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For Thanksgiving: Conquering fear of pie crusts

I've suffered from it for years, and I'll bet you have, too. It gets especially bad around Thanksgiving time.

You know the drill. The best cooks of the family load up the sideboard with their deep-dish apple wonders, dreamy sweet-potato custard pies and decadent chocolate-and-pecan confections. You slink in with your pitiful little pumpkin pie. Everyone knows your dirty little secret: You got the recipe off the side of the pumpkin can and dumped the filling into a store-bought frozen crust. (To be honest, you didn't really know there was any other kind of crust.)

Folks, I hear your pain! Over the years, I have hidden my baking deficiencies by excelling at savories. "Please!" I beg. "I'll cook everything but dessert! Turkey and dressing and all the fixings! But please, don't make me do the pie!"

Recently, however, I decided to stop this foolishness. I decided to conquer my fear of crusts. I decided to call Shirley O. Corriher, the Atlanta food scientist and James Beard Award-winning cookbook writer. Shirley said she would teach me her no-fail recipe for Simple Flaky Crust (from her indispensable first book, "CookWise") on one condition: She would sit, and I would roll.

Before Shirley arrived one recent day, I decided to go it alone. The results were tragic. To begin with, I couldn't even find a rolling pin. When I did find my mama's old wooden beauties, cowering in the farthest corner of my cabinet, I had no idea what to do with them. I ended up pressing the crust into a pan with my thumbs. Play-Doh flashback. Shirley told me it looked great. But I could tell she was lying. I could see the vague look of horror in her eyes.

So we started over.

And in her inimitable way, Shirley gave me a scientific explanation of pie-crust technique: tender vs. flaky and the fickle nature of fat. "Tender is one characteristic and flaky is another characteristic," she said. For a flaky crust, "you need big slabs of cold fat." The fat acts as a spacer in the dough; when it melts, it releases steam that puffs the dough apart. For tender crusts, you want to grease the flour with fat so that it can't soak up water to form tough gluten. (You may have tried this technique before, using a pastry cutter or food processor to mix the flour and fat into pebble-like lumps.)

Well, pretty soon, I started to get the hang of it. I lost my fear of the pin and learned that flour was my friend. I rolled out two crusts, folded them up and gently pressed them into the pan. "Way to go," Shirley said.

By the end of the day, I had a Spicy Peanut and Chocolate Pie, a variation on the classic pecan pie that anyone would be proud to put on a Thanksgiving dessert table, and a wonderful Quiche of Gruyere and Mushrooms, an elegant pie for a holiday brunch.

Shirley had introduced me to the joys of making beautiful hand-made crusts. That's a gift I will always be thankful for.

Pie recipes and a step-by-step guide to making crust

Quiche of Gruyere and Mushrooms

Inspired by Julia Child, this savory pie is rich and voluptuous.

Hand on: 35 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Serves: 4-6

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons minced shallots

1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon lemon juice

4 eggs

2 cups whipping cream

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese, divided

1 single 9-1/2-inch pie crust, pre-baked

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a heavy skillet or sauté; pan over medium heat, melt butter, add shallots and cook for about 2 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, salt and lemon juice and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, and cook down all the liquid, about 10 more minutes. (A couple of pointers: don't over-stir, or you will break up the mushrooms; do reduce as much liquid as possible to avoid a soggy quiche.)

Crack eggs into a medium bowl. Add whipping cream, black pepper and nutmeg. Beat well with a fork or whisk. Gently stir in 3/4 cup of the Gruyere and the mushrooms.

Pour into pre-baked pie crust. Sprinkle remaining Gruyere on top. (If you have extra cheese, feel free to sprinkle a bit more on top.) Bake in the upper part of oven until puffed and brown, about 30-45 minutes.

Per serving, based on 4: 870 calories (percent of calories from fat, 76), 21 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 75 grams fat (41 grams saturated), 423 milligrams cholesterol, 1,235 milligrams sodium.

