Alimentary, My Dear
Sweet and Savory Skillet Biscuits
By Tamia Nelson
August 17, 2010
Overnighter, "miniature adventure," or Big Trip — it doesn't matter. Mealtime is one of the best times of a paddler's day. But sometimes a much‑anticipated dish leaves you with a few empty corners. That's where bread comes in. Breadstuffs have a stick‑to‑the‑ribs quality that makes them the perfect accompaniment to any meal. So whether you eat to live or live to eat, there's a place for bread on your menu. And you'll find plenty of choices at your local HyperMart, from crackers and bagels to artisan loaves. It's a Man‑Cooking enthusiast's dream come true.
Of course, nothing beats homemade, even if home is a riverside camp. The aroma of freshly baked bread is hard to better, and baking doesn't have to be a chore, even when the nearest oven is somewhere over the horizon. Bannock is a campfire staple with a long heritage. Make a single big cake, or divide the dough into smaller portions. Flatbread is another good bet. As one of the first products of the baker's art, it dates even further back in human history. But there's a third contender, and it's a cinch to make. It might even convince dedicated Man Cooks to spend a little more time over a stove. I'm talking about…
Not so very long ago, every woodsman knew how to throw together a mess of biscuits with a few common ingredients. Biscuits were as much a part of camping as the wood fire on which they were baked. But times have changed. Open fires have now fallen out of fashion in many places — for very good reasons — and not many cooks bother making biscuits from scratch. Cutting lard or shortening into a mixture of flour, salt and soda, then stirring in milk or buttermilk… It's just too much trouble for most paddlers, and I'm no exception. Luckily for all of us lazybones, there's an alternative, a sort of halfway house between store‑bought and homemade: biscuit mix. Whether you prefer Bisquick, Jiffy, or your local store brand, there's sure to be a mix that will work for you. You can even find gluten‑free varieties. Of course, biscuit mix can be used for a lot more than just making biscuits. It's a Swiss Army knife among culinary staples.
Is all this talk about biscuits making you hungry? Me, too. So let's whip up a quick batch. What's that? You don't associate "quick" with biscuits, even if they happen to be made from Bisquick? Well, neither did I. But experience soon changed my mind. Biscuits come together fast. And you can bake them in a skillet. So there's little reason not to include them in your paddling meal plan.
A word about quantities: I make my biscuits in batches of nine. Each biscuit is about two inches in diameter. If your biscuits are smaller, you'll get more. If they're larger, you'll end up with fewer. That makes sense, right? OK. Here's what you'll need:
- One cup biscuit mix
- Scant half cup CLEAN water
- Dash of cooking oil
I told you this would be quick, but I didn't say anything about easy, did I? Well, I should have. All you have to do is stir the water into the biscuit mix. There's no need to work up a sweat. In fact, biscuits don't like being beaten. It makes them tough. Does the dough seem too dry? No problem. Simply add a bit more water. Then, as soon as the consistency is right, pat the dough into a rough square about half an inch thick. (I do this right in the pot that I do the mixing in, but you can even use the bottom of your canoe — if it's clean, that is.) Now divide the dough into nine approximately equal portions by cutting across it, tic‑tac‑dough…er…tic‑tac‑toe fashion.
Next, put about a tablespoon of oil in a well‑seasoned eight‑ or nine‑inch cast‑iron skillet, and put the skillet on the stove. (You can also use a nonstick skillet, but you'll still want to add a dash of oil, for flavor if nothing else.) A medium‑high flame is about right. Are you cooking over a wood fire? Then place the skillet in a hot spot. When the oil is shimmering — but before it starts to smoke — it's time to put the biscuits in the pan. Do this carefully, dipping your fingers into the dry mix first to keep the dough from sticking. Better yet, use a spoon to lift the biscuits. Hot oil can give you a nasty burn. (I don't have to tell you not to worry if your biscuits aren't exactly square or perfectly flat, do I? I didn't think so.) Once all the biscuits are in the pan, cover it, reduce the flame (or move the skillet to a cooler region of the fire), and wait. A couple of minutes is all it takes to brown the bottoms. Then flip the biscuits with a spoon or spatula, cover the skillet again, and wait another minute or two. That's it. Serve with butter, olive oil, jam, maple syrup, or honey. It makes my mouth water just writing this.
