Beaten biscuits are a classic Mid Atlantic tradition and are marked by several distinctive traits. The classic fork tines in the top allow the bread to cook properly as well as give it its distinctive appearance. They are also known for their cardiovascular workout, beating the biscuits in the traditional manner can take as long as an hour to achieve the desired result.
The beating of the flour is necessary due to incorporating air into the development of the gluten stands which occur chemically when the protein molecules swell with contact to water. The more tender a baked product is, is directly related to the amount of air trapped in-between the gluten stands. Cake flours have low gluten content, but still must not be overworked or your cake will come out dry. This is true for all flour based products.
Gluten is a yellow powdery substance on water insoluble proteins composed chiefly of the protein molecules gliadin and glutenin. Their presence in flour allows for the formation of the network of chainlike molecules that traps carbon dioxide and expands allowing for the production of leavened baked products.
“The famed Maryland beaten biscuit (that’s beaten, as in whacked with a club) has undergone a culinary change of near – metamorphic proportions, a change too awful to contemplate. It isn’t being beaten! Modernists have taken to using hand cranked meat grinders or, worse, electric machinery to “beat” the biscuit dough. Egads!
This mixing is not beating and simply will not do, say traditionalists Roby and Elma Cornelius, of Rock Hall, who insist on beating their biscuit dough with the kind of stout 33 – inch, 32 – ounce baseball bats used by sluggers.
“People have different ideas about what this product should taste like. My idea of a proper Maryland beaten biscuit is not a rock – colored dough ball hard as a rock,” says Elma, 75, who learned the art of beating biscuits from her mother, who learned them from her mother. Says Roby, “When I grew up on the Upper Eastern Shore hereabouts, all the children grew up beating biscuit dough with the blunt end of an axe. We always thought that what made them taste so unique, but who knows?”
The Corneliuses’ turn out about fifteen dozen beaten biscuits a week, which sell out fast from their kitchen door at about $2 a dozen, mostly to their neighbors. “We aren’t into commercial production and distribution or I suppose we, too, would have to put aside our bat and get a machine to ‘beat’ our dough,” she says.
It’s too bad the beaten biscuits are getting a bad rap, says Elma, who believes they should be golden brown (not pale eggshell) in color, crispy on the outside and soft (not hard) on the inside. They can be frozen, but they should be eaten hot out of the oven, she advises.
Roby Cornelius, 82, grew up beating the biscuit dough for his mother. A retired waterman, he later substituted a baseball bat for an axe for more leverage. He and his wife take turns swatting the dough for a total of thirty minutes on a maple butcher block table. “I never figured out the mystery of beaten biscuits,” he says raising the bat and giving the dough a hefty series of whacks. “I don’t know if it’s beating air into the dough, or beating air out of the dough. You can hear the air blisters snapping when you do it, I know that. Here, Elma, it’s your turn.”
The bat is passed. The abused dough is flattened out. During about a half – hour of good swatting and pounding that rattles the kitchen cabinets, the dough blisters and cracks until it gets smooth.
There is something highly amusing in watching a peace – loving, elderly couple banging away with a baseball bat on a helpless mound of dough, but the results are wonderful and soothing. And, after all, it is a Maryland tradition they’re carrying on.”
They start with a 25 – pound bag of unbleached flour and mix in Crisco (some use lard), salt, sugar, water and double acting baking powder. The uncomplicated recipe is no secret and the Corneliuses’ are listed in the Rock Hall phone directory and open to sharing the mysteries of beaten biscuits.
“We can’t explain how it works,” says Roby, “but we can explain how to do it and you can judge the product.” Golden crispy outside and soft on the inside. Let’s hope the tradition of beaten biscuits is continued, although it is not something being taken up by younger folks. And let’s keep the baseball bat operation separate from the meat grinder operation, even if we don’t understand why it works the wonderful way it does.
The method of beating the biscuit is the long approach to dealing with the gluten strands. By working them over and over and severing the stands constantly and then emulsifying them with a fat to keep them shortened, you can achieve a tender product without the aid of chemical liveners. Sodium Bicarbonate is the most common leavener used in later versions of this dish.
The Native Americans taught this method of bread baking to the colonists as a way of preserving bread as well as creating a portable form of food that could be carried with you throughout the day. Thus, the original name for the cake was named after the tribe; they were originally referred to as Apoquinminc Cakes.
In the 1870’s an innovation was made to the American kitchen in the method of biscuit baking. The biscuit break was a machine that rolled the dough through hand cranked rollers much like a pasta machine. This method was rendered obsolete by the modern food processor. The use of a meat grinder is sometimes mentioned in recipes as a way of shortening the beating process of this dish as well.
