One of the unshakable tenets of Southern cooking is that Southern-style baking requires soft winter wheat flour, the kind with less protein. Lane cakes, cobblers, tea cakes and especially biscuits were made with White Lily flour.
Well, you can't get White Lily flour in California. It's only sold in the South. The northern White Lily demarcation line is somewhere in Indiana, and goes west about as far as Arkansas or maybe Oklahoma.
I still made biscuits, trying every combination of all-purpose flour and
cake flour I could, but they never rose properly. Some turned out
crumbly or, worse, tough. Some were almost right but the layers would be
a little bit gluten-y, and none were never soft enough inside. A real,
proper Southern biscuit has a slightly crisp shell and an inside that's
as soft as an old pillow; everybody who's ever been to the American
South and had a real biscuit knows this.
I used to pray to be sent on assignment to the South, so I could bring
back ten pounds of White Lily flour in my luggage (which caused
consternation at TSA Theatre on more than one occasion). The day before
Thanksgiving last year, I begged a woman in a grocery store in New
Orleans to please let me have the one remaining sack of White Lily so I
could show the Californians what a biscuit is supposed to be. (She was
very gracious about it and let me have it.)
Then one day someone tipped me off that Smucker's, which bought White
Lily (and moved the plant, which some Southerners swear killed White
Lily's efficacy forevermore), has an online store… from which you can
order White Lily flour!
Sure, you pay for shipping and it isn't QUITE as cheap as buying it at
the Piggly Wiggly or Harris Teeter, but the point is you can get the
world's finest biscuit flour sent to your doorstep whether you live in
Atlanta or Anaheim, New Gretna or New York.
When it arrived, I had to compare the two. I made two batches of
biscuits with butter (because I didn't have any lard and I don't keep
Crisco in the house), baking soda, baking powder, salt and buttermilk,
the same recipe. The only difference between the two was that one batch
was made with White Lily and one was made with King Arthur all-purpose
flour, a fine product in its own right.
The difference was immediately palpable, and I mean that in the most
literal term: when I turned the biscuits out onto the board, the White
Lily dough was still soft and had to be patted into place, a motion
practiced by generations of kindly Southern grandmothers; the King
Arthur dough was tense on the board.
It's hard for the picture to tell the story, but the White Lily
biscuits rose a half inch higher than the King Arthur, the shell crisped
slightly better, and most importantly, the insides were as soft as
yellow cake. The King Arthur biscuit was slightly tough.
The verdict won't surprise any Southerner: White Lily is worth it.
Whether you're making biscuits for dinner, cobbler, shortcakes or
scones, the soft winter wheat flour is the way to go.