Winter holidays are my favorite for sitting around in pajamas with family and friends late into the morning. A comfort food, hot breads can be substantial enough to build a morning or noon meal around—with or without the grits, sausage, eggs and bacon. These biscuits can be mixed and shaped the night before and baked in the morning. They make wonderful cinnamon rolls that aren't too sweet.
As a girl, I moved around a lot and rarely saw my distant relatives. But when I did travel back to Texas, my extended family's cooking always stood out. Aunt Roberta's recipe is foolproof. Variations of it have been floating around since the 1950s, she says, (others contend it was way before then) and are sometimes called Bride's Biscuits or Angel Biscuits. Bill Neal confirms as much in his book Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie; in A Love Affair With Southern Cooking, Jean Anderson has a version similar to Aunt Roberta's, which came to me scribbled on an index card.
As my aunt told it, the yeast works with the baking powder and baking soda to guarantee they will rise, with the bonus that the combination makes light and tender hot bread that needs no rolling out and cutting into rounds (though you can if you want). Aunt Roberta uses shortening; the use of local butter and buttermilk here resulted in light, hot bread that is a cross between a scone and a dinner roll, and is just as versatile.
The recipe makes roughly three dozen if you use it all at once. Aunt Roberta's recipe says the dough keeps two to three weeks in the fridge, but I don't know for sure, because it's always gone within a day or two.
Aunt Roberta's Buttermilk Yeast Biscuits
1/3 cup very warm water
3 teaspoons rapid-rise or bread machine yeast
1/4 cup sugar (Roberta's calls for 1/2 cup, but I found it too sweet)
2 cups buttermilk
5 cups all-purpose or bread flour (whole-wheat pastry or all-purpose will work, but results will not be as light)
1 teaspoon each baking powder, baking soda, salt
1 cup butter
Dissolve yeast in warm water with sugar until it foams. Microwave buttermilk on high for 1-2 minutes or until warm through. Combine yeast mixture and buttermilk and set aside. Combine dry ingredients with butter in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a dough blade and pulse to combine until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. If your processor is large-capacity (at least 7 cups) add the yeast-buttermilk mixture and run machine to knead until thoroughly mixed, not longer than 20 seconds or dough will be tough. If your food processor can't handle this quantity, turn the pulsed flour-butter mixture into a large bread bowl and use a wooden spoon to stir in liquids a cup at a time until thoroughly mixed and blended, kneading the dough in the bowl (with the spoon or your hands) about a minute after all traces of flour disappear.
Shape into desired number of biscuits or dinner rolls (and store any extra covered, in the fridge) by pinching off dough slightly larger than a golf ball, gently shaping into a round and placing it on lightly greased cookie sheet, with sides barely touching—or not, if you like the crust of a stand-alone edge. If sides are touching they will bake into dinner roll texture.
Spray tops lightly with vegetable oil and cover with plastic. Let rise in a warm place for 35 to 45 minutes or until doubled in size. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, watching they don't burn on the bottom, which the sugar in them makes them more apt to do. Serve hot with lots of jam and honey.
Cook's Note: If you are doing this the night before, refrigerate at the rising stage. Remove from fridge about an hour before you want to bake them and proceed as above. Likewise, to shape the refrigerated dough into biscuits, take out the bowl, pinch off the dough and proceed as above.
For cinnamon rolls: Pat dough out (about half the total amount for a 9-by-13-inch pan) into a rectangle, handling gently. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in microwave and spread over dough. Sprinkle a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1 heaping tablespoon cinnamon evenly over the dough rectangle. Roll up, wide side to wide side, and pinch edges together.
Using a serrated bread knife, very gently cut dough crosswise in 2-inch slices to reveal the pinwheel layers of cinnamon-sugar and biscuit. Place in greased baking pan of choice, sides touching, proceeding as above. The recipe refrigerates wonderfully in uncooked cinnamon roll form and smells great baking while you sit around drinking coffee.