A long time ago in a galaxy far far away before my mother and father married (or perhaps it was just after), my mother roasted a chicken for dinner. Maybe she was trying to impress my dad, maybe they had guests over for dinner; the details of this have always been a bit muddy to me. I don’t know what exactly transpired, but in an act of gravitational fate, this aromatic roast chicken moved from my mother’s hands to a sink filled with dishwater.
Gravity is often a culprit in culinary disasters, but it seems these mishaps, gravitational or not, seem to increase with the personal importance of the meal. Last night after six hours of the 2009 Thanksgiving Baking Extravaganza, I wondered more than once if I would have my own mishaps of a more chemical nature.
I decided to start off with the cornbread for my cornbread biscuit dressing. The basic dressing recipe, as well as those for the breads, comes from Martha Stewart (though I’m going to spruce it up with bacon and dried cranberries). And cornbread, how can you mess that up, right?
Well after tasting the batter, I had second thoughts.
It was bitter batter. And way too salty.
The recipe only called for 1¼ teaspoons of salt. Was it the tablespoon of vinegar I put in my milk to substitute for buttermilk? Was the Chinese cornmeal strangely salty? And then there was the bitterness. I popped the bread in the oven, praying that the bitterness and saltiness would bake away, and started my second batch of bread, eliminating the salt and throwing in two tablespoons of sugar.
The second batch was just as bitter but not as salty. What was this bitterness culprit? Would I have to make more cornbread again tomorrow? I have a tight schedule to keep here! Not to mention my 8×13” oven draws out baking times three to four times longer than normal, since batches are so small.
I took a little corner out of it. It had to be tested, you know.
Thankfully, most of the bitterness baked out, and it was corny but just a bit odd. But I’m just going to cover it up with bacon! And as I chewed and pondered, I realized that the huge amount of baking powder is the reason for the bitterness. Oh, Martha.
Once the pans of bread had baked, I started rolling out the cookies for my students.
I planned to give them these fresh chocolate chip cookies today, Thursday. And then do you know what I did? I called in sick! I hate calling in sick, it feels morally wrong, but nearly all of the students who come to class now have a cold, and the ones who don’t come are even sicker. I’ve been feeling the ticklings of a cold since Monday. I don’t want to be sick on Saturday and yesterday I was exhausted with sinus pressure, so I called in sick to try to head off illness with sleep. Let me tell you: smart idea. But now I have a freezer full of chocolate chip cookies that I wanted to give to my students. Maybe next week.
If there are any left…
After a two hour break, I headed back into the kitchen to tackle the other bready component of my dressing: Biscuit. (It was two votes biscuit, one vote challah. Sorry Joey.)
I love biscuits but I’ve never made them. I’d never even had biscuits until after I graduated college. It’s both an adventurous and stupid thing to make something for Thanksgiving that you’ve never made before, especially a baked item. Baked items are notoriously fickle. Biscuits are no exception.
I embarked on Martha Stewart’s biscuits despite the fact that they called for heavy cream and most dairy does not exist in Huzhou. No worries , I thought. I’ll just substitute milk and melted butter, a common substitute for heavy cream.
(What’s a cup of butter among friends?)
The problem with putting melted butter into milk is that the coolness of the milk re-solidifies the butter. Or maybe that’s the point? Either way, my dough was very, very wet. Too wet.
With biscuits, it’s essential that one not work the dough too much. Which isn’t really a big deal if one’s dough is of the correct consistency. After I laid out the dough (or rather, slopped it onto the counter) I tried to flour it as much as I could, but after all this baking, I was down to my last few tablespoons of flour.
Though by this point I was worried that I’d have to make more biscuits tomorrow or think of something else, I decided to go ahead and cut them and bake them to see what happened. It wouldn’t matter how they looked; they’re getting crumbled for the dressing anyway.
This is my biscuit cutter. Perhaps not the most effective tool.
So I went ahead and baked them, crossing my fingers that these hours in the kitchen would not be for naught. I relaxed when, about halfway through the baking time, I looked in and saw the biscuits sizzling in their own butter.
Yeah. Nothing that sizzles in butter can be bad.
And then my parchment paper caught fire. Like, flames. But the biscuits were unharmed.
Fortunately I had already had my fill of buttery dough for the day, because otherwise I would have eaten half the batch and been required to make more the next day.
I ended up with about forty little biscuits.
Forty buttery little biscuits.
Martha Stewart’s Cornbread
(makes enough for one recipe of her Cornbread Biscuit stuffing)
2 ½ cups yellow cornmeal
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder *
3 large eggs
1 ¼ cups buttermilk, room temperature [or, put 1 tablespoon of white vinegar in a one cup measurer and fill the rest with milk. Let it stand 5-10 min]
½ stick (4 tablespoons/ about 58 grams) unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a baking dish. Whisk together cornmeal, salt, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk together eggs, buttermilk, and butter in a medium bowl. Add the egg mix to the cornmeal mix and stir to combine. Let the mix sit for 5-10 minutes to let the cornmeal absorb the liquids.
Pour the batter into the baking dish. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool on wire rack slightly. Run a knife around the edges of the bread and invert onto the rack to cool completely. Cornbread can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature up to three days. For the dressing, let it sit out overnight uncovered to dry out.
*I might decrease the baking powder by a teaspoon. I don’t know how much it would affect the rise, but it seems like a lot of baking powder.
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s recipe
2 ¼ cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder**
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups whole milk combined with 2/3 cup (150 grams) melted unsalted butter***
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add butter and milk mix and stir just until dough forms.
On a generously (VERY GENEROUSLY) floured surface, pat the dough into a square about ½ inch thick. Let the dough rest five minutes.
Cut out rounds with a 2-inch biscuit cutter (or, you know, a drinking glass). Put together the scraps and cut out more rounds. You should have about 30 biscuits. Space the biscuits 2 inches apart on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet.
Bake until the tops are golden, 12-14 minutes. Let the biscuits cool on the sheet on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for three days. For dressing, let them stand out overnight uncovered.
** I reduced this from 4 teaspoons because of the cornbread-baking powder trauma
***Changed from two cups of heavy cream