I wanted to do something with apples, because it’s supposed to be fall darn it, and so we could start working on knife skills. But with the weather we’d been having I was afraid we’d end up making apple ice cream. Not tragic by a long shot, but then there was the issue of The Biscuits. I had flaky buttermilk biscuits on the brain. With vanilla apple butter.
The high was forecasted at 85 degrees on the day of class. The biscuits were calling. That would have to do.
“What are we making?”
I told the kids that since we would be making two items, we would need to do a little planning. We talked about the steps involved in each recipe and estimated how long they would take.
“I think we should work on the apple butter first.”
I agreed, “Then while the apples are cooking, we can work on the biscuits.”
Out came the knives.
But first, a safety briefing.
“We need to move slowly and keep the blades pointed away from our friends and our own bodies. Once we start working, if we need to look away from our project at any point, we just. stop. cutting. When you’re holding your knife you should be looking at your knife. If you need to put it down, make sure the blade is facing away from you.”
I showed them how to anchor the cutting boards to the table by placing a dampened kitchen towel underneath, explaining that their first concern should be making certain their cutting surface was nice and stable.
Next, I modeled the proper way to hold a chef’s knife: with the blade sandwiched between the thumb and index finger, directly above the bolster, leaving the three remaining fingers to wrap around the handle. Their non-knife hand, or guiding hand, would serve to secure the food on the cutting surface.
We placed one board, on either side of the table, to be manned by one child, who would be assisted by one slightly nervous mother.
Having a stable item to cut is just as important as having a stationary surface, so we began by slicing off the bottom of the apple. Now the fruit would not roll around on us as we made four cuts around the core.
Now we had four, flat-sided pieces of apple to slice.
Keeping fingertips out of the way, we proceeded to make thinnish slices. We talked about using a slight rocking motion: tip down, then the heel of the blade down and through the apple, rather than trying to push the entire blade through the fruit in one movement.
That round went surprisingly smoothly. Two kids down, three to go.
At this point, the moms opted to switch positions and assist their own child; somehow the idea of maiming your own offspring seemed more palatable than injuring that of another.
We turned our apples as needed, making sure that the fruit was always very stable on the board. If we came to a place where it was too tight to cut safely, we adjusted the piece so that our guiding hand had more room.
The kids stayed remarkably focused on their tasks.
Unsurprisingly, some were itching for more independence.
After several sweaty, (by the moms), minutes, we were done.
We placed the apple slices in a pot with some apple juice and the pulp of half of a vanilla bean.
“Can I smell the vanilla?”
Deep inhales and appreciative murmurs all around. Somebody adopted a really bad French accent.
We would let the apples cook while we turned our attention to the biscuits.
We weighed the flour into a mixing bowl.
“You guys tell me when it gets to 8 oz.”
“6…6 and 3/4…7 and 1/2…3/4…a little more…7/8…STOP!”
And added salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda.
“Wait, why are we adding both baking powder and baking soda?”
We recalled how baking soda, an alkali, was able to create carbon dioxide in and leaven baked goods by reacting with an acid, like buttermilk. We would be using buttermilk in our biscuits, so why the baking powder as well?
We needed a specific amount of baking soda to neutralize the buttermilk, but that small amount wouldn’t provide enough leavening. We couldn’t just add more because without the additional acid required to offset it, the excess baking soda would leave a soapy or bitter taste.
This is where baking powder comes in. Because it contains an alkali/acid component that reacts in two stages, (once when liquid is introduced, and again when it is heated), it can be used in addition to baking soda, or even in place of it, depending on your preference. We could substitute milk for the buttermilk and use only baking powder, but then we would lose the tenderizing effects and tangy flavor of the buttermilk.
Once we had the dry ingredients in the bowl, we used a whisk to combine them. Or something like that.
Just like our flaky pie dough, we cut the very cold butter into cubes and added it to the flour.
Rather than using a pastry cutter to blend the butter into the dry ingredients to form smaller, flour covered bits, we left the butter in cubes, handling it only enough to separate the chunks and coat them with flour.
The whole process took just minutes.
When the butter cubes were evenly distributed through the flour mixture, we poured the cold buttermilk over everything and used a rubber spatula to quickly and gently combine the ingredients.
Nearly all the flour was absorbed by the buttermilk, leaving us with a shaggy dough. To keep our biscuits tender, we stopped mixing as soon as the rough mass came together. Overworking the dough would risk developing the gluten in it, thereby increasing our chances of producing tough and chewy biscuits.
We dusted the table lightly with flour and dumped our dough on top of it. We could see that the butter was still in chunks, exactly how it was supposed to be. With floured hands, we pressed and patted the dough into a rectangle, about 3/4″ thick.
“You guys know how you have to fold a letter when you put it into an envelope?”
