I remember the first time I ate really great biscuits. Mattie Ball Fletcher, who was almost 100 years old at the time, made them for me in the early 1980s. A direct descendant of George Washington’s brother, Charles, she lived in an 18th-century wood-frame home, next door to the Inn at Little Washington. She made buttermilk biscuits the old-time way, cutting them with a snuffbox and then pricking them with a pointed device a friend had concocted for her.
Although she gave me her recipe, I could never get the biscuits just right until I took a class with food chemist Shirley Corriher, who had had the same problem with her grandmother’s biscuit recipe. The secret, she found, is starting with a very wet dough, then dipping your hands in flour and, working very quickly, adding just enough flour for the biscuits to hold together. Sifting the flour makes the biscuits even lighter. Butter tastes much better than vegetable shortening in this recipe, and nowadays they say it’s better for you.
By Joan Nathan, a food writer in Washington, D.C.