The laborious process of beating air into the dough by hand was one way to produce a leavened biscuit, before baking soda and baking powder were commonplace, Beaten biscuits were considered an upper class status symbol due to the excessive labor and time necessary to reach just the right texture to produce the perfect biscuit. Referred to in the 1800’s by Mary Randolph in her cookbook The Virginia Housewife or, Methodical Cook, as Apoquiniminc Cakes the Beaten Biscuit has appeared under various other names.
Put a little salt, one egg beaten, and four ounces of butter, in a quart of flour—make it into a paste with new milk, beat it for half an hour with a pestle, roll the paste thin, and cut it into round cakes; bake them on a gridiron, and be careful not to burn them. (139)
(Gridiron was another term for griddle)
In her 1881, postbellum recollections, Abby Fisher calls them Maryland Beat Biscuit. This recipe was first in her cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking.
Maryland Beat Biscuit
Take one quart of flour, add one teaspoonful of salt, one tablespoonful of lard, half tablespoonful of butter. Dry rub the lard and butter into the flour until well creamed; add your water gradually in mixing so as to make dough stiff, then put the dough on pastry board and beat until perfectly moist and light. Roll out the dough to thickness of third of an inch. Have your stove hot and bake quickly. To make more add twice the quantity. (9)
The Dixie Cook-Book of 1883 provides a publisher’s notice, which reads in part: “…choice treasures from the garners of many a southern household, handed down from generation to generation, besides many other recipes, contributed by the ladies of the South, for the more modern Southern dishes.” The following recipe is just one of the many biscuit recipes in the book.
Hard Tea Biscuit
Two pounds of flour, one-fourth pound butter, one salt-spoon salt, three gills milk; cut up the butter and rub it in the flour, add the salt and milk, knead dough for half an hour, cut cakes about as large as a small tea-cup, and half an inch thick, prick with a fork, and bake in a moderate oven until they are a delicate brown. Mrs. Denmead, Columbus (37)
Years after plantation life was over, Martha McCulloch-Williams, refers to them as “Old Style” Beaten Biscuit in her 1913 cookbook, Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, as they were then considered old fashioned and easily replaced by leavened biscuits.
Beaten Biscuit: (Old Style)
Sift a quart of flour into a bowl or tray, add half a teaspoon salt, then cut small into it a teacup of very cold lard. Wet with cold water—ice water is best—into a very stiff dough. Lay on a floured block, or marble slab, and give one hundred strokes with a mallet or rolling pin. Fold afresh as the dough beats thin, dredging in flour if it begins to stick. The end of beating is to distribute air well through the mass, which, expanding by the heat of baking makes the biscuit light. The dough should be firm, but smooth and very elastic. Roll to half-inch thickness, cut out with a small round cutter, prick lightly all over the top, and bake in steady heat to a delicate brown. Too hot an oven will scorch and blister, too cold an one make the biscuit hard and clammy. Aim for the Irishman’s “middle exthrame.”
There are sundry machines which do away with beating. It is possible also to avoid it by running the dough, after mixing, several times through a food-chopper. Also beaten biscuit can be closely imitated by making good puff paste, rolling, cutting out, pricking and baking—but rather more quickly than the real thing. All these are expedients for those who live in apartments, where the noise of beating might be held against good neighborhood. Householders, and especially suburban ones, should indulge in the luxury of a block or stone or marble slab—and live happy ever after, if they can but get cooks able and willing to make proper use of it. (28-29)
(Typos left as the recipe reads in the cookbook.)
Along with a beaten-biscuit machine the Industrial Revolution (1830-1920) brought many food related labor saving devices. New and improved commercially manufactured food products such as packaged yeast, milled wheat flour and baking powder were introduced. By the turn of the last century old-fashioned beaten biscuits (late 1800’s) and quick breads made with baking soda were soon replaced with white bread (1900’s) as a status symbol in the home. Andrew F. Smith sums up in American Food and Drink, “Urbanization also created the concentration of potential customers that made the mass distribution of bread financially viable… City dwellers were able to pay for the ease and convenience of buying baker’s bread: and women’s tasks shifted from making things to buying things.” (64) But, by 1942, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, in her book Cross Creek Cookery summed up many Southerns’s thoughts on baker’s bread: “We serve cold baker’s bread (light bread) only to our enemies, trusting they will never impose on our hospitality again”. (19)
Joy’s Beaten Biscuit
More like a dry cracker, the beaten biscuit can be recreated today using a food processor and baking powder.
