I have been learning to bake biscuits for years. And from the first, mediocre batch, those biscuits have made my children happy. They are not picky children, and they are not fools: biscuits are warm, salty, and full of fat, and you can even add butter before that first eager bite. What’s not to like?
And yet, for such a simple thing, there is a lot to learn. Years ago I realized that—contrary to the urgent “handle with care” warnings in many recipes—the dough had to be kneaded a bit for a good rise. Hundreds of biscuits later I learned to fold the rolled-out dough in thirds, roll out, and repeat for flaky layers. Eventually I discovered that starting the tray of biscuits in the top rack of my hottest oven produced the tallest biscuits. I began putting in a tablespoon of sugar for balance. I swapped in a little cake flour for tenderness.
The one constant, batch after batch: happy kids. Imperfect biscuits . . . happy kids. Even when I once forgot the baking soda and the biscuits came out predictably low and curiously pale, the kids were happy.
And I have been happy too. Not full-belly satisfied like the kids, but happily intent on learning more, thinking more, and trying again. The way a hard puzzle makes you happy, or mastering a piece of music. I am seeking the biscuit ideal, which, since I’m from the South but live in the North, is a little like trying to get home again, only not the real home (Daddy used Bisquick)—the ideal one. In biscuit terms, that’s light—surprisingly light—fluffy, and flaky, soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside. The perfect biscuit.
Meanwhile, oblivious to my quest, the kids clamor over the steaming, napkin-lined basket; they eat, praise, thank, and eat some more, arguing the merits of jelly vs. jam, with one making a strong case for plain, cold butter. And right at that moment I feel like a pretty good mom. Baking lies, I have come to believe, at the blessèd intersection of single-minded pursuit of perfection and making other people happy. By temperament I lean toward the former, and if I were a sculptor or a physicist I would be a crashing failure of a mother, distant and distracted. But I bake, and that is my saving grace.