Spicy Peanut and Chocolate Pie

Hands on: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Serves: 8

This pie is from Nancie McDermott's "Southern Pies" (Chronicle, $23). McDermott attributes it to Barry Maiden, a Virginia native who runs Hungry Mother restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. I served the pie dolloped with bourbon-spiked whipped cream. If you like, reserve about a tablespoon of chopped peanuts for garnish or make a few extra.

For the spicy peanuts

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cayenne

1 cup unsalted roasted peanuts

For the filling

4 eggs

1 cup sorghum, molasses, pure cane syrup or dark corn syrup

1/2 cup dark or light brown sugar, packed

3 tablespoons butter, melted and slightly cooled

3 tablespoons bourbon (optional)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 9-inch single pie crust, pre-baked

Whipped cream (optional)

To make the spicy peanuts:

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper.

In a small sauce pan, make a simple syrup by combining the granulated sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a vigorous boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar thoroughly, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour syrup into a medium bowl. Add salt and cayenne and mix well. Add peanuts and toss to coat evenly. Spread peanuts in a single layer and bake until fairly dry, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and allow to cool for about 20 minutes. Chop coarsely and set aside.

To make the filling:

In a medium bowl, stir eggs lightly with a whisk or fork. Add the syrup and granulated sugar, stirring well to combine. Add the butter, bourbon (if using) and vanilla extract. Mix evenly. Stir in the flour; then fold in chopped peanuts.

Sprinkle half the chocolate chips over the bottom of the pre-baked pie crust, and pour in the filling. Sprinkle remaining chocolate chips into the pie. Bake at 350 degrees, or until the edges puff up and the center is fairly firm, wiggling only a little when you nudge the pan, 25 to 35 minutes.

Serve pie at room temperature with optional whipped cream.

-- Adapted from "Southern Pies" by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle, $23).

Per serving: 470 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 9 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 22 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 118 milligrams cholesterol, 501 milligrams sodium.

A step-by-step guide to making Shirley Corriher's Simple Flaky Crust

1. Mix 2 cups bleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra or Shake & Blend) and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

2. Cut 1/2 pound (2 sticks) of butter Corriher's way. Slice each stick into quarters with a sharp knife, cutting lengthwise into long slabs; then slice each slab into thirds. Toss the butter in the flour mixture, coating the butter well. (It's OK to use your hands.) Place in freezer for 10 minutes.

3. Dump the mixture onto the counter, and roll with a large rolling pin to flatten lumps. If you have never done this, it may take a moment to get the hang of it. Press down on the rolling pin with your fingers or palms to flatten the lumps, and slowly begin to roll. Using a spatula, scrape the flour mixture into a pile and roll again. Repeat one more time. Return the mixture to the bowl, making sure to scrape the dough off the rolling pin, and place back in freezer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, repeat process above: dump on the counter, and roll and scrape together three times. Return to freezer for 10 minutes.

4. Remove from freezer, and gently fold in eight ounces of sour cream. The dough should be moist enough to hold together in a ball. If needed, you may add 1 to 3 tablespoons of water or milk. Nifty hint from Corriher: you can mix a little milk or water into the sour cream container and use the liquid.

5. Divide the ball in half. Flatten into two discs and dust with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight. This will make two single crusts (enough for the pie recipes here) or one double 9-inch crust.

6. When ready to roll crust, place one disc on the counter. (Keep a small bowl of flour handy, and dust the counter and dough liberally with the flour so the crust won't stick to the counter surface.) Gently press the rolling pin down at the center. Roll away from you toward the edge of the disc -- but not all the way to the edge. Repeat, rolling from center toward you. Rotate the crust slightly and continue the process, flattening it into a circle.

7. When the crust is big enough to place into a pie pan, fold it in half. Then fold it again. This will help you ease it into the pan with out breaking it.

8. Place the crust in the pan with pointed edge at the center, and gently unfold it, adjusting it evenly.

9. Tuck the crust into the pan as snugly as possible. This is important, because the crust will shrink during baking, so every surface of bottom and side of the pan must be covered. Trim crust, leaving about a half-inch margin of crust around the edge. You may leave the border plain, or decorate by pressing with a fork or crimping with fingers. Check your recipe; if it calls for a pre-baked or partially baked crust, bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Be sure to weigh down the crust with a layer of parchment or waxed paper, then a layer of rice or dried beans.

