One of the secrets to my Granny Sheffield’s delicious Southern biscuits was the wood burning stove she used and freshly churned butter she served with her biscuits and fig preserves.
With the maiden name like Cook, that might be the reason Granny Sheffield was always cooking or canning something. She was a Florida Cracker from northwest Florida and my favorite memories of her are in her kitchen, priming the water pump at the kitchen sink, the smell of her Cashmere Bouquet soap at the back porch sink, but mostly I remember her making biscuits.
As we drove down the dirt road on the way to her house we knew once we arrived Granny Sheffield would go into the kitchen, reach to the top of her pie safe and pull down a large oval wooden bowl, filled with self-rising flour. She would add just the right amount of lard and milk to make the best tasting biscuits I ever put fig preserves on.
The biscuits were shaped by hand, no rolling-pin or measuring cups and served hot from the oven. She put the wooden bowl away with plenty of flour left for the next time she used it. The first time I tried to make biscuits like Granny… mine looked like golf balls and were about that hard. Through trial and error and the use of measuring utensils I finally mastered the art of making Granny Sheffield’s biscuits, or least something that comes close.
This excerpt is from The Dixie Housewife:
Gather fruit when fully ripe, but not cracked open; place in a perforated tin bucket or wire basket, and dip for a moment into a deep kettle of hot and moderately strong lye (some prefer letting them lie an hour in lime-water and afterwards drain) ; make a syrup in proportion of one pound sugar to one of fruit, and when the figs are well drained, put them in syrup and boil until well cooked ; remove, boil syrup down until there is just enough to cover fruit; put fruit back in syrup, let all boil, and seal up while hot in glass or porcelain jars. — Ex-Gov. Sterns, Florida. (246-247)
In her book Palmetto Leaves (1873), Harriet Beecher Stowe writes of preserving fig in response to a letter she received at her Mandarin Florida home. Stowe quotes a native Floridian; “Prepare a lye from the ashes of the grapevine; have a kettle of this kept boiling hot over the fire; throw in the figs, and let them remain two minutes; skim them out and drain them on a sieve, and afterwards dry in the sun.” (153-154)
Mattie’s Fig Preserves
Granny Sheffield made what seemed like hundreds of jars of these translucent, glistening, golden brown gems, always ready to serve. If you don’t have access to figs in your backyard as Granny did, you can purchase them at the market, but they should be eaten or cooked right away since they are highly perishable once picked.
1 quart fresh figs ( 2 pounds)
2 cups water
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Layer figs and sugar in a Dutch oven, add water and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat, stir in lemon juice and cook over medium heat 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until syrup thickens and figs are clear. Serve with hot buttered biscuits.