Watching Lauren Vinciguerra make biscuits is poetry in motion.
She pours, mixes, rolls and shapes with sureness and efficiency. When she's done, just a few minutes after she started, five pounds of flour, a pound of butter, a pound and a half of cream cheese and a half-gallon of buttermilk have been transformed into 126 biscuits filling a sheet pan, ready to go into the oven.
As manager of Callie's Charleston Biscuits, Vinciguerra is used to baking in quantity. Her bakery makes about 80,000 biscuits a month, all by hand. "That's our forte," she says.
Nathalie Dupree takes a different tack. Her recipes make enough biscuits to mound in a bread basket, not to make a mountain. Instead of buttermilk, she mixes cream and plain yogurt. "The reality is, most people have yogurt in the house more than they have buttermilk," says Dupree, author with Cynthia Graubart of the new cookbook "Southern Biscuits" (Gibbs Smith, $21.99).
Despite the differences, they both make biscuits more by feel than by measure, and gladly share their hints and techniques. So whether you're making a large batch or just a few, here are tips to turn out light, tasty biscuits.
[bullet] Most recipes call for cold butter, but Vinciguerra lets it come to room temperature before rubbing it into the flour. Soft butter is easier on your hands, and the biscuits won't suffer.
[bullet] Vinciguerra's biscuit dough is studded with chunks of cream cheese the size of small peas. "We call this a little insurance -- you bite into the biscuit and there's a little bit of love: the cream cheese."
* Both bakers recommend using a mixing bowl that is wider than it is deep.
* Use your hands to mix the flour-butter mixture into the liquid ingredients. "You stir around, making an eddy, adding more flour as you need it," Dupree says.
* Dough "wet like lava" makes the lightest biscuits, Dupree says.
* When you're ready to clean the dough off your hands, rub them with dry flour. Water makes them sticky.
* Vinciguerra uses unbleached flour. Dupree uses bleached flour because the biscuits bake up whiter.
> CALLIE'S CHARLESTON BISCUITS
Melted unsalted butter, to prepare pans
1 (5-pound) bag self-rising flour
1 pound salted butter, at cool room temperature
1 1/2 pounds cream cheese
1/2 gallon buttermilk (not nonfat), divided
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Brush two half-sheet pans or several smaller pans with melted butter.
Set aside about 2 cups flour; pour remaining flour into a large bowl. Cut salted butter into large chunks and add to bowl. With your fingers, mix butter into flour until sandy. Cut cream cheese into large chunks and add to the bowl. Work the mixture with your hands, pulling the cheese into pieces about the size of small peas.
Pour in 2 1/2 to 3 cups buttermilk. Use your hand to scrape the flour mixture into the buttermilk, folding and kneading. Add more buttermilk as needed. You may not need the entire half-gallon. The dough should be moist and sticky.
To clean your hands, rub the dough off with some of the remaining dry flour. With floured hands, scrape the dough from the bowl onto a floured surface. (Unless you have a large surface, roll out dough in three or four batches.) Sprinkle dough with flour, and roll out gently to about 1 inch thick.
Flour a 2-inch biscuit cutter, and push straight down into the dough without twisting. (You can twist the cutter gently to remove it.) Arrange biscuits, with sides touching, on pans. If desired, reroll the dough scraps once. (Those biscuits won't be as tender.)
Bake, rotating the pan once, until golden, about 15 minutes.
Serve immediately or let cool completely, then wrap well and freeze. To reheat frozen biscuits, wrap a few in foil, and bake in a preheated 450-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until hot.
Yield: 120 biscuits. To make 30 biscuits, use up to 5 cups flour; 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter; 6 ounces cream cheese; and up to 2 cups buttermilk.
> YOGURT AND HEAVY CREAM BISCUITS
Softened or melted butter
2 1/4 cups self-rising flour, divided (see note)
3/4 cup heavy cream, divided
1/2 cup plain yogurt (not reduced-fat or nonfat)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. For biscuits with a soft exterior, use an 8- or 9-inch cake pan, pizza pan or ovenproof skillet. For biscuits with a crisp exterior, use a baking sheet. Brush pan with butter.
Place 2 cups flour in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep. Using the back of your hand, make a deep hollow in the center of the flour. Stir together 1/2 cup cream and yogurt; pour into the hollow. Stirring with a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, use broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the liquid. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If any flour remains on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons of the remaining cream, just enough to incorporate the remaining flour into the shaggy, wettish dough. (If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.)
Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface with some of the remaining flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough into a 1/3 - to 1/2 -inch thick round, using additional flour only if needed. Flour again and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat the dough into a 1/2 -inch-thick round for a normal biscuit, 3/4 -inch-thick for a tall biscuit, and 1-inch-thick for a giant biscuit. Brush any visible flour from the top.
For each biscuit, dip a 2-inch-biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting close together, being careful not to twist the cutter.
Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for 10 to 14 minutes or until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan from front to back and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide a baking sheet underneath.
Lightly brush the top of the biscuits with butter. Invert the biscuits onto a plate and lift off the pan; let cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.
Yield: 12 to 14 (2-inch) biscuits. Adapted from "Southern Biscuits."