10. Cookbook author Shirley O. Corriher describes the secret of a making a flaky crust. "For flakiness, you need big slabs of cold fat. … If you work it in too fine, there's no way on earth you are ever going to have a flake. That's why rolling the butter out in big slaps like this gives you such a flaky crust!"

-- Adapted from "CookWise" by Shirley O. Corriher (Morrow, $35).

Desserts you can fix ahead and freeze for Thanksgiving

Not all of us are like my friend Shawn. Her Christmas shopping for this year, bought during January’s after-Christmas sales, is wrapped, tagged and stored in her attic. Her freezer is already lined with color-coordinated Tupperware housing Thanksgiving jewels waiting to debut on the fourth Thursday of November.

While Shawn’s foresight is unthinkable for most of us (and drives even her closest friends a little crazy), some plan-ahead strategy does much to lower holiday stress. Take Thanksgiving dessert, for instance. With a little freezer space and a few hours before the big day, delicious pies and cakes can be made ahead and frozen, leaving our ovens free for that big ol’ bird and all the fixings to go with it.

Dessert has a special meaning on Thanksgiving. No matter how stuffed we are, there is always room for a piece … or two … or maybe three (but that’s definitely it) of dessert —- and since we’re making room, just a little ice cream or whipped cream to keep them company. These autumnal desserts acknowledge our appreciation of the harvest. Crisp apples, succulent pears and crunchy nuts are baked in buttery crusts. Vibrant pumpkin and cranberry pies mirror the vivid colors of the leaves as they change to orange, then crimson.

While many classic desserts lend themselves to make-ahead status, some do not. Many fruit pies and moisture-rich custard pies are best frozen before baking or prepared shortly before serving. But just as many desserts easily make the transition from freezer to table.

So unwedge that rolling pin from its perch as a safety lock for the porch sliding doors, reclaim those measuring cups from the basket of baby toys, wipe the cobwebs off that electric mixer and start baking. But don’t despair if time gets the better of your good intentions. These desserts will still be winners made the day before or on Thanksgiving Day.

THE RECIPES

Spiced Pumpkin Pecan Cake: This deliciously moist cake is filled with aromatic spices, crystallized ginger, pecans and a hint of rum. Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar and ginger-flavored whipped cream. Don’t be put off by the lengthy ingredient list; most things are in your cupboard.

Apricot, Cranberry and Walnut Pie:  Loaded with the colors of fall foliage, this pie has the sweetness of a pecan pie, with the toothsome addition of dried apricots and cranberries. Lightly toasting the walnuts before baking brings out their flavor and ensures crispness. Mix the ingredients gently to avoid a mottled appearance. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is the perfect complement.

Maple Apple Walnut Crunch Pie: Unlike a traditional apple pie, which should be frozen before being baked, this one, made with grated apples and crunchy oatmeal and walnuts, can be baked ahead of time and warmed before serving. Good baking apples include Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Cortland, Rome, Baldwin and Winesap.

Pumpkin Cheesecake: Cheesecake is a great make-ahead dessert, especially for those with limited freezer space. This scrumptious version is baked in a gingersnap crust and is flavored with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. You can make it on Sunday or Monday and hold it in the fridge until Thursday.

Apple Ginger Bundt Cake: Talk about convenience; this autumnal cake skips the work of peeling and chopping apples by using applesauce. Add some crystallized ginger and raisins and you’ve got a dessert to be reckoned with. Serve with cinnamon or vanilla ice cream for an extra treat.

 

A FEW WAYS TO ASSURE SWEET SUCCESS  BAKING HINTS

 • Always read through the recipe completely to make sure you have everything you need. Have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before beginning the recipe. Measure accurately, and do not substitute ingredients.

 • Choose high-quality ingredients. Unless noted, use large eggs, unsalted butter and all-purpose flour.

• If using a premade pie crust, choose a refrigerated version that fits into your own pie plate, not one frozen in an aluminum pan. If you must use that variety, choose the deep-dish version.

