Thursday, April 28, 2011
Big Bend Biscuits
What’s cooking? Cochineal Drop Biscuits
I’m always amazed at how it often takes a tourist to get a native to see the sights of his or her own city/state/country. I lived in Manhattan for 10 years and NJ for another 30 before I went to the top of the Empire State Building. The impetus? My 11-year-old nephew arrived from Houston for a visit.
Similarly, I never visited the celebrated Jockey Hollow area outside Morristown, NJ, where George Washington’s army spent a miserable winter in 1780. Never, at least, until friends from Seattle showed up.
So when our New Jersey friends who now live near us in Austin suggested a trip to West Texas and Big Bend National Park, I jumped at it. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Texas and never got west of the tiny town of Bracketville, where the film The Alamo was shot, about halfway to the Big Bend area.
The park is at the bottom of that triangle of West Texas formed when the Rio Grande veers suddenly north from its otherwise smooth slide to the Gulf of Mexico. So it’s a good 6 ½ hours from Austin just to get to the outskirts. The land is exactly what you’ve seen in countless cowboy movies – hot, dry, flat, and empty (mostly) of any signs of life. (In fact, the movie “Giant” was filmed in the nearby town of Marfa.) Huge, flat-topped mesas punctuate the vastness, and the roads run straight as cactus needles into the distant mountains. If it doesn’t sound like a typical vacation spot, I should add that it’s incredibly relaxing: the dry heat draws out whatever tension you might have brought with you, and the people are as open and friendly as they could be. And, in truth, we found dramatic beauty in the harsh, rugged land.
On our way home, we stopped for brunch in Marfa (population 2,400), at a tiny place you can miss if you blink. But if you’re in West Texas, and anywhere near Marfa, you must make time for a meal at Cochineal (107 ½ West San Antonio Street, Marfa, TX, 432/729-3300).
The building is part apartment, part restaurant, with a white gravel courtyard if you feel like eating outside. There’s no sign – to spot it from the street, look for the red tables and chairs in the courtyard. The interior design of the restaurant is minimalist, but fresh and with occasional touches of whimsy, like the rows of white felt ruffles on the ceiling that presumably help to muffle any noise.
The sophistication became less surprising when I learned that the owners, Tom Rapp and Toshi Sakihara, escaped to West Texas from their former lives as restauranteurs on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The brunch menu is small but well thought out, with an interesting range of egg dishes – including baked eggs in cream that will make your forget all your troubles – as well as pancakes and French toast. Bacon to die for, and good, fresh coffee. And I have to go back, as I understand the dinner menu contains a date pudding for dessert that’s worth the 7-hour drive.
A biscuit came with my breakfast, and as I bit into it, I had one of those madeleine moments as I remembered the biscuits at my Louisiana grandmother’s table. Yes, that good. Only Rapp and Sakihara are much better cooks than she was, so their biscuits were even better. The same wonderful homemade flavor, but so light and moist I would say they are swoonable. I met Rapp and Sakihara on our way out the door, and they were kind enough to give me the recipe.
Cochineal Drop Biscuits
Kitchen Goddess note: According to the restaurant owners, the real secret to these biscuits is in mixing as little as possible. In fact, they reportedly do not even use a spoon – all mixing (what little there is), is done with either a pastry cutter or a fork.
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small chunks (½-inch dice) and re-refrigerated
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 425º.
Stir together the dry ingredients in a bowl. Using a pastry cutter – or your fingertips or even a food processor (see note below) – cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
In a separate bowl, combine the sour cream and the buttermilk, then add that mixture all at once to the butter-and-flour. Stir only until the batter is evenly moistened.
Scoop out ¼-cup mounds onto a greased baking sheet (or ungreased baker’s parchment, which is soooo much easier); the recipe makes about a dozen. You’ll have to form the biscuits with your fingers – again, one reason these are so light is that the dough isn’t rolled and cut – so my biscuits are not nearly as pretty as the ones at Cochineal, but they were nevertheless divine. I brushed a tiny bit of skim milk on the tops of the biscuits, to improve the browning. Bake 15 minutes or until they reach a nice brown. Serve with jam (no need for butter on these!)
Kitchen Goddess note on mixing biscuits: I actually used my food processor, which is so fast at combining the butter and flour that the butter stays fairly solid, which is ideal. I tossed the cold cubed butter into the flour mixture, then threw the whole mess into the bowl of the food processor and pulsed it some 10-15 times at 1-2 seconds per pulse. The idea is that you want little tiny bits of butter surrounded by flour in the biscuits. If the butter gets warm while you’re still mixing, it starts developing the gluten in the flour, and your biscuits will not be as light.