Saturday, May 3, 2008

Rosemary. Peach. Gardenia.

Sometimes, things stay with you: The way the light moves through a window, past the curtains, and filters on to a floor at two in the afternoon in your Grandmother’s living room. The fuzzy leaves of the African violets your Grandfather loved, and their scent; like acrid soil. A sweetly citrus-scented lemon poppy seed cake at an inn in Portsmouth, Virginia on a July summer morning when the air was as heavy as hot lead. The way the Union Oyster Bar in Boston seems to smell of sea salt brine and beer, and the way you will come to associate that pair of scents with people arguing about the Red Sox. And if only the scent of pipe smoke and roses would linger around me around me just once more on this side of life, it would be heavenly.

I made a few biscuits this morning which reminded me of these sensations. If you can take a minute to appreciate what they are and what would go well them, they could be more than just a morning biscuit, they could be one of those historical markers that changes you, stops you, even undermines you at times: One day, a year or a decade from now you might set out determine to change the universe. Put right where there is wrong. But then something will catch you, something deep in the air. And you will have to put it off for a minute or even a week, until you can catch your ghost again and revisit some old, pure, perfect place, worth putting off everything to see on this side of life.

If you make these biscuits and serve them the way Tyler Florence remembers them, they will stay with you in that unforgettable way: Rosemary southern biscuits with peach jam. If you can, get some freshly cut gardenia for the table. Lord knows, I hope I will always remember this day from that heady, deep combination: Rosemary. Peach. Gardenia. Can you believe a person like me can be lucky enough to start a day that way? In some former life, I did something right.

I pass this to you now for safekeeping. I hope you get the peach jam. I hope someone brings you a gardenia. I hope you can always remember the American South this way deep, fragrant, and simply charming. I did not put out a lot of food for family breakfast today. A few small enchanting things can live the precious marks of a lifetime on a sould when left to their own devices.

Rosemary Biscuits
adapted from Alton Brown
makes 14 biscuits

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons finely minced rosemary
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shortening
1 cup buttermilk, chilled

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and rosemary. Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don't want the fats to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky.

Turn dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place biscuits on baking sheet so that they just touch. Reform scrap dough, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. (Biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first, but hey, that's life.)

Bake until biscuits are tall and light gold on top, 15 to 20 minutes.

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