Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sourdough Biscuits from Lonesome Dove

Posted by SusannaMMMerrill



 "Gus, don't tell me you've et," Jake said, swinging off the bay. "We rode all night, and Deets couldn't think of nothing to talk about except the taste of them biscuits you make. 
"While you was talking, Gus was eating them," Call said. He and Jake shook hands, looking one another over. 
Jake looked at Deets a minute. "I knowed we should have telegraphed from Pickles Gap," he said, then turned with a grin and shook Gus's hand.


The Book: Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry  

The Fare: Sourdough Biscuits



This is a book full of adventure: cattle rustling, shoot-outs, drownings, snake attacks, grizzly bear attacks, festering wounds, daring rescues, forced prostitution, treks over deserts, unrequited love, soul-killing grief, you name it. But none of it is quite as impressive as the sourdough biscuits Gus cooks up at the beginning of the book, back at the Hat Creek Cattle Company's corral on the outskirts of the town of Lonesome Dove.

The heart of his breakfast was a plentitude of sourdough biscuits, which he cooked in a Dutch oven out in the backyard. His pot dough had been perking along happily for over ten years, and the first thing he did upon rising was check it out. The rest of the breakfast was secondary, just a matter of whacking off a few slabs of bacon and frying a panful of pullet eggs. Bolivar could generally be trusted to deal with the coffee.

These biscuits seem to form the only food that anyone is excited about in all of south Texas-- the bandit cook Bolivar's dinners of chili-soaked pinto beans and boiled goat meat and sow belly are tolerated, and necessary for sustenance, but only breakfast guarantees a dish over which someone worked with pride and craftsmanship. Even the continuity of the yeasts of the starter are a note of comfort and continuity in that windswept piece of country, for men without family or a barn with a roof.

Fortunately, I already live in a sourdough-cultivating household. But to recreate Gus's biscuits-- no, to attempt to capture some fraction of the unattainable glory that is Gus's biscuits-- I had to make them with no baking soda or powder, which is unusual in your modern sourdough biscuit. And I assume that the Hat Creek outfit had only whole wheat flour.1
 
It took a while to find a recipe that relied on sourdough alone for its leavening, but this awesome guy from The Fresh Loaf created one (in his case, inspired by True Grit). I had to make some changes in the process for reasons of literary compliance (no refrigerator, silpat mat, proofing box, kitchen scale, etc.) and for reason of nonavailability of lard. Also I halved it, as I am not actually cooking for 8 hungry men.

I really wanted to recreate part of Gus's experience of baking the biscuits. The allure is obvious:
Augustus cooked his biscuits outside for three reasons. One was because the house was sure to heat up well enough anyway during the day, so there was no point in building any more of a fire than was necessary for bacon and eggs. Two was because the biscuits cooked in a Dutch oven tasted better than stove-cooked biscuits, and three was because he liked to be outside to catch the first light. A man that depended on an indoor cookstove would miss the sunrise, and if he missed sunrise in Lonesome Dove, he would have to wait out a long stretch of heat and dust before he got to see anything so pretty.

I couldn't manage a dutch oven, or mesquite coals, or a giant overturned black kettle to sit on, or chaparral to look out at, but I could at least mix the dough on the screen porch at sunrise.

The view: Midtown Atlanta right before sunrise, someone's still-up Halloween decorations gracing the foreground

So, finally:

Ingredients:
It was a little dark for photography
1 Cup Sourdough Starter, all bubbly and fed2
1/6 cup butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces and as
    cold as you think it might be in a springhouse
2 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt

What to Do:
1) Mix flour, salt, sugar, butter in large bowl, squeeze butter with
fingers into little flat flakes coated in flour.
2) Add sourdough starter, knead until it forms a ball, then knead no more.

3) Next, Fresh Loaf man advises resting the dough for 45 minutes, but Gus did not do this, so I compromised by walking outside for a few minutes to look at the sort of cloudy and dull sunrise.

Like the blue shoat at the Hat Creek offices, Chainsaw-cat takes advantage of any lapses of human attention to rustle up forbidden grub. This was the end of my attempts at sunrise photography.
4)  Turn the ball out onto a board, roll out to an inch thick. Fold in half, roll out again. Repeat three times. On final roll-out, roll to 1/2 inch thick.

5) Cut into round biscuit-shapes.

In my father's house growing up, there was always competition at the breakfast table for who got the "ugly biscuit" made by dough scraps rather than the biscuit cutter. This batch is a particularly lucky one, with TWO ugly biscuits.

6) The next step is to proof the biscuits, which introduces another conflict between script and good baking. In the book, Gus "molded his biscuits," then goes off to stir up the bed of mesquite coals in the dutch oven. As soon as he judges the oven is good and hot, he sticks those biscuits on in. I decided to take a little liberty with the timing of dutch-oven heating and let the biscuits proof for an hour-- still a good deal less than the 2 1/2 hours recommended by those with more interest in deliciousness of product. But then, the sun seems to rise just about when Gus puts the biscuits in the oven, the weather service informs me the sun never rises before 6:42 in south Texas, and Gus got up at 4:00, so those hours must have been filled somehow.

7) Stick those biscuits in a 425º oven, dreaming of doing this one day on a camping trip with a real dutch oven. Cook about 15 minutes, till they're "puffed up and a healthy brown."

8) Make some coffee and cook up some pullet eggs-- or if you don't have any pullets handy, some bantam eggs from your awesome CSA. We know the eggs were fried, not scrambled, by one of the cow hand's horrified reactions to an omelet later in the book: the whites and the yolks are all mixed up! For true literary accuracy, I would have emulated Bolivar and spilled coffee grounds into the eggs and cooked them rubber hard, but my breakfast companion objected.






9) Take the biscuits out, put them on a cooling rack, go get your butter from the cool springhouse, round up Captain Call and the boys, and eat with lots of honey (where were the beekeepers providing all this honey in the desert?).


These are not the prettiest biscuits in the world, but they were pretty dang good.













1 Actually I had a lot of trouble with this question. After a few hours of internet poking-about (not even counting the many-day detour through buttermilk and baking soda history), I decided to go with this article's timeline. But that doesn't quite solve the problem: Lonesome Dove must have taken place in around 1847 (Little Bighorn is mentioned as a fairly recent event), and rollers started to replace grindstones in mills, making the production of white flour cost-effective, around 1870. But I'm going to assume that new production methods had a little delay in reaching Texas. Further supporting evidence: Bolivar purportedly survives entirely on a diet of sourdough biscuits and chicory coffee, and if he were eating only the unenriched white flour of the late nineteenth century he would surely have died of malnutrition. Maybe the sourdough starter would have died of malnutrition too-- we always feed ours half white and half whole-wheat, and I've seen a week-long diet of only whole wheat flour recommended as a cure for ailing sourdough starters.




2 I'm not actually the one in the house who usually deals with the sourdough, so I had to spend a while getting to know our starter. I left it out on the counter, instead of in the fridge, for about a week, feeding it once or twice a day, depending on how it was looking. It was a lot of fun, and I got a LOT of baked goods out of it.


[Thanks for footnote coding help, Lauren Wayne!]







1 comment :

  1. The whole, one and only reason I started a starter a week ago was so I could try Gus-style sourdough biscuits. I was totally taken with the descriptions of Gus making sourdough biscuits in Lonesome Dove - which I just got around to