 • Make sure there are no cracks or breaks in the pie crust before baking. If necessary, patch any weak areas with excess dough.

• Keep pie crusts chilled in their pans while preparing fillings. If cooking a filling, cool it completely before putting it in the crust.

 • Bake pies in the middle or bottom of the oven. Always check a pie during baking to make sure the filling and/or crust aren’t overbrowning and that the filling isn’t bubbling over. If necessary, shield with foil and/or slip a foil-covered baking sheet under the pie.

 • When baking a cake, have all ingredients at room temperature for better blending. Take out refrigerated items an hour or two before they are to be used. > When using an electric mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically to fully incorporate all ingredients.

 FREEZING HINTS

 • Choose pie fillings that do not have excess amounts of liquid. As Elinor Klivens explains in “Bake and Freeze Desserts, ” as food freezes, its moisture forms ice crystals. Small crystals preserve a smooth, fine texture, while large crystals can rupture the cell walls of food and cause moisture to flow out of the food as it defrosts, leaving desserts unpleasantly mushy.

• Make sure that the dessert is thoroughly cooled before freezing, or condensation will cause it to get soggy. 

• Use good-quality packaging materials: heavy-duty aluminum foil, plastic wrap zip-top bags specifically for the freezer. Force out extra air before sealing the bag.

• Label desserts with date and contents. Freeze pies up to one month, cakes up to three months.

SERVING SUGGESTIONS

• Nearly all Thanksgiving desserts taste great with a scoop of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream or freshly made whipped cream.

• Sprinkle cakes with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar.

• Flavor whipped cream to complement your dessert. Sweeten to taste with confectioners’ sugar and add a dash of ginger or cinnamon, 1 tablespoon rum or maple syrup, 1 teaspoon instant coffee or 1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest.

Biscuits from scratch

Biscuits are the stuff of legend. The mere mention of them conjures images of hearth and home, kindly grandmothers and good-smelling kitchens. A particularly well-made biscuit has been known to inspire proposals of marriage.

People love eating biscuits. They love talking about biscuits.

But when it comes to making them, the sad truth is that many people, even Southerners, are often too afraid to try.

Why is this? Why are so many otherwise stalwart souls intimidated by a little piece of bread? I decided to consult an expert: my mother, a former biscuit-phobe herself.

While bad biscuits didn't singlehandedly end my parents' marriage, they surely didn't help.

My father, a true biscuit lover —"they just have a taste that fits me," he says — was raised by a mother who, twice daily and without measuring, produced exceptionally fine biscuits from a wood-burning stove. As a young boy, I remember that he was less than complimentary of my mother's fledgling efforts to duplicate those skills. "These look and taste just like the Himalayan Mountains. Hard as them, too!" he used to say.

My mother hasn' t forgotten this, either. "He made so much fun of my biscuits, "she told me, "that I finally got too embarrassed to keep trying and I just quit." She added, a little sheepishly: "I must admit they were pretty bad. Inedible, really. And heavy as lead. You could've put one in a slingshot and killed a bird with it. Maybe a squirrel."

So the biscuit maker in our family was a little doughy man in a white chef's hat named Pop N. Fresh.

Talk about a sad state of affairs, especially since making an infinitely superior biscuit from scratch takes little more time than rapping that refrigerated can against the counter (though I admit I did get a certain thrill out of those exploding tubes of dough).

Lacking a role model at home, it wasn't until I was in my early 20s, working as the chef at a small hunting plantation in South Georgia, that I was able to cobble together enough know-how to make a decent batch of biscuits. Under the gun, through reading and experimentation, I overcame the tendencies of overkneading and underbaking that so often stand in the way of success.

At the Governor's Mansion, I refined my biscuit skills and built confidence. But it wasn't until I met and began cooking with the late, great Southern writer and chef Edna Lewis — an exquisite maker of biscuits if ever there was one —that I really learned to love biscuit making and discovered some of the finer points of the craft. Together, we mixed, kneaded, rolled and baked thousands of biscuits.

Experience has taught me that, in the end, a good biscuit really boils down to a few basics: mainly a hot oven, cold fat and a gentle but knowing hand.

