Monday, May 1, 2017

Maryland Beaten Biscuits with Caroline

Proof that historical bakers didn't mess around!

You know who has two thumbs and is glad the semester's over? This gal. I've still got a busy summer ahead of me, but with most of my final papers and projects behind me, I decided today was as good a day as any to start getting back in the kitchen, this time with a pretty unusual historic recipe from my new neighboring state of Maryland.

Like some recipes I've tackled in the past, I decided to give this one a shot out of curiosity more than anything else because it involves a pretty unique preparation technique. Any guesses what it might be?

I actually tried my hand at beaten biscuits way back when this blog first got started, but they were quite a bit different from what I'm going to share with you today. As most of you hopefully remember, chemical leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder weren't available to the average chef until the 1840's, meaning Caroline and her family would have needed to look for other ways to make their biscuits fluffy and delightful.

This recipe for Maryland beaten biscuits, adapted from Mary Randolph's 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife by food historian and interpreter Joyce White, reveals the secret ingredient: physically beating your dough with a wooden rolling pin until it gets soft and fluffy, which should take about half an hour.

Pretty intense, right?

The idea is to force air into the dough, as well as destroy the gluten, which stops it from being chewy. According to White, when done correctly, this should produce a light, flaky biscuit that splits into layers and is best eaten straight out of the oven. You know, once they've had some time to cool down.

Perpetually curious about different historical culinary techniques and looking for a good way to banish the stress of the past semester, I happily set aside some time on my last day off before my summer internship to give this a shot.

The recipe itself is pretty simple: four cups of flour and a teaspoon and a half of salt are combined in a bowl. Rub in four ounces of salted butter until it's well combined, and then add an egg that's been beaten until frothy and a cup of milk. Combine the ingredients into a dough and dump it out onto a floured surface.

Then it's time to make some noise!

Now, let me be frank: this sounded a lot more fun than it was. Thirty straight minutes of whacking a piece of dough with a rolling pin takes a decent amount of upper body strength for someone with wrist problems who is an unenthusiastic exerciser at best. That's without mentioning how the wood rubbed my skin raw in a couple places. Still, it was pretty cool being able to feel the gluten breaking down in the dough. It went from being pretty stiff and dry to soft and somewhat yielding under my fingers, sort of like a very tough pizza dough.

White says you know you're ready to stop when air bubbles start to blister and pop on the surface of the dough, and if air bubbles are visible in the dough when you cut into it. I think I put enough air in - White provides great pictures to help guide you through the process, and mine looked like hers - and cutting in to see the bubbles was pretty cool!

Traditionally, these were baked in a griddle or skillet with butter or lard, but I decided to go for the slightly healthier option of just baking them in the oven at 375 degrees for fifteen minutes.

I carefully rolled mine into small balls and pricked them with a fork, popped them in, and pulled out some finished biscuits fifteen minutes later. They were nice and golden brown on the bottom, which made me hope they'd cooked enough.

I got about two dozen biscuits out of this batch, and while they did puff up nicely in the oven, they didn't spread, meaning you could probably be pretty generous with how tightly you pack a baking sheet.

Honestly, they looked nice, but felt pretty tough when I poked them with a finger to see if they were cooked through. Splitting them open didn't exactly reveal the nice layers we were looking for, either.

That said, they were tasty hot out of the oven, if very solid. I still don't feel like I've fully digested them, which admittedly may be a good thing if I was a spunky ten year old helping out on her uncle's farm in 1812. I ate mine with some honey and salt, but they could be turned into dumplings in soup, paired with jam and butter, or filled with ham and cheese.

Downside? As soon as these cooled off, they became basically inedible doughy hockey pucks. They could probably still be used as soup dumplings, but they're definitely best eaten hot. Of course, this could be my fault - maybe I didn't beat it long enough or with enough force! - but I think this might be a temperamental enough recipe that it could be an issue other curious bakers might run into.

Bottom line? There were tasty enough, but I definitely understand why cooks would have jumped at the chance to speed this process up with a chemically leavened, guaranteed fluffy biscuit. I think it's also safe to say that if Caroline hated baking bread, she definitely wouldn't like making these! As a historian, it's always funny listening to people complaining about how things were so much simpler in the past. Recipes like this are a perfect example of how that is definitely not the case!

Unless you like doughy biscuits. Then this might be perfect for you!


  1. Welcome back! Nice to see you cooking for fun again. Sorry the biscuits took a bit out of you, but very interesting technique. I agree that perhaps they would be good for a soup when they get hard. Good luck with your internship!

    1. Thanks Mom! Wish my favorite taste testers could have given me their opinion!

  2. Yay! I was just reading through your Caroline posts yesterday and was so excited to see a new one!

  3. I have some of my great-grandmother's recipes. You can tell she felt spoiled to have rising agents. I bet she remembered trying to "force" rise by hand as a child.

    1. That's so awesome! One of my great grandma's was a fantastic cook, but she didn't write any of her recipes down because she just worked from memory. I'd love to get her pasta sauce formula somehow!