April 16, 2015
I just dusted off Virginia Cookery, a plastic-spiral-bound cookbook I found at Bonnie Slotnick's antique cookbook shop right before she moved to the East Village. Like many great cookbooks of it's kind, this one is a self-published compilation of recipes from (mostly) church-going women. The recipes in these books often vary in quality, but at the very least they make for fun, voyeuristic reading. What was on the table in 1957 Virginia?
Whipped syllabub, turkey pie for 200, and five different types of chess pie, it would appear. (Maybe not all at the same time.) There's also a recipe for sweet potato souffle with sherry and black walnuts that I'm dying to try.
Think I'll pass on the tips for excelling in housewifery.
But here's one odd find: beaten biscuits. Has anyone ever baked with an axe? Here, Virginia Cookery quotes a 1885 tome on Virginian cooking, also called Virginia Cookery, written by Ms. Mary Stuart Smith.
""In the Virginia of the olden time no breakfast or tea-table was thought to be properly furnished without a plate of these indispensable biscuits… Let one spend the night at some gentleman-farmer's home, and the first sound heard in the morning, after the crowing of the cock, was the heavy, regular fall of the cook's axe, as she beat and beat her biscuit dough…Nowadays beaten biscuits are a rarity, found here and there, but soda and modern institutions have caused them to be sadly out of vogue…There are difficulties in the way," Mrs. Smith then goes on to explain that a biscuit block, the trunk of an oak or chestnut tree, sawed off and planed, must be provided near the kitchen."
Mrs. Smith's Beaten Biscuit
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon lard
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Sift flour with salt and work in lard. Have ready a mug filled with equal parts of sweet milk and water. Add it gradually to the other ingredients, kneading all the while, and stopping as soon as the flour will hold together, for the dough should be very stiff. Beat thirty minutes with an axe kept for the purpose. Prick with a fork and bake until a delicate brown.
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I love this recipe. Wonder if a food processor would work? My family would freak out if they saw me with an axe in the kitchen beating the biscuit dough.
I am imagining a new cooking show! Reenactments of meals , methods, etc. make it so!
I think I’m going to need a video to accompany this recipe. I can’t quite picture this in my head. So, with the ax, you are chopping the dough? Most people, it seems to me, chop with an ax. They don’t beat. Maybe with the side of the blade? A kind of smacking action? Smacked biscuits? And, by the way, what’s the science behind this action? I can’t stop grinning. This is so strange.
as a southern girl I have definitely had beaten biscuits, but this recipe is certainly unique. Apparently I have overlooked a very important kitchen tool.
I need to comment on the fact that there are youtube demonstrations on “Cooking With PowerTools” – “Discover the culinary experience of Power-tool cuisine at it’s finest.” Warning!-Scary and a bit disturbing.
These are a tradition in my area and I make them all the time. My grandmother used an axe; you beat with the back end of it, not the sharp end. It’s a pounding kind of thing, and no, a food processor won’t work – it’s been tried. I use a three pound beater that is ergonomically easier on me than an axe. It is of modern manufacture, made in basic imitation of one owned by a centenarian neighbor, whose father had the village blacksmith make one for her. The science is that you are beating the air out of the dough, resulting in a dense biscuit that travels well (for farmers and soldiers) and is very filling. The secret is partly in how they are rolled in the hand before baking – then are not dropped or cut out. The ladies in this video are my neighbors and related to me; they are making them the way we all do in this part of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
P. S. I do mine on a stump. If you beat this hard on your kitchen counter or table, you’d ruin it!