But it's the details that make a great biscuit, and simple as they are, they are important and should be followed closely.

The golden ideal

To my taste, a biscuit should be crusty and golden brown on the top — and even lightly browned on the bottom — with an interior that is soft, light and tender but not too fluffy. It should be slightly moist, but not so moist that it becomes gummy when you eat it, and dry enough to absorb a pat of good butter as it melts. It should be flavorful and well-seasoned, with a slight buttermilk tang, pleasing on its own but an excellent vehicle for other flavors as well.

Ratio of crusty exterior to soft interior is important, and I'm no fan of those big, Hollywood-pumped-up-on-steroids-looking biscuits. I prefer a biscuit no larger than three inches or so in diameter and not much more than an inch in height.

My favorite way to enjoy a biscuit is split, warm from the oven, slathered with excellent, room temperature butter and a drizzle of honey or spread with homemade blackberry or strawberry preserves.

But I would have just as hard a time turning down one with sweet butter and a few shards of country ham tucked inside. Or lightly sweetened and baked into a shortcake filled with berries and softly whipped cream. Or topped with sautéed asparagus and mushrooms and a runny poached egg. Or dipped into a pool of sorghum or cane syrup.

Here are the steps that will take you to your own biscuit nirvana :

 

First: Use the good stuff

Biscuits are a simple affair made with just a few humble ingredients, so each one counts.

Flour

Biscuits are traditionally made with a soft-wheat Southern flour such as White Lily, which is lower in protein than most all-purpose flours and therefore makes an exceptionally light and tender biscuit. However, a very fine biscuit can be made by using any good quality all-purpose flour. ( In fact, Miss Lewis preferred unbleached flour — King Arthur — for making biscuits, and hers were some of the best I've ever tasted.) Unbleached flour contains more protein than bleached varieties, so it is stronger and yields a slightly more sturdier product. If using unbleached flour, you will need to use slightly more fat than with regular flour and possibly a bit more liquid — more about that later.

No matter which type of flour, you should avoid self-rising varieties. They are loaded with commercial baking powder and salt and to me have a very unpleasant taste.

Leavening

I strongly advocate making your own baking powder, a much simpler task than it sounds. Commercial baking powder contains chemicals and aluminum salts that impart an unpleasant metallic flavor and burning sensation on the tongue. Make your own baking powder by measuring and sifting together, three times, two parts cream of tartar and one part baking soda. Put in a clean, dry container with a tight-fitting lid and store in a cool place away from sunlight. Because it is additive-free, homemade baking powder can settle and clump over time, so you might need to sift again before using. Trust me, the little bit of extra effort is worth it.

Homemade baking powder lasts for about four weeks. So make in small batches and use while fresh.

Salt

I prefer kosher or fine sea salt for baking. Both are pure and free of anti-caking agents or other additives. Because of its fineness, sea salt measures differently than kosher, so if using sea salt where a measurement for kosher is given, reduce the amount by nearly half.

Fat

All I am saying is give lard a chance!

Lard is my preferred fat for making biscuits. It has a very high melting point, so it stays solid longer in the oven, which promotes flakiness and tenderness — much better than tasteless, additive-ridden vegetable shortening, a passable substitute at best. Good lard has a clean, subtle flavor. Lard is usually found in the meat section of your market, or possibly on the shortening aisle. Try to find brands that aren't loaded with preservatives and give it a quick sniff before buying to make sure it hasn't gone rancid.

Unsalted butter is another option and it makes a richly flavored biscuit. Whichever you choose, just be sure it is of the best quality and very cold before using. Also, butter and lard absorb flavors and odors easily, so be sure to store well wrapped in the refrigerator.

Liquid

Buttermilk biscuits are my favorite, but you can also make biscuits using regular milk, clabbered milk, heavy cream or half-and-half. Sadly, true buttermilk, the natural byproduct of churning cultured butter, is very rarely found these days. The vast majority of what you will find in your market is either skim or whole milk that has had a culture added to it. Either is fine, though obviously, whole buttermilk will make for a slightly richer biscuit. Try different brands and find one with a taste you like, and avoid those that have been artificially flavored or thickened. Buttermilk is typically seasoned with salt, and some are saltier than others. If you find yourself using an especially briny brand, you might want to cut back a little on the salt in the recipe.

