I always cut the butter in by hand. Always. No exceptions.
I used to be one of those old-fashioned Midwest types who believe that a fork really *is* the only kitchen tool you need (try it sometime- you might be surprised…) and painstakingly forced chunks of butter into noncompliant flour with a fork that kept bending. Then I graduated to using a pastry blender- much easier, much faster, much less frustrating. And Then (another one of the famous ‘and thens’ of history, destined to be stored among other great moments such as, ‘..and then Columbus saw land..’ or, ‘..and then they realized that they had discovered soap..’ or even, ‘…and then they lived happily ever after..’) and then, I watched Julia Child make Pate En Croute and she used her fingers to cut in the butter for her pastry dough.
Oh. My. Word.
Fingers- of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
It is raining outside, odd for January in Vermont I know, we are trying to just ignore it until the weather gets itself together, not unlike a group of people who purposefully forget the one among them that has committed some foul sort of social blunder. We’re going on as if this is how it always is and casting scarce glances at the sky, hoping that the embarrassment will be over soon. My husband has left for work, leaving me to the night and the rain and the lonely crooning of Billy Holiday. The laundry is all done, the dishes have been washed.
Time to make tea biscuits.
My mom made these for us all through our childhood and could hardly keep a batch in the house for longer than a few hours. It is a light biscuit, bordering on a scone in dryness of texture, comfortably flavored with cinnamon, cloves and ginger and adorned with raisins which also supply a good deal of the sweetness. They are *supposed* to be made and then let to sit for a day or so until the full flavor is able to develop. I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a fully developed tea biscuit since we almost always ate them as fast as they were produced. They make an exquisite snack for a winter’s afternoon when the sun has hidden itself behind a thick veil of moody clouds. Enjoy with a cold glass of milk or cup of tea and some good conversation.
4 cups of flour ( I used a blend of 2 cups regular white flour, 1 cup of spelt and 1 cup of whole wheat)
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each ginger and cloves
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup nuts (very optional. I usually opt *no* on nuts…)
1 cup butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
I preheated our little oven to the required 375 degrees.
Next step is to sift together all the dry ingredients *except* the raisins (and nuts if you are adding them). Your flour should be slightly brown and wonderfully scented with warm spices. Next comes the fun part- cutting in the butter. I never used to enjoy this step, but now it’s my favorite. Do you know how to cut in butter *with your bare hands*? I do it like Julia (of course) and this is an excellent recipe to practice with because you need a whole cup of butter. Anyone who cuts an entire cup of butter into a recipe gains automatic professional status- so take heart. I take the stick of butter and my thin paring knife and slice the butter into little chunks right into the bowl of dry ingredients. When all the butter has been chopped up, take clean fingertips and gently but firmly start to “smoosh” the pieces of butter with the flour. As you spread the butter out, it grabs a hold of the flour- do this over and over again until all the chunks have been spread into the flour. It may take a little while, this is a big amount, but keep at it and trust me, the butter will soon disappear. The goal is to have a flour which is rather like the texture of damp sand. It will hold together if you squeeze it in your hand, but you can easily knock it apart into grains again. Doing this step by hand raises these biscuits from being a common-place accompaniment for tea to an artisan treat that the finest of tea feels honored to share a table with.
Now, with that taken care of, add the raisins (and nuts) and pull yourself out another bowl where all the wet ingredients are going to meet each other. The four eggs need to be beaten until a bit foamy and then they’re ready for the milk and vanilla to be brought in. Introductions should be thorough, mix well.
Everything gets stirred together, the mess will be just that- a mess. Not dry enough to encourage kneading, just together enough to make one think that a little more flour is needed, and it is. Scatter a good amount of flour on your table, counter or pastry board (I used a good half cup) and then scrape the dough onto it. Flour the top enough so that it can be rolled out nicely to about 1/2 inch thickness. Next you’re going to cut them- use a biscuit cutter, free form into squares or triangles, or do as I do and use the lip of a small wine glass to make polite, dainty rounds. Place them on a lightly greased baking sheet, they need room to swell so make sure they aren’t touching, and then they can go in the oven.
These need to bake for 10-15 minutes, but as you always hear, it depends on a multitude of circumstances that none of us really wish to understand. Just check them often as the clock clears 10 minutes, the smell will make sure you won’t forget them, it is simply irresistible!