Okay, I love whole wheat. It has a great nutty taste when fresh, and you can feel virtuous and healthy when eating it. Whole wheat is good for you,. But it is not so easy to bake with, often giving flat, dense, uninspiring results. So out of frustration, I haven’t used it much, or just in small quantities.
But in the latest issue of Cooks Magazine (July/August 2015) there is a great recipe for 100 percent whole wheat pancakes. You ignore all the conventional pancake rules (beat as little as possible) and beat them ’til you can beat no more. You end up with light, fluffy, pancakes.
The author explains that this works because of how gluten behaves in the the two flours. In white flour, there is a high percentage of gluten, which quickly forms a network of strands. The more you mix and knead it, the more the strands develop. That’s why we knead bread – to get a nice, dense structure. But in pancakes, we don’t want that dense structure – it tightens everything up, giving you a flat, dense pancake instead of a light fluffy one. So over-mixing pancake batter is a cardinal sin, giving you sad, tough little bready discs.
But in whole wheat, there is a lower percentage of gluten, so that gluten structure takes longer to develop. In addition, the bran in the whole wheat cuts through the gluten structure that does form. So with whole wheat, lots of beating doesn’t hurt the rise when cooked – in fact, it improves it, because you get more air trapped in the batter.
So I made these well beaten whole wheat pancakes, and the results were amazing and delicious, light and fluffy, with a great nutty flavor. I was astounded. Then I started thinking about my biscuit dilemma. I am not good at making biscuits. Any kind of biscuit. A good biscuit is light and joyful, like those biscuits could just carry you off to biscuit heaven at any moment. My biscuits are earthbound, tough and sullen. And my whole wheat biscuits are even worse. My whole wheat biscuits are lumpy and rocklike, the trolls of the baked goods world.
But maybe I could change all that if I treated them like the pancakes? Maybe they just needed more beating, more mixing. Maybe they were just feeling neglected? I decided to give it a shot. The only big issue was the butter, which needs to stay cold to give you a nice flake. I decided to try kneading it in at the end. I adapted a simple rolled biscuit recipe from Joy of Cooking, replaced the white flour with whole wheat, mixed and kneaded it thoroughly, used my mother’s trick of folding it over to help it flake and rise (thanks Mom!), cut out the biscuits, and popped them in the oven.
I ended up with a batch of tall, flaky, and tender whole wheat biscuits. The taste of the wheat was distinct, nutty and slightly sweet. These were the first successful whole wheat biscuits I have ever made! Thank you for the inspiration, Cooks Magazine! My biscuits have been rescued from trolldom!
We gobbled them up with dollops of jam. They would also be great as a base for strawberry shortcake, with a bit of sugar in the dough. I am considering cutting some of the butter next time – they were delicious, but almost too flaky and tender. Here’s the recipe:
High Rise Whole Wheat Biscuits
Use fresh whole wheat flour, not the stuff in the back of your cupboard – it gets rancid and you lose the nutty, slightly sweet flavor of the wheat. This recipe gives you a flaky, buttery biscuit. If you want it less flaky, try cutting the butter smaller and knead it in more.
4 Tbs cold butter
2 cups whole wheat flour – fresh as possible
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup milk plus 1 Tbs for brushing biscuit tops
1. With a knife or pastry cutter chop the butter into small chunks. Add 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, and chop some more, until you have a fairly uniform mixture of ball bearing size chunks. Put in freezer for at least 10 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
3. Stir together 1 1/2 cups flour, baking soda, and baking powder until will dispersed.
4. Add 1 cup of milk. Whisk vigorously until too sticky to whisk.
5. Use some of final 1/4 cup flour to flour board and hands, and knead until dough is no longer sticky and wants to stay together, about 5 minutes of kneading.
6. Use that last bit of flour to flour rolling pin, then roll dough out in rectangle.
7. Remove butter mixture from freezer. From this point try to work quickly, so that butter stays cold. Spread butter mixture evenly over the dough.
8. Fold dough over the butter, then knead in to spread it around. Just five or so kneads will do it. Mush any large chunks of butter, but it’s okay if there are small chunks – it helps make the biscuits flaky.
9. Use last little bit of flour on board and rolling pin and roll out again, to about 1/4 inch thick. Fold over once and roll it out gently once more, to stick it all together. Dough should be about 1/2 inch thick.
10. Cut out biscuits. You can use a biscuit cutter or glass, but I think a rolling pastry cutter or pizza cutter works even better, as long as you don’t object to rectangular biscuits. It doesn’t pinch the edges down, and I think that gives a better rise in the oven.
11. Place on ungreased baking sheet, brush tops with milk.
12. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, or until browned.
Yield: 12-16 biscuits
Oven Temperature: 450°F
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes