My full name is Virginia Louise Willis. My mother’s name is Virginia and my grandmother’s name was Louise. From birth, my given name bound me inextricably to the two women that would shape me into the person I am today.
When I was first born I lived next door to my grandparents. I was tow-headed and precocious – the very first grandbaby that lived nearby. That combination pretty much set the stage for me being completely and utterly spoiled rotten. During my terrible twos, my grandmother had a double-sided steel sink. She would put me in one compartment of the sink while she shelled peas or snapped beans in the other side.
Her plain, simple kitchen is at the heart of some of my earliest recollections. It was a small room with Georgia-pine-paneled walls and a window dressed with starched blue and white gingham curtains. A small table sat at the center with a cast-iron paper napkin holder (the kind that might be picked up at a touristy mountain store) that read, “Bless this House Oh Lord We Pray, Make It Safe By Night and Day.” Before the home was air-conditioned, an oscillating fan constantly hummed and provided a soothing base track, enhanced with the sizzling sounds of frying chicken, the tinny rattle of steam escaping a pot or the whirl of an electric mixer beating batter for cake.
Making biscuits with my grandmother comprises some of my absolute favorite childhood memories and that early time led me to love cooking from a very young age. There are photos of me as young as three standing on the kitchen chair making biscuits with my grandmother. She would punch out the biscuits, then we’d roll out scraps of dough and she’d let me make a handprint. It was my form of modeling clay or Play-Doh. While her biscuits rose and cooked to golden brown, my thin, tiny handprint would cook to a darker shade. I can still conjure the pleasantly nutty and ever-so-slightly-bitter taste.
I soon followed my mother into her kitchen, with its large bay window and kitchen island. I no longer needed to stand on the chair to roll out the dough, and being by my mother’s side in the kitchen created a different kind of memory. Mama taught me to poke a hole in the biscuit and fill it with butter and homemade jelly. The heat of the biscuit would transform the two into a molten concoction, which would deliciously seep into the crooks and crannies of the tender crumb.
Mama loved, and still loves, to experiment with different recipes. She would prepare braised quail in red wine sauce, puff pastry patty shells filled with silky chicken velouté, and mushroom and herb crêpe. And while she enjoyed cooking more sophisticated fare, she did not ignore the Southern classics. We enjoyed buttermilk cornbread, butterbeans and field peas with rice, country-fried steak, and of course, homemade biscuits.
It was this exposure to different foods that truly piqued my interest in the world of food and set me on the path I am on today. There’s no doubt in my mind that nothing says love and comfort like a fluffy, buttermilk biscuit. With sweet memories and sentiments, I share with you my family’s recipe.
Bon Appétit Y’all!
Biscuits photo: Courtesy of Craftsy
Family photos: Courtesy of Virginia Willis
Virginia Willis’ Buttermilk Biscuits
Makes about 9 biscuits
- 2 cups White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour or cake flour (not self-rising), more for rolling out
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
- 3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
Heat the oven to 500°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a nonstick silicone baking sheet. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk, and gently mix until just combined.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat 8 or so times. (It’s not yeast bread; you want to just barely activate the gluten, not overwork it.) Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out 1/2 inch thick. Cut out rounds of dough with a 2 1/4-inch round cutter dipped in flour; press the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked.
Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. If the biscuits are baked close together the sides will be moist. If the biscuits are baked further apart, the sides will be crisp. Bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool just slightly. Serve warm.
Georgia-born French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Her most recent cookbook Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at www.virginiawillis.com