Plus in food processor:
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
½ -1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup butter
Pulse again and quickly pulse in:
½ cup milk
Spin with dough blade for 2 minutes.
Remove and knead by hand on a floured a few minutes.
Roll very thin, less the 1/8 of an inch.
Fold over 4 times, more if desired, lightly pat down.
Cut with a small circular cutter and pierce with fork thee times to hold layers together.
Bake 350 for 30 minutes.
More Biscuit Recipes
With no leavening, the recipe for Soufle Biscuits in The Virginia Housewife, created a very thin like cracker, similar to beaten biscuits, without the fold-over before baking.
Rub 4 ounces butter into 1 quart flour and make into paste with milk. Knead well, roll thin as paper and bake it to look white. (140)
Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1875
Put in the sifter one quart of flour and one even teaspoonful of super-carb. soda; sift these together; rub into the flour thoroughly a piece of butter the size of a hen’s egg; salt to taste; wet the flour with sour milk until a soft dough ifs formed; make it into thin biscuit, and bake in a quick oven. Work it very little. Always reserve a little flour before putting in the soda to work into the dough, and flour the board. (228)
The Dixie Cook-Book, 1883
Put one quart of flour, before sifting, into sieve, with one tea-spoon soda and two of cream tartar (or three of baking powder), one of salt, and one table-spoon white sugar; mix all thoroughly with the flour, run through sieve, rub in one level table-spoon of lard or butter (or half and half), wet with half pint sweet milk, roll on board about an inch thick, cut with biscuit cutter, and bake in a quick oven fifteen minutes. If you have not milk, use a little more butter, and wet with water. Handle as little and make as rapidly as possible. – M. Parloa (38)
Martha McCulloch-Williams in Dishes & Beverages of the Old South provides recipes along with comments on cooking:
She bluntly states in the 1913 introduction:
“I wonder, now and then if the prevalence of divorce has any connection with the decline of home cooking?” (10)
From her seat on the biscuit block, McCulloch-Williams goes on the describe Mammy’s kitchen including the use and care of the cast iron cooking implements used there:
“The pots themselves, of cast iron, with close-fitting tops, ran from two to ten gallons in capacity, had rounded bottoms with three pertly outstanding legs, and ears either side for the iron pot-hooks, which varied in size even as did the pots themselves.
Additionally there were ovens, deep and shallow, spiders, skillets, a couple of tea-kettles, a stew kettle, a broiler with a long spider-legged trivet to rest on, a hoe-baker, a biscuit-baker, and waffle-irons with legs like tongs. Each piece of hollow ware had its lid, with eye on top for lifting off with the hooks. Live coals, spread on hearth and lids, did the cooking. To furnish them there was a wrought iron shovel, so big and heavy nobody but Mammy herself could wield it properly. Emptied vessels were turned upside down on the floor under the Long Shelf–grease kept away rust. But before one was used it had to be scoured with soap and sand rock, rinsed and scalded. Periodically every piece was burned out–turned upside down over a roaring fire and left there until red hot, then slowly cooled. This burning out left a fine smooth surface after scouring. Cast iron, being in a degree porous, necessarily took up traces of food when it had been used for cooking a month or so.