Wheat was a major crop for the settlers of the new world. Bread making was a European tradition and the types of wheat first brought over to the new world were actually more suitable for growing in the Mid –Atlantic region. The middle colonies were actually known as the bread basket of America before the opening of the mid west. Much of the flour produced was shipped up to the northern colonies.
The use of baking powder into this dish made the beating of the dough unnecessary. The consistency of this biscuit is a cross between a soda cracker and a hard biscuit. The addition of baking powder created a dish which was significantly more desirable, but a radical departure from what this dish actually was. In a beaten biscuit he lightening of the dough was a result of the emulsification of the fat into the flour by beating it repeatedly over time. The use of a chemical leavener makes all of that unnecessary since the point of beating the biscuits was to create lighter dough in the first place. Science had rendered this cooking method obsolete. Our ability to create a softer product with less effort makes the beaten biscuit an unnecessary relic. However, now the process of creating the beaten biscuit is to achieve a less desirable result and amplify the textural contrasts between a fluffy baking powder biscuit and the crisp soda cracker consistency of the traditional beaten biscuit.
In the process of creating what would be considered today to be an anachronism, we have created a longing for a specific texture and style through nostalgia that can now be classified as historical or traditional comfort food.
Baking soda used in this dish is useless due to the lack of an acid to activate the second stage or rise of the bicarbonate. You should omit the baking soda and return to its original form, unless buttermilk of some acidic compound is used in conjunction with the baking soda, which would create buttermilk biscuits as opposed to beaten biscuits. Cream of Tartar would work just as well. In proper proportion the two combined is actually all baking powder is. Baking Powder is baking soda with tartaric acid which acts as a time release for the second stage of leavening.
There is a common digestive allergy known as celiac disease, (also called nontropical sprue or celiac sprue.) This is an allergy to gluten. Celiac disease is when the body produces a immune response in reaction to the presence of gluten which then damages the he mucosal lining of the small intestine. A deficiency of certain enzymes (peptidases) necessary for digestion of gluten may underlie the disease. Symptoms include a loss of appetite and weight loss and can stunt growth in young children. It usually manifests itself in children between the age of 6 and 21 months and in adults after the age of thirty.
The media has overblown this disorder claiming, without substantial proof that as many as one in ten people suffer from this allergy. This can easily be seen as false since the food industry has made no effort to cater to this illness.
A Study in Gluten
Traditional Beaten Biscuit with Smithfield Ham
Baking Powder Biscuit with Country Sausage Gravy
Soda Cracker with Thai Spiced Peanut Soup Shot
Chive Pasta Crisp with Powdered Butter and Sour Cream
No Knead Shallot and Walnut Bread with Black Walnut Chutney
Any of these recipes can be modified or used separately. All of these dishes highlight a different texture created by the manipulation of gluten. All five of these dishes are served on one long rectangular platter and eaten in succession to highlight the contrasts in the development of this dish.
Traditional Beaten Biscuit with Smithfield Ham:
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Sugar
½ Teaspoon Salt
¾ Stick Butter, Cut into Small Pieces
½ Cup Milk
Thinly Sliced Smithfield Country Ham
Spicy Whole Grain Mustard
Combine butter and dry ingredients in a food processor and blend for about 20 seconds. Pour in the milk and process for 3 Minutes. Take dough out of processor and roll out on floured surface. Wrap the head of a rubber mallet with plastic wrap and beat the dough for about 15 minutes until blisters form.
Cut the dough into rounds with a small, bite size biscuit cutter and prick twice with a fork. Rework trim as well until you use all of the dough. Bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes until golden brown. Shut off oven and allow biscuits to cool completely. Slice in half and place two thin strips of Smithfield country ham in between. Serve with spicy whole grain mustard on the side.
This is a traditional style recipe although I use several modern methods by incorporating a food processor. The additional beating after the processing of the dough in the machine is necessary to develop the proper texture. The blistering does not occur if you only use the food processor. The dough needs to be smooth and elastic before being cut.
Red eye gravy can also be added to this dish if you are doing this recipe by itself.
