A few years ago, my wife Susan and I compiled a family cook book based upon the hundreds of hand-written index cards in our jammed recipe box. We also asked our children to send us their favorite recipes. Carol, our older daughter, sent us a recipe for “Touch of Grace Biscuits” which she described as one of her favorites. Although she was born in the Mountain West, she grew up in the Deep South, so her palate often favors Southern tastes. She has perfected Touch of Grace Southern biscuits. There are lots of recipes for biscuits, but few of them seem to rise up tall with a flaky inside. These definitely do. This recipe is one of Carol’s specialties that she gleaned from a couple of Southern cookbooks. There are various explanations for the “touch of grace” title, but they all trace back to the noted Southern food expert and cook book author, Shirley O. Corriher. According to Bernard Clayton in his encyclopedic “Complete Book of Breads”, six Atlanta cooks including Shirley Corriher were gathered together by Nathalie Dupree to create the best Southern biscuit from a large collection of recipes. Ms. Corriher offered up her grandmother’s recipe which she described as made with a “touch of grace”. Another version says that the source was a hand-written note in the margin of the recipe. Ms. Corriher herself describes the origin of the name in her own book, “CookWise: the Secrets of Cooking Revealed”. Unable to duplicate her grandmother’s biscuits, Shirley Corriher asked, “Nannie, what did I do wrong?” to which her grandmother replied, “Honey, I guess you forgot to add a touch of grace.” Whatever the real story of the name, these biscuits remain popular and appear in many a Southern baking book.
One of the key ingredients for the recipe is Southern self-rising flour. Most Southern bakers insist that the only flour to use is White Lily flour. To the dismay of many, the original mill in Knoxville, TN closed in 2008 after operating since 1883. Production was shifted to two mills in the Midwest by the new owner, the J.M Smucker Company, who insists that the new product is indistinguishable from the old. Blind testers refute that statement and have demonstrated that they can tell the difference. Some Southern home bakers resorted to hoarding the old stuff when they learned of the plan to relocate the mill. Apparently, there were many reasons that White Lily was different from the flour that you buy at grocery stores outside of the South. Perhaps most importantly, White Lily was made from softer Southern wheat with only about 8 percent protein while Northern and Midwestern flours are milled from wheats with 10 to 12 percent protein. The flour was supposed to be ground more finely, bleached with chlorine rather than other bleaching agents, and sifted several times before packaging. Even without the original White Lily flour, Touch of Grace biscuits are light and delicate. I can only wonder how much better they would be with White Lily.
Here is the recipe as my daughter sent it to me. The ingredients are exactly the same as the original by Shirley Corriher with some minor modifications in the method. The dough will be much softer than usual biscuit dough. That is why you don’t cut the biscuits but rather form them into rough balls and dredge them in all-purpose flour before putting them in the pan. Crowding them will make them rise higher.
TOUCH OF GRACE SOUTHERN BISCUITS
1½ Cups sifted self-rising flour
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/3 tsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp shortening (not butter)
1¼ Cups buttermilk
1 Cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp butter, melted
- Preheat oven to 475º and spray round cake pan with cooking spray
- Combine self-rising flour, soda, salt, and sugar in large mixing bowl. Work in shortening using a pastry blender until the mixture is a pea-sized meal.
- Stir in buttermilk and let stand for 2 to 3 minutes. The dough should be soft and wet.
- Pour the all-purpose flour into a pie pan. Spoon a lump of the dough into the flour, working and shaping it into a soft round. Shake loose any extra flour and place the round in the greased cake pan, continuing to shape and place biscuits until the pan is full. Have the biscuits touch one another as you fill the pan.
- Brush the tops of the shaped biscuits with the melted butter and bake for 15-20 minutes until the biscuits are a golden brown. Serve immediately.
Yield: About one dozen biscuits
As an aside, self-rising flour is a fairly standard Southern ingredient which may be relatively un-used or even hard to find in other parts of the country. Exactly what is it? Self-rising flour is a regular flour that has been pre-mixed with baking powder. Because of that, you should not use it when a recipe calls for yeast as a leavening agent. If Southern-style self-rising flour is not available, you can make your own by sifting together 1 cup all-purpose flour, ½ cup “instant” flour (Wondra is a popular brand which contains a mixture of wheat and malted barley flavors) and 1½ tsp baking powder.