I know, I know. It's Thanksgiving Eve. Night before's no time to foist off new recipes. Don't worry. I don't want you to run around, adding or editing. That would be silly. Not to mention thankless.
No, what I want you to do is tuck this one away. This is not really a Thanksgiving dish, anyhow. In fact, I've never baked these for the holidays, before. I've made them for Tuesday before-school breakfasts and lazy p.j. Saturdays. I've slipped them under sliced and sugared high-July strawberries, and dashed them to the dinner table to accompany last night's leftover soup. They are that kind of thing, everyday eating, four ingredients, fifteen oven minutes, quick and dirty, food of angels.
But I guess I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the feast, and the wherefore of biscuits. Vegetarians are often cornered at Thanksgiving, asked how they find any food to eat, what with the big beast of a centerpiece and all. I, however, believe they've got it made, at least based on my own meatless years. I like turkey just fine now, but it's the sides that make my knees weak, the mushroom-studded stuffing and tarragon leeks and hit parade of fall vegetables. No turkey? Whoot! More room for brussels sprouts, I say! My son, however, does not say this so much.
See, I sort of suspect kids have it hardest, come Thanksgiving. Not all of them, certainly. Some—and I'm not going to name names, here—burst into the kitchen around November 21st, announcing "I've got great news. I've invented a new holiday! It's called MEAT day, and on it we'll have chicken and turkey and beef for dinner. As much as we want. 'Kay? How 'bout tonight?" Some kids call dibs on the drumstick. In September.
Others, not so much. Nor do they prefer potatoes. White or Sweet. Any which way. Nor green beans. Nor, for that matter, anything else on the traditional groaning board. Really, nothing. Nada, zip, zilch. Now, I'm not even going near that gaping "how to feed kids" can of worms, except to say I've read the book and followed it to the letter and it works brilliantly and not at all. Depends on the kid. Enough about that.
What doesn't depend on the kid, I've decided, is a standing invitation to the table, as you are. This time last year, I decided I'd had it, watching one child sit out Thanksgiving, once again. So I scoured my brain for everything he liked that might possibly be remotely vaguely Thanksgiving-like. (Not being Italian, noodles seemed like a stretch).
Bread. Of course! Should've thought of it sooner. I'd always dodged dinner rolls at Thanksgiving, because there is soooo much other starch on the table. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, those rafts of stuffing. Really, who needs bread on top of all of that? My boy. That's who. (I am a walking, talking four watt night light, sometimes. Not the brightest bulb in the box.) So last year, I whipped up some Parker House rolls. And he ate them! Four or five. And called it dinner. I called it a foot-stomping victory, and resolved to repeat it again this year.
Well, repeat something like it, anyway. The problem with Parker House rolls is that there's really no whipping up to be had. They are risen and doubled and punched down and hand-folded, a little like yeasted, edible origami. I'm okay with all that. Except on Thanksgiving.
So this year, we talked and decided there will be biscuits. (There will not, however, be beech, oak or pear leaves on the trees. The because is fairly self-explanatory.) Cream biscuits, in particular. You proper Southern belles may find these a shocker; there's not a whiff of buttermilk, or even butter, involved. They are nothing more than 2 cups of flour, plus 2 teaspoons each sugar and baking powder. And—and it's a big and—a cup of heavy cream. Actually, a cup and a quarter. And another tablespoon (or two). I know. They are a scandal. And worth every bite.
Now, I'm not going to go and say something silly, like these are better than buttermilk. We make those, too, and they're their own kind of lovely. I'll only state that these are the lightest, fairest crumb that ever leaves my oven, tender to the point of melting, like a gold-coated cloud. Eaten hot, with a slip of butter and a knob of raspberry jam, they remind me of Fisher Fair Scones, and then some, and minus the crowds. (Fisher Fair Scones either mean the world to you, or nothing at all.) Leftovers are pretty much made for good ham, the dry, aged, rich salty stuff, best sliced whisper-thin.
adapted from Baking Illustrated, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine
Yields 8-12 (see variations, below)
The kneading step is a little unusual, typically avoided in butter-based biscuits as it makes them tough. The cream, however, interacts differently with the gluten, and actually delivers better texture and rise with the aid of a little hand-work. Sometimes, as above, I press my dough particularly thin, when I'm in the mood for a higher crust:interior ratio. See variations below for a taller, loftier biscuit.
My main adjustments have to do with technique. Cook's Illustrated is known for their painstaking precision. I am so not.
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 - 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Place oven rack in the upper middle position, and preheat oven to 425°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment.
In a medium, wide bowl, whisk flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add 1 1/4 cups of the cream and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, until dough pulls together into craggy, mostly-together bumps, about 30 seconds. If there is still a good hit of loose, dry flour, dribble in a bit more cream, 1 Tablespoon at a time. I usually wind up using 1 1/4 cups plus another Tablespoon or two.
Dust a clean surface with flour, and tip mixture out. Lightly flour hands, and knead until dough is just smooth and fairly cohesive, about 30 seconds. Gently, firmly, nudge dough into a round. For a short biscuit with an equal proportion of crust:interior, make your circle roughly 10-12" in diameter, 1/2" or so thick, which yields 12. For a loftier biscuit, more traditional biscuit, simply make a smaller, taller circle (8" in diameter, 1" thick), plan on only 8, and bake a few minutes longer.
At this point, biscuits can be cut into triangles, which are more efficient (no scraps), or circles, my standby. If cutting circles, cut as close together as possible, and gather scraps for re-cutting. After two cutting sessions, I simply pat the remaining scraps into a final biscuit or two.
Bake until golden brown, 15-18 minutes. Serve immediately.