Baking Powder Biscuit with Country Sausage Gravy
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 ½ Teaspoons Baking Powder
¾ Teaspoon Salt
¾ Cup Milk or substitute ½ Cup Buttermilk and ¼ Cup Milk
6 Tbsp. Butter, Cold & Cubed
2 Lbs. Jimmy Dean Spicy Sausage
1 Qt. Heavy Cream
1 Cup Milk
Salt and Pepper, To Taste
1 Medium Onion, Diced
1 Red Bell Pepper, Diced
1 Tbsp. Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
4 Tbsp. Corn Starch
1 Tbsp. Fresh Sage
2 Bay Leaves
4 Tbsp. Minor’s Chicken Base
For the Biscuit:
Combine flour, salt and baking powder. Using a pastry blender apply the biscuit method to the butter and flour mixture. Cut the butter into the size of a small pea. Do not overwork the dough and allow to become a paste. Add milk and mix until just incorporated. Do not over work the dough. Flour the surface of the table and roll out dough. Cut with bite sized ring mold. Rework trim and mold as well. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes until golden brown.
For the Gravy:
Place small amount of oil in a sauté pan. Cook off sausage spreading it around but not breaking it up too fine. Add onion, peppers and crushed red pepper flakes and cook until soft. Add sage and bay leaves and then pour in milk. Reduce the mixture down by about half and add chicken base. Add heavy cream once base is dissolved in milk and simmer about 5 minutes allowing all the flavors to merge. Dissolve corn starch in water and bring mixture up to a boil. Add corn starch as needed, stirring constantly until desired thickness is reached. Serve hot over biscuits.
This is a classic southern dish, biscuits and gravy, and is great for serving for brunch or by itself. Be sure not to overwork the dough or the biscuits will be tough and dry. The larger the butter pieces are left the flakier the biscuit will be, however if they are too large, the dough will be underworked and it will crumble apart when they are eaten.
Soda Cracker with Thai Spiced Peanut Soup Shot and Peanut Oil Bonbon:
1 ½ Cups All Purpose Flour
¼ Tsp. Baking Soda
2 Tbsp. Butter, Melted
¼ Tsp. Cream of Tartar
¼ Tsp Himalayan Black Salt, for Sprinkling
¼ Tsp. Salt
2/3 Cup Hot Water, (120 Degrees)
1 Envelope Dry Yeast
½ Tsp. Malt Syrup
2 Tbsp. Crisco
2 Tbsp. Canola Oil
1 Tbsp. Minced Shallot
½ Cup Chunky Peanut Butter
3 Tbsp. Brown Sugar
2 Tbsp. Fish Sauce
½ Tsp. Cayenne Pepper
1 ½ Cup Coconut Milk
1 ½ tsp. Thai Chili Sauce
¼ Cup Tamarind Juice
1 Cup Chili Infused Peanut Oil
0.07 oz. Sodium Alginate
1 Pint Water
½ Tsp. Calcium Chloride
For the Cracker:
Place half of the flour and dry ingredients in food processor. Turn on and pour in liquid. Add remaining flour ½ at a time. Place dough in a greased bowl and refrigerate overnight. Roll out dough on a floured surface and roll out thin. Use a pizza or pasta cutter to shape the dough into triangles or squares. I usually use a long ended triangle. Bake at 425 for 20 minutes. Brush the crackers with melted butter and sprinkle with black salt.
For The Soup:
Sauté Shallot in oil and add peanut butter, sugar, fish sauce and coconut milk. Stir until dissolved. Add chili sauce and cayenne. Simmer and add tamarind juice. Reduce to desired thickness.
For the BonBon:
Dissolve Calcium Chloride in water and set aside. Dissolve Sodium Alginate into oil and blend until completely dissolved.
Drop a spoonful of oil into water mixture and allow to set up for about one minute. Remove from water with slotted spoon and set into a bowl of clean water until needed.
The idea behind this dish was Virginia peanut soup. I traced its roots back to its Thai roots by adding the chili sauce, coconut milk and tamarind. The black finishing salt adds an unusual color to the finished cracker and is important to add an unusual shape to the soda cracker to give the dish a unique flare. Suspend the cracker in the shot glass with the soup and place the peanut oil bonbon on top of the cracker. The peanut oil bonbon is a different twist on adding a drizzle of oil to the finished soup to add richness to the dish. I recommend some kind of acidic palette cleanser such as wine to refresh the palette after eating the bonbon.