The basic biscuit is fine as is, but you can always make a good thing better, as in…
Savory Skillet Biscuits
Simply add dried rosemary, cracked black pepper, curry powder, or dried chives to your mix. Or bacon bits (real or vegetarian). Or small chunks of pepperoni. Or even SPAM. Whatever you add, though, don't overdo it. Too many extras will stretch your biscuits to the breaking point. Literally. They'll fall apart in the pan instead of holding together. And biscuit crumbs aren't biscuits. Me? I like Cheddar biscuits, and that's what I made to illustrate this article. First off, I grabbed about an ounce of Cheddar cheese — that's a slab about one‑quarter of an inch thick, an inch wide, and two inches long (see picture at right). Then I chopped the cheese into raisin‑sized chunks and stirred these into the dry biscuit mix. I used Bisquick because that's what I had on hand, but you can use whatever mix tickles your fancy. Finally, I rubbed in about half a teaspoon of dried thyme. All that remained for me to do was to add water, form the dough, and cut it into nine parts. I baked my biscuits in a covered skillet, as described above. A quick poke to make sure they'd cooked through, and it was time to serve 'em up. The photos below show all the steps, though I didn't include any pictures of the covered skillet.
Cheddar‑cheese biscuits like these are a robust accompaniment to any meal. They're especially good with stews and soups, and because there's not a lot of prep work, they're easy to fit in when heat‑and‑serve canned or freeze‑dried food is on the menu. But biscuits also make first‑rate desserts. So why not try your hand at…
Sweet Skillet Biscuits?
Do you like sweet rolls or cinnamon donuts? Then you'll love these. Stir two tablespoons of sugar into basic biscuit mix. Chop up some dried apricots or prunes and add them, too, if you're of a mind. Or if you don't like apricots and prunes, use fresh or dried apples, dried cranberries, or raisins, instead. Even chocolate chip morsels and M&M's are good. You can also add cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom (my "secret" ingredient for sweet dishes) into the mix. Bake just as you would basic or Cheddar biscuits. Then, if you're really feeling ambitious, you can glaze your biscuits. Put four tablespoons of confectioner's sugar into a cup, stir in just enough clean water to form a syrup, and drizzle it over your biscuits when you slide them off onto the plate.
What's my favorite dessert biscuit? That's easy: cinnamon‑sugar. Combine one tablespoon of dried cinnamon and two tablespoons of sugar in a good‑sized pot or deep bowl. Now add two tablespoons of sugar to the dry biscuit mix in another pot, stir, and bake as before. When your biscuits are done, drop a dollop of butter into the hot skillet and tilt it so that every square gets a light coating. Finish up by easing the hot biscuits into the bowl with the cinnamon‑sugar mix and rolling them around to insure even coverage. Serve immediately. For a luxury touch — if your food stock permits — split the hot biscuits and cover them with fresh, sliced strawberries and a drizzle of maple syrup (or a smear of orange marmalade). Here's the whole process in pictures, from start to finish:
Simple and good. Dessert doesn't get any better than that. But be warned: You're sure to get requests for second helpings! And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a little unfinished business in my test kitchen. Hope I've got some Bisquick left…
Biscuits have been a camp standby since pioneer days. But you don't have to be a chuck‑wagon cook to make them, and you don't need an oven, either. Just pick up a box of biscuit mix at the HyperMart and you're good to go. Biscuits can be brilliant. Make them savory or make them sweet. Or, better yet, make them both ways. What are you waiting for? If you have a skillet, you can have fresh‑baked biscuits every day you're in camp. That's a pretty enticing prospect, isn't it? Who knows? You might even decide to stay out a couple more days! (Or until the biscuit mix runs out, at any rate.)
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