If you're hankering for some biscuits but don't have any buttermilk on hand, despair not. You can clabber regular milk with a tablespoon of cider vinegar or lemon juice (I like a blend of the two) for every cup. Just stir it in and let it sit for 10 minutes or so to curdle. Because it is thinner than buttermilk, you might need to use a little bit less since it will be absorbed more easily into the flour.

Equipment

Baking pans should be of a good weight that will conduct heat well and bake evenly.

Biscuit cutters should be straight-sided and open on both ends. Size is a matter of preference, but for biscuits to be served as part of a meal, I recommend a cutter that is 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Many recipes suggest a juice glass as an option for stamping out biscuits, but I advise against this. The vacuum created by the glass can compress the biscuit and make it less light.

The type of rolling pin you use is up to you, but I prefer the handle-free variety, also known as a "french" rolling pin. If your rolling pin is made of wood, do not wash it. Water will cause the wood grain to swell and open, which will make your pin more likely to stick to your dough.

To clean, use your biscuit cutter to scrape off any bits of dough that might be stuck to the pin and wipe well with a clean dry cloth.

Handle with care

It's true that you need a light hand when making biscuits, but underworking can cause almost as many problems as overworking. While overworking can lead to tough, dry and heavy biscuits, underworking can result in ones that are crumbly and leaden. To get it just right, consider:

• When mixing the dough, stir with a purpose and mix just until the batter is well-moistened and begins to come together.

• When kneading, knead gently but quickly, just until the dough forms a cohesive ball. Avoid pressing the dough too firmly and you will be rewarded with lighter biscuits.

• Gently flatten the kneaded dough and use a rolling pin to roll from the center out to the edges. Avoid rolling back and forth as this can overwork the dough.

• Stamp out biscuits as close together as possible to get the maximum yield. Resist the urge to twist the cutter when cutting out the dough. Twisting seals the sides and inhibits rising, a biscuit's most important duty.

• To re-roll or not to re-roll the scraps: That's a personal decision, but I opt not to. In fact, I very much like the odd bits and pieces of leftover dough baked right alongside the biscuits.

Before you bake

• Pricking the dough with a fork before baking allows steam to be released during cooking and helps the biscuits rise more evenly. It's also traditional, and tradition counts with me.

• Arrange biscuits on the baking sheet so they almost touch. This will keep the sides from setting too quickly in the hot, hot oven and, as a result, the biscuits are able to rise higher and lighter.

• Bake biscuits in the top third of the oven —the hottest part. They'll bake faster and lighter and develop a better crust.

Serve them hot

One of the first stories Miss Lewis told me was of a gentleman from the North who came south to experience Southern cooking — biscuits in particular. When he returned home and was asked how the biscuits were, he sadly replied: "I don't know, I never got to eat one. Every time someone started to bring them to the table, they'd check them and say, "Oops, sorry, they're not hot enough"— and disappear back into the kitchen."

While it's true that biscuits are best eaten warm, don't worry if you can't always time them to come straight from the oven. Biscuits can be baked up to a few hours in advance and reheated, uncovered, in a 375-degree oven for three to five minutes until hot.

Be fearless

Like a dog, biscuit dough can smell fear. But as far as I know, there are no documented cases of a biscuit ever attacking someone. So what if your first batch or two don't turn out like your father's memory of his grandmother's biscuits, or there aren't angels singing when you take your first bite? Practice makes progress, and that's really what it's all about — the satisfaction and enjoyment of learning as you go.

Just ask my mother, who, after 30 years and a little encouragement from her loving son and second and third husbands, now turns out biscuits anyone would be proud to serve.

And even if she should have a bad biscuit day, she can always save the duds for slingshot season.

Seven easy steps

* 1: Rub lard into dry ingredients with fingertips. Half of mixture should remain in 1/2-inch pieces.

* 2: Make a well in flour mixture and pour in buttermilk.

* 3: Stir quickly, just until the dough is blended and begins to mass.

