface, knead it a few times, and pat or roll it out to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut the dough into rounds with a 2 to 2 1/2 inch round cutter.
Place the butter in a 10-inch seasoned cast-iron skillet or cake pan. Place the pan in the oven and heat until the butter is melted. Remove the pan from the oven. Dip the tops of each of the biscuits into the butter and arrange them in the pan. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until the biscuits are lightly browned on top. Serve hot, with butter, jam, or honey.