One of the highlights on my tour of all things Vivian Howard in Kinston, North Carolina was a biscuit-making class with Lillie Hardy.
Lillie standing in front of a painting of her on the farm
Viewers of A Chef’s Life know Miss Lillie as one of Warren Brothers’ employees on his farm, which supplies Vivian Howard with her organic produce.
Lillie (middle) preparing produce to be delivered from Brothers Farm to local restaurants
When Vivian discovered Lillie’s treasure trove of eastern North Carolina cooking know-how, including biscuits, Lillie became a fixture on the show. Lillie’s Fried Cornbread recipe appears in Deep Run Roots, Vivian’s new cookbook. We pounced on the opportunity to take a biscuit-making class from Lillie. I thought I knew a thing or two about making biscuits, but Lillie’s instruction humbled me.
Ingredients and Tools
We gathered at Vivian Howard’s HQ, which houses her test kitchen. Sitting on the stainless steel counter were the simple ingredients and tools.
Ingredients: whole buttermilk, lard and self-rising flour (at least 6 cups) – all at room temperature
Tools: only a large mixing bowl, baking sheet and sifter.
Note: since three of us were taking the class (I was documenting), Lillie divided the ingredients between three bowls. Where noted, I will explain adjustments to what you see in the photos.
Preheat oven to 400°
This recipe is one of those Lillie knows from memory and by feel. All measurements are approximate. If approximations give you the heebie-jeebies like me, don’t worry. Read through this, look at the photos, and you will be eating yummy biscuits despite not having the comfort of exact measurements.
Pour about 6 cups of self-rising flour in a sifter resting in a mixing bowl and sift.
Make a large well in the flour with your hand
Drop a palm-full of lard in the well
note: lard for recipe needs to be twice as large as seen above
Massage lard in well
This step is key: take your time. Massage the lard in the well for a few minutes, mushing and squishing.
Shake buttermilk and add small amount at a time to lard
Add a small amount (generous tablespoon or so) of buttermilk to the lard.
Continue to massage lard until you can’t feel lumps
Add a little more buttermilk and continue to massage. Don’t be in a hurry here: watch the lard/buttermilk grow and become smooth.
Incorporate flour – Swirl then Fold
We had a little trouble with this next step, so Lillie guided us. To incorporate the flour into the lard and buttermilk, gently turn the bowl with one hand while swirling the flour into the lard and buttermilk. You will NOT use up all the flour. This is important!
Your dough will be firm, not sticky.
Wash hands, then coat hands in flour from bowl
Next, wash your hands, then using the extra flour from your bowl, coat your hands in flour.
To form biscuits, pinch off a small amount of dough, about the size of a golf ball. Roll between your hands, then flatten between them. Next, with the pretty side up (without cracks) push and roll the edges under to smooth out the cracks from the edges of the biscuit.
Place on greased baking sheet. Lillie uses lard to grease, but butter is okay to use. She does not like to use cooking sprays.
Once the baking sheet is full, use the palm of your hand to gently flatten the biscuits so they look like this:
Place baking sheet in middle rack of 400° oven and bake. Lillie doesn’t specify a time frame because all ovens are different. Instead, when she starts to smell the baking biscuits she will check on them
using a fork to lift them up from the pan. If they are browned (not too much) on the top and bottom, then they are done.
While the biscuits are baking, I’ll show you a few photos from Vivian’s test kitchen.
vintage sifters and grater still in use
jars of pickles
tomatoes put up
dying to look through this well-used recipe box
We were fascinated to see Vivian’s cookbooks and chagrinned to find no familiar ones. Clearly a professional chef seeks inspiration from a higher plane.
After 30 minutes in the oven, our biscuits were ready. We broke out the butter and jam and enjoyed every morsel.
Aside from the delicious biscuits, what I took away from this is the value of handing down a recipe by personal instruction. It made me wonder if I had done enough of that with my daughters before they flew the nest. As you can see, without exact measurements and with instructions like swirling, mashing, pinching and massaging, it’s crucial to see the technique in person.
Many thanks to Lillie Hardy for her expert instruction and to Vivian’s assistant Holley Pearce for setting up the class.
May 25, 2017
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