A while back, I picked up a copy of the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro (Beacon Press, Boston, 2000). This book is a reissue of a cookbook originally published by the National Council of Negro Women in 1958. I don’t recall the reasoning behind the acquisition, except to say that there was a point when I was very much focused on getting mid-century cookbooks of all types. The book is a typical organizational collection, in that various members were called upon to provide their “favorite” recipes. They’re named after famous African-Americans or related events, and they’ve been slightly updated for the modern kitchen.
Frankly, the collection is not impressive, and that’s one of the reasons it rested undisturbed on my shelf for these years. I mean, there are some decent recipes – especially for desserts – in the book, but the vast majority of them tend to be glorified everyday fare. That’s no crime, as most cookbooks, regardless of ethnicity, are filled with options that make one go, “Meh.” And I’m willing to bet that the fact that I have other African-American cookbooks (with far more interesting selections) may have clouded my opinion. For some reason, however, I’d been itching to take a shot of something from this book.
Well, today I took a shot at one of the simpler recipes in the book, and I have to confess that I’m glad I did so. On page 141, there’s a recipe for “Shrewsbury Pan Biscuits.” These are not to be confused with the British biscuit of the same name; that one contains sugar and is more of a cookie, while the one from my cookbook is more of a traditional dinner roll. That said, if you’ve ever seen the recipe for the British version, then you can’t help but note its influence on this African-American version.
Per the original 1958 recipe:
- 2 cups sifted flour
- 4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup shortening (chilled)
- 2/3 cup milk
“Sift the dry ingredients into the mixing bowl. Cut shortening with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture is like coarse meal. Stir in enough milk to make a soft dough. Gently form dough into a ball, and knead on a lightly floured surface around 10 times. With rolling pin, roll dough to 3/4″ thickness. Cut into rounds with 2 1/2″ diameter cookie cutters. Arrange close together in shallow baking pan (place 1″ apart for crusty sides on biscuits). This amount makes enough to fit into an eight-inch square pan. Prick tops with tines of fork. Brush lightly with milk. Bake at 450F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until biscuits are golden brown.”
Usually, I follow a new recipe like it’s the law; no deviations until I have some sort of idea of what the final product will look/taste like. But this recipe was problematic almost from the start. First and foremost, I should note that the biscuits were surprisingly good. I wonder, however, if my modifications (unintentional as they were) left me with a wholly different experience than what the author intended.
For starters, I only use 2% milk, so I suspect that without the extra fat, there may have been a noticeable impact on taste. The recipe did not specify whole milk, but seeing how it’s a nearly 60 year old recipe, I can’t see how that’s not understood. I also used about a half-tsp less baking powder than required because that’s all I had in the tin. (Note to self: Shop!)
My biggest adjustment, however, was in the amount of milk used. The recipe calls for just 2/3 cup, but I found that wasn’t enough. I thought I could get away with adding just a teaspoon here or there, but in the end, I added a full 1/3 cup more (for a total of 1 cup of milk) just to get a dough that would come together.
I did not bake them in a small pan, either. Instead, I placed them individually on a cookie sheet. Why? Because I rolled them thinner than I should have (1/2″ vs. 3/4″), and while it would have taken all of thirty seconds to correct this, I was so miffed at this point that I let the smaller sized biscuits stand. This meant that instead of having between 8 and 10 biscuits, I was now pushing near 18, so I needed the space.
I preheated my oven, and had I the opportunity to do this over, I would have put them in for 10-12 minutes. At 15 minutes, they came out fine, but the outside was a bit more ‘crunchy’ than I’d wanted. I would also brush them with butter before baking for added taste.
Not much else in this cookbook interests me, so it’ll stay on my shelf as a collector’s piece. But I plan on revisiting these Shrewsbury Pan Biscuits again.