Chive Pasta Crisp with Powdered Butter and Sour Cream:
3 ½ Cups All Purpose Flour
5 Large Eggs
1 Tsp. Red Salt
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
Egg Wash (1 Egg – ¼ Cup Water)
Long Snipped Chives, (2 Inches)
Flour for Dusting
1 Stick Unsalted Butter, Clarified
3 oz. Tapioca Maltodextrin
½ Tsp. Salt
¼ Cup Sour Cream
½ Tsp. Chive Oil
½ Tsp. Salt
For the Pasta:
Place flour on table and make a well for eggs, salt and olive oil. Blend ingredients together and form into soft dough, do not overwork. Run through a pasta maker on ever decreasing widths until thin pasta sheets are formed. Cut pasta into two thin sheets. Brush the first with egg wash and line the thin strips of chives along the sheet. Place the second sheet over top and smooth over. Pasta must be thin enough to be able to see the chive through the top sheet. Brush top with egg wash and cut with pizza cutter.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. A thin chive chip should be translucent and slightly browned on the sides. Sprinkle with finely ground red salt.
For the Butter Powder:
Melt the butter and simmer until milk solids separate. Skim off the milk solids and strain oil through cheese cloth. Mix in the tapioca maltodextrin and work with fingers until powder is formed. Form into small block and place on cooled chive chip.
Whip sour cream with chive oil and salt and pipe small flower on pasta cracker and place chive blossom on top. Serve chip suspended on a pin.
The idea of this dish came to me from seeing Thomas Keller do a similar chip with thinly sliced potatoes. I use thin pasta sheets instead to encase the chive. A special pin stand can be purchased through JB Prince in their line created for Alinea chef Grant Achatz.
No Knead Shallot and Black Walnut Bread with Black Walnut Chutney:
1 Cup Black Walnuts, Chopped
1/3 Cup Warm water, (110 Degrees)
1/3 Cup Unsalted Butter
½ Cup Whole Wheat Flour
1/3 Cup Minced Shallots
1/8 Cup Dried Yeast
1 Cup Milk
3 ¼ Cup All Purpose Flour, Unbleached
2 ½ Teaspoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Cornmeal
Preheat Oven to 350 degrees. Toast walnuts, Cool and Chop. Sprinkle yeast in warm water and allow to stand for 4 minutes. Whisk with a fork and allow to stand 10 minutes. Heat milk and butter to 110 degrees. Let cool. Sift flours and salt and add all ingredients and stir until blended. Place into greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap and allow to ferment overnight in the refrigerator. (12 hours) Divide dough into loaves and place into cornmeal dusted Dutch oven. Dock dough in three place and place in oven at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 and continue baking for 30 minutes until dough sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Allow to cool and serve.
4 Cups Black Walnuts, Chopped
2 Cups Dried Cranberries
2 Cups Raisins
2 Cups Cranberry Tangerine Juice
2 Tbsp. Pectin Powder
1 Cup Brown Sugar
2 Tbsp. chopped Orange Rind
For the Chutney:
Place juice in a sauce pot and add raisins and dried cranberries. Stir in brown sugar, orange rind and pectin powder. Simmer 10 minutes. Add additional juice as needed. Pull off stove and allow to cool and mix in black walnuts. Place in a glass or Mason jar and refrigerate.
This is more about the new method of bread making. The walnut chutney is one that I have made several times and is a great spread for toast or used as a spread for a cheese plate.
This recipe has seen little to no change in the course of its history. The only significant change came from the invention and inclusion of chemical leavening agents. This can easily however create a product that really is not a beaten biscuit. This recipe is really more about the process involved rather than a chemical ratio.
Beaten biscuits are as the name implies and the results are unique to the process involved in making them. Due to the labor involved, this dish has become more of a specialty dish produced only for specific events or at the crazy whim of a bored chef who wants to experience the process.
The agricultural surpluses and the consumer culture have rendered the need for the preservation of this bread obsolete, so it has fallen out of everyday culinary fashion. If you are ever fortunate enough to experience this dish, try to think of it in the terms of its creation. It was a product of necessity, but it has now become nothing more than a culinary curiosity.
There has been little evolution in this dish from the perspective of ingredients. It is really more about the method of making bread. There have been several innovations to the process through time however as new methods have been developed to shorten the physical strain of making this dish.
Put a little salt, one egg beaten, and four ounces butter, in a quart of flour; make it into a paste with new milk, beat it for half an hour in a pestle, roll the paste thin, and cut it into round cakes; bake them on a grid – iron and be careful not to burn*
These are beaten biscuits, often called Maryland biscuits. I find it difficult to account for the Indian name; the ingredients are English as is the technique of beating dough for tenderness; Thomas Dawson in the good housewife’s Jewell (1586), for example, calls for beating dough for sweet biscuit bread with “a slice of wood” for two hours.
I think the confusion in the Native American origin of this dish may lie in the fact that the dish is very similar to the classic “Johnny cake,” which is made from cornmeal as opposed to wheat flour. The difference between the two is that the cornmeal cake does not require the same beating process, since no amount of working a corn meal dough will tenderize it. Cornmeal lacks the gluten molecules which form the elastic qualities of wheat flour dough’s.
