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Belle Meade Plantation Beaten Biscuits

(the precursor to the “rising” biscuit made with baking powder)

(As featured inTo Whisper Her Name, Belle Meade Plantation novel, book 1)

 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (with 1/2 cup held back)
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
3 T cold butter
3 T cold lard or vegetable shortening
½ cup cold milk
½ cup cold water (that was chilled with ice)

Mix 3 cups of flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl. Add butter and lard, cutting them in with a pastry cutter or fork until mixture resembles course corn meal. Add milk and "iced" water, then lightly blend until moistened. Knead 15 minutes, then beat the dough for 15 minutes with a rolling pin until the dough begins to “blister and pop.” (You’ll hear the sound.) Cut with small floured biscuit cutter, then prick tops of biscuits three times with a fork.

Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes at 325 degrees. Biscuits will be done when they’re a light golden brown. They will not rise up tall and pretty. These are biscuits without leaven. Eat them right from the oven or store at room temp. Makes about 35-40 small biscuits that will keep for up to three weeks stored in an airtight container or plastic bag. These are especially good served with thin sliced Southern country ham. Delicious!

These really are fun to make. Don't let the beating involved put you off. Surely there's some kind of frustration you need to work out of your system. This little biscuit will do just the trick!

See below for a step-by-step tutorial of how to make beaten biscuits!

Featured on Nashville's Talk of the Town
making Belle Meade Beaten Biscuits and Carrot Cake
(Sorry, video no longer available)


More about Beaten Biscuits

During my research for To Whisper Her Name, I ran across the reference for Beaten Biscuits, and thought hmmm... I'd heard of them as I was growing up in the South, but I'd never tasted them. I'd only had leavened (baking powder) biscuits. You know, the fluffy ones that rise.

Well, once I found out that Beaten Biscuits were a staple not only in the Confederate Soldier's daily rations, but that they were made liberally at Belle Meade Plantation and served just as often, the deed was done, as they say. I set out to learn about Beaten Biscuits, and of course, had to put them in the Belle Meade novels too. Gotta get as much real history in there as you can!

So what are Beaten Biscuits? And what do they tell us about the Old South?

Beaten Biscuits are, like grits, a mystery to the uninitiated. And while they may be the precursor to the modern day Southern "Rise" Biscuit made with baking soda, they more closely resemble the hard tack of bygone days. But without the "hard." And they're delicious! 

They honestly sound harder to make than they are, and when you do make them, there's something about the mixing and the beating that just takes you back. It's always good to stay in touch with where you came from, and baking is no different. I love knowing and making the foods of my heritage. And the era in which I write. 

These biscuits became so popular in their day that a machine––a Biscuit Brake––was invented to manipulate the dough and trap air inside.
Here's an old ad for a Biscuit Brake...

It works something like an old time clothes wringer, and you feed the dough through. More on that in a minute… But you can imagine the cost of one of these brakes. So therefore…the beating. It was cheaper to beat the dough than buy a brake. But that also meant more time. So the Beaten Biscuit gradually became something of a status symbol. 

The lighter and flakier your Beaten Biscuit (meaning the longer it had been beaten or run through a brake), the more affluent you were. Because you could either afford kitchen help (or before the war, had slaves) or you could afford a biscuit brake.

About some of the ingredients…

Lard was originally used in biscuit dough. But today either vegetable shortening (Crisco), margarine or butter is often substituted. Several of the recipes I found from the 1800s called for half lard and half butter, so that's what I chose to use. Along with lard (heaven help me!).
Let the mixing begin! I've blended the flour, salt, and sugar. Now add your lard and butter.


Cut it in with either a pastry cutter or fork.


Add the milk and "iced" water, and keep going…

Until you have achieved dough-dom!

I love dough. Doesn't matter what kind. I just love the feel of it. The taste of it. My mother used to say (as I was sneaking bits of buttermilk biscuit dough as a little girl) that "worms will grow in your tummy from eating too much dough." She was sweet, my precious Mom, but she couldn't lie worth a lick. 

Now comes the fun part. You knead the dough. For 15 minutes. No, that's not a typo. 15 minutes. Get crackin'!

After 15 minutes of kneading (you know how to knead… fold over, punch down, turn a quarter, fold over, punch down, turn a quarter) this is what you have. A smooth dough, pliable and nice. Okay, I can already tell I'm going to have to make these again soon.
Grab either a mallet or a rolling pin because this is where the beating comes in. You ready?

You're going to beat the dough for 15 minutes. At least 300 whacks. 500 if you're having company (so they're be all the lighter)! Why do we beat the dough, you ask? To trap air inside the dough so that the biscuits will rise a little. Remember, there's no leavening agent.

This is what the dough looks like halfway through beating. Get ready, you're about to hear the dough "blister and pop!"

We're done! Can you see the tiny air bubbles? And the dark spots where some of them have popped? Our dough is ready!

I used a biscuit cutter of Mom's. It's about the size of a silver dollar, maybe a tad smaller. Start cutting those biscuits!


Okay, so I didn't make the most efficient use of my dough. All's fair in love and biscuit making.

Prick the tops of the biscuits with a fork before baking. 

History shares that women used to prick their initials into the tops of the biscuits before sending their men off to war. These tasty little Beaten Biscuits stay good for 3 to 4 weeks in a container. Of course, the soldiers carried them in their packs and in burlap bags.

This is what the biscuits look like before they're baked.


And this is after. They're sooo good when they come out of the oven. One recipe I ran across said to serve them cold, but I threw that recipe away.


These biscuits baked on a light cookie sheet didn't get as brown as those baked on the darker pan. I prefer the darker. Make note to self…

I took a bite to show you the yummy insides. I know, it's hard work but someone had to do it. I cut my dough thinner this time to be more like a cracker than a biscuit. I've done them thicker and thinner. Whatever suits your taste. But you don't want to go too thick.
A few of the delicious little morsels...

Some folks from the early 1900s called this "Sunday Bread" because it resembles homemade communion bread. I used to love it when our family helped with the communion on Sundays. A woman in our church made the communion bread from scratch and we'd eat the leftovers after service. But we prayed over it first!

Southerns love their thin sliced country ham, and this biscuit was created by God to go with country ham, I just know it!

These really are fun to make. Don't let the beating involved put you off. Surely there's some kind of frustration you need to work out of your system. This little biscuit will do just the trick! 

Let me know when you make them!

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