Using a bench scraper, I showed the kids how to fold the two short ends of the rectangle back onto itself, like a letter.
We made sure we had a
massive amount of light dusting of flour on the table and used the bench scraper to pick up and reposition our parcel of dough. Just as before, we patted that rectangle down to about 3/4″ thickness.
We repeated the process two more times, for a total of three letter folds.
What was the point of all this folding?
“Who likes croissants?”
A chorus of “me”s.
We were borrowing from a technique called lamination, which is how croissants and puff pastry are made. The folding action creates alternating layers of fat and dough, in this case, butter. When the butter is heated, the water in it turns to steam and causes the layers of dough to puff and separate, resulting in crispy yet tender flakes.
After the patting and pressing, the dough finally looked more uniform in finish and more like, well, dough, yet with nuggets of butter still visible.
Opting to make square biscuits, (less waste and no re-rolling of scraps), we portioned the dough into eight pieces.
“You can cut that rectangle in half.”
“Then, this one, cut this way.”
They were giving each other good instructions.
I cautioned against messing too much with it at this point. We didn’t want to “glue” together the layers that we had just created by sawing back and forth through the dough. Just one slicing motion, straight down, would give us the best results.
A peek at the sides of our biscuits would give us a preview of the layers to come.
We placed the biscuits on a sheet pan and into the refrigerator to allow the butter to firm up again.
By this time, our apples had cooked until the point at which they were breaking down.
“Something smells really good!”
We used an immersion blender to quickly process the apples in the pot, then took turns pushing them through a strainer into a shallow pan.
The kids all grabbed spoons and had a quick taste of the now peel-free applesauce before we seasoned it with a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. This puree went back onto the stove to cook over a low flame and reduce to a thick and spreadable apple butter.
The kids took off into the backyard to
run wild burn off some pent up energy, and I popped the biscuit tray into a hot oven.
15 minutes later we had buttery and flaky goodness.
And last but not least, sandwiched with the apple butter.
It was totally worth firing up the oven in 85 degree weather.
Vanilla Bean Apple Butter makes about 1- 1/2 cups
2 lbs of flavorful apples, skin on, sliced thin
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1- 1/2 cups unfiltered apple juice
cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices to taste
salt to taste
Place sliced apples, apple juice and vanilla bean in a pot. Cook over moderate heat for about 30 minutes, or until the apples are soft and breaking down. Puree with a hand blender or in batches in a regular blender. Strain into a shallow pan. Add spices and salt to taste. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 1 hour.
Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits, adapted slightly from a recipe by Peter Reinhart
makes 8 – 10 square biscuits
8 oz. (1-3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more as needed for shaping the dough
1 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
2-1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
4 oz. (8 Tbs.) very cold unsalted butter
3/4 cup very cold buttermilk
Heat the oven to 500°F and position a rack in the middle of the oven. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large mixing bowl and stir with a whisk to distribute the ingredients evenly.
Cut the butter into small cubes and add them to the flour mixture. Use your fingers to separate the butter bits (they tend to stick to each other), coat them all with flour, and evenly distribute the pieces throughout the flour mixture. Don’t rub the butter too hard with your fingertips or palms, as this will melt the butter. You’re just trying to break the butter pieces apart, not blend the butter into the flour.
Add the cold buttermilk and stir with a large spoon until all or most of the flour is absorbed by the buttermilk and the dough forms a coarse lump.
Dust a work surface with flour and dump the dough onto it, cleaning out the bowl with a spatula or a plastic bowl scraper. Dust the top of the dough and your hands with flour, and press the dough into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle. Sprinkle a small amount of additional flour on the top of the dough. Fold the dough over on itself in three sections, as if folding a letter (also called a tri-fold). With a bench knife or metal spatula, lift the dough off the work surface and dust under it with flour to prevent sticking, if necessary. Dust the top with flour and press the dough out again into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle and repeat the tri-fold. Repeat this procedure one more time (three times in all).
After the third tri-fold, dust under and on top of the dough, if needed, and press the dough into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle. Mark the dough into even portions. Use a sharp knife or bench scraper to press straight down to cut and lift straight up to remove; a sawing motion will seal the sides and interfere with rising. Use a bench knife or spatula to transfer the biscuits to the baking sheet, placing them about 1/2 inch apart. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Put the baking sheet in the oven and reduce the temperature to 450°F. Bake for 8 minutes; rotate the pan 180 degrees; continue baking until both the tops and bottoms of the biscuits are a rich golden brown and the biscuits have doubled in height, revealing flaky layers on the sides, 4 to 6 minutes more. It’s all right if some butter seeps from the biscuits. Remove the pan from the oven and set it on a cooling rack, leaving the biscuits on the pan. Cool the biscuits for at least 3 minutes and serve them hot or warm (they will stay warm for about 20 minutes).