Ah me! What savors, what flavors came out of the pots! (12-14)
Her thoughts on cook books:
If the testimony of empty plates and smiling guests can establish a fact, then I am a good cook–though limited. I profess only to cook the things I care to cook well. Hence I have set my hand to this, a real cook’s book. Most cook books are written by folk who cook by hearsay–it is the fewest number of real cooks who can write so as not to bewilder the common or garden variety of mind. The bulk of what follows has an old-time Southern foundation, with such frillings as experience approves. (20-21)
Lastly, but far from leastly, let me make protest against over-elaboration, alike in food and the serving thereof. The very best decoration for a table is something good in the plates. This is not saying one should not plan to please the eye no less than the palate. But ribbon on sandwiches is an anachronism–so is all the flummery of silk and laces, doilies and doo-dads that so often bewilder us. They are unfair to the food–as hard to live up to as anybody’s blue china. I smile even yet, remembering my husband’s chuckles, after we had come home from eating delicatessen chicken off ten-dollar plates, by help of antique silver. Somehow the viands and the service seemed “out of drawing.” (21-22)
If time has any value, the economy of it in dishwashing alone is worth considering. In these piping days of rising prices, economy sounds good, even in the abstract. Add the concrete fact that you save money as well as trouble, and the world of cooks may well sit up and take notice. (22)
The one-piece dinner is as convenient and comfortable as the one-piece frock. There are, of course, occasions to which it is unsuited. One-piece must be understood to mean the piece de resistance–the backbone of subsistence as it were. (22-23)
By way of postscript: being a strict and ardent advocate of temperance, I refused to consider writing this book unless I had full liberty to advise the use of wine, brandy, cordials, liquors, where good cooking demands them. Any earthly thing can be abused–to teach right use is the best preventive of abuse. Liquors, like everything else, must be good. “Cooking sherry” is as much an abomination as “cooking butter,” or “cooking apples.” You will never get out of pot or pan anything fundamentally better than what went into it. Cooking is not alchemy; there is no magic in the pot. The whole art and mystery of it is to apply heat and seasoning in such fashion as to make the best, and the most, of such food supplies as your purse permits. (23-24)
The introduction to the bread section explains her thoughts on the quality of flour purchased as well as corn meal.
The Staff of Life
Bread, more than almost any other foodstuff, can not be better than what it is made of. Here as elsewhere a bungler can ruin the very best of flour or meal. But the queen of cooks can not make good a fundamental deficiency.
Hence in buying flour look for these things: a slightly creamy cast–dazzling whiteness shows bleaching, as a gray-white, or black specks mean grinding from spoiled grain. The feel should be velvety, with no trace of roughness–roughness means, commonly, mixture with corn. A handful tightly gripped should keep the shape of the hand, and show to a degree the markings of the palm. A pinch wet rather stiff, and stretched between thumb and finger, will show by the length of the thread it spins richness or poverty in gluten–one of the most valuable food elements.
The cornmeal of commerce will not be satisfactory in any receipt here given. It has been bolted and kiln-dried out of all natural flavor. Take the trouble to get meal water-ground, from white flint corn, and fresh from the mill. Then you will have something worth spending time and effort upon–spending them hopefully. Why, the wisest man can not tell–but steam-ground meal is of a flavor wholly unlike that water-ground. The grinding should be neither too fine nor too coarse. Bran left in, and sifted out as needed, helps to save from musting, and to preserve the delicate natural flavor. Fresh meal, in clean bright tin or glass, or in a stout paper sack, where it is dry, cool and airy will keep two months. Hence buy it judiciously, in proportion to your family’s corn-cake appetite.
It is impossible to give exactly the amount of liquid for any sort of bread-making because the condition of flour and meal varies with weather and keeping. This applies also to sugar–hence the need for intelligence in the use of receipts. In damp muggy weather moisture is absorbed from the atmosphere. Upon a dry day especially if there is much wind, drying out is inevitable. Anything that feels clammy, or that clots, should be dried in a warm, not hot, oven. Heating flour before mixing it, taking care not to scorch it in the least, is one small secret of light bread, biscuit and cake. Flour in a bag may be laid in the sun with advantage. Use judgment in mixing. Note the appearance of what you are making closely–when it turns out extra good, set up that first condition as a standard. (26-28)
Another biscuit recipe:
Soda Biscuit: (Old Style.)
Sift a quart of flour with a heaping teaspoonful of baking soda. Add a good pinch of salt, rub well through lard or butter the size of the fist, then wet with sour milk to a moderately soft dough, roll out, working quickly, cut with small round cutter, set in hot pans, leaving room to swell, and bake in a quick oven just below scorching heat. Handle as lightly as possible all through–this makes flaky biscuit.
By way of variety, roll out thin–less than a half-inch, cut with three-inch cutter, grease lightly on top, and fold along the middle. Let rise on top a hot stove several minutes before putting to bake. By adding an egg, beaten light, with a heaping tablespoonful of sugar to the dough in mixing, these doubled biscuits will be quite unlike the usual sort. (30)