The above recipe does include egg, which is unusual for this dish. If you decide to follow this recipe, it would be better to separate the egg and whip the whites and then fold them into the finished dough to provide a lighter texture, this is similar to what you would do for a chiffon cake.
Biscuits No. 2
Take a quart of milk, make it hot enough to melt the butter, and put into it two good spoonfuls of butter; pour this into as much flour as will knead it into a very stiff dough; knead it well for an hour, and when quite light, roll it out, not to thin, and cut the biscuits with a cup.
This recipe is even more difficult to produce, since it calls for an extended period of kneading as opposed to beating the dough. It may be that the original concept of the dish did evolve kneading, but soon evolved into beating the dough, since the action would put less strain on the hands and more on the arms and back.
Maryland Beat Biscuit
Take one quart of flour; add one teaspoonful of lard, half tablespoonful of butter. Dry rub the lard and butter into the flour until well creamed; add your water gradually in mixing so as to make dough stiff, then put the dough on pastry board and beat until perfectly moist and light. Roll out the dough to thickness of a third of an inch. Have your stove hot and bake quickly. To make more add twice the quantity.
In this method we see the development of the method and a better understanding of food science. By coating the flour and the butter together by creaming it, you isolate the gluten stands and this will make for a more tender product. The butter will create steam when it cooks and this will be trapped between the layer of gluten. This is a similar method which is used to make traditional Danish.
Beaten or Maryland Biscuit
1634 – 1959
4 Cups Flour
½ Tsp. Baking Powder
1 Tsp. Salt
1 Tbsp. Sugar
1/3 Cup Shortening
1 Cup Milk (Almost)
Sift dry ingredients 2 or 3 times; add sugar; cut into shortening with 2 knives (or blender) Add enough milk to make a stiff dough. Knead thoroughly, beat dough until it is creamy and full of blisters. (Use heavy mallet or end of rolling pin.) Fold over and over while beating. Beating time 20 minutes.
Roll dough ½ inch thick, cut with small cutter, prick each biscuit with a fork, separate on baking tray and bake to a light brown, about 25 minutes at 375 degrees.
Note: Above makes about 20 small biscuits. This is also ¼ recipes. We have put dough through meat chopper 6 times and the result was almost as good as hard beaten.
Mrs. Robert Engelhardt
In the above recipe we see the inclusion of modern technology. The use of baking powder as a chemical levener makes the process of beating the dough pointless, all you are going to do is dry out the product. This recipe is actually more of a baking powder biscuit as opposed to a beaten biscuit. It does show however, the innovation of using a food processor which is a way of cutting the dough and working it without the back breaking labor of beating it. You can omit the baking powder from this recipe and achieve a more authentic result.
“The World’s Largest Ham Biscuit”
1000 Pounds Flour
80 Gallons Buttermilk
32 Pounds Baking Powder
14 Pounds Salt
7 ½ Pounds Baking Soda
500 Pounds Genuine Smithfield Ham, Sliced
75 Pounds Butter
75 Pounds Luter’s Lard
- The total amount of time required to prepare 5 batches of dough for two hours. A special oven is necessary in order to bake the biscuit. The baking time is more than 14 hours using the special oven!
- Cooling time for the biscuit is 4 hours. It takes an additional 1 ¼ hours to remove the top of the biscuit to place the ham slices.
- Makes an enormous number of servings.
September 28, 2002 is when Ripley’s Believe it or not, CNN, Guinness Book of World Records and the BBC in London all gathered in Smithfield, Virginia to witness the making of the world’s largest ham biscuit. Although this is not the traditional Beaten Biscuit, since it would have involved days of beating by hundreds of volunteers, it stands as a record for the traditional ham biscuit and cemented Smithfield’s reputation as a capitol of the world for ham.
 Maryland’s Vanishing Lives by John Sherwood, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London 1994
 The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph: University of South Carolina Press 1984
 The Carolina Housewife by Sarah Rutledge: University of South Carolina Press 1979
 What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking by Abby Fisher: Women’s Co-operative Printing Office 1891
 Treasured Recipes of Old St. Mary’s 1634 – 1959: compiled by the alumni of St. Mary’s Academy Leonardtown, Maryland: 1959
 Celebrate Virginia! Cookbook: The Hospitality, History, and heritage of Virginia by Rowena J. Fullinwider, James A. Crutchfield & Winette Sparkman Jeffery: Cool springs Press 2002
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