* 4: Turn sticky dough onto a generously floured surface.

* 5: Gently flatten dough with hands and roll it out.

* 6: With a dinner fork dipped in flour, pierce the dough completely through at 1/2-inch intervals.

* 7: Cut the biscuits from the dough as close together as you can for a maximum yield. Arrange cut biscuits on a heavy, ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet so that they almost touch.

Variations

• To make biscuits using unbleached all-purpose flour: Increase lard by 2 tablespoons and, if needed, a little extra buttermilk to make a moist and sticky dough.

• To make Cream Biscuits: Increase salt by 1/2 teaspoon. Instead of lard, substitute an equal amount (1/2 cup) of cold butter cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Work in the butter just as you would the lard. Substitute 1 cup heavy cream and 1 cup half-and-half for the buttermilk. Reduce oven heat to 450 degrees. Because they are richer, cream biscuits brown more quickly but also take a little longer to cook through. To be sure they are fully cooked, test one of the biscuits from the center of the tray by gently pulling apart.

• To make Sweet Cream Biscuits: A sweet version of cream biscuits — delicious with tea or as a base for shortcake — can be made by adding 2 to 3 tablespoons granulated or turbinado sugar to the dry ingredients. If desired, a little additional sugar or coarsely crushed sugar cubes can be sprinkled on top of the biscuits before baking. The crushed sugar cubes add an especially interesting appearance and crunch.

(Note: Because they are so rich, cream biscuits, whether savory or sweet, should always be warmed briefly in the oven before eating.)

• For a perfect brunch splurge: Split and butter a warm biscuit. Top with sliced mushrooms sautéed in butter with a little garlic, a few spears of steamed or blanched asparagus and a soft poached egg. A thin slice of ham can make a nice addition. And if you really want to get fancy, spoon on some hollandaise sauce.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving without going broke

From $50 turkeys to just the right Napa wine, ingredients for the perfect Thanksgiving feast can put a hole in any budget, especially in these hard economic times.

But don't lose heart. Regardless of your financial means, you can have a great meal and spruce up your home, too, said Shelley Wolson, author of "Budget Celebrations: The Hostess Guide to Year-Round Entertaining on a Dime."

"The basic rule is you have to allow people to bring food," said Wolson. "I think people are expecting to help out this year, especially."

In addition, she said, hosts also can decorate on a dime, and bringing the outdoors in is really a great way to be festive without spending any money.

"You don't have to be Martha, but you have to be a little creative," she said.

Other tips for an inexpensive Thanksgiving feast, according to Wolson, include:

 

Decor

Make simple homemade decorations, using the family to help. This offers a personal touch and makes it festive.

Bring the outdoors in, with leaf place cards using real leaves or cardboard cutouts covered in fancy gold-covered tissue paper.

Add real acorns or inexpensive acorn ornaments from a craft store. The advantage to those is that you can reuse the craft-store acorns every year.

Make a banner in fall colors to hang on a banister or over the fireplace.

Use colorful leaves that aren't dry or little colorful Chinese paper lanterns that can be purchased at low cost from a craft store.

 

Food

Let everyone help. No one expects you to foot the entire bill for dinner, especially in this economy.

You do the turkey, maybe the stuffing, one side and one dessert. Assign everyone else something to fill in, especially desserts and sides. Beverages and wine, too.

If you're having people over who are not family, have guests bring their families' favorite or traditional recipe they always make.

Use more veggies. They're more cost-effective. Do a nice salad with homemade dressing and toasted pumpkin seeds. Make a vegetable-based soup. It's filling and inexpensive.

Don't try out a lot of new recipes this year; you'll end up buying a lot of extra ingredients you may not use again.

 

Alcohol

Try offering a "signature drink" -- a special festive concoction instead of a full open bar or expensive wine.

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Now marchmallow freaks can get their Peep on every morning.

Dunkin’ Donuts has a new way to get your Peep fix.

They're making flower-shaped, frosted doughnuts with pastel pink or green icing, each featuring a pink or yellow Peep marshmallow chick.

The new Peeps Donuts will be available for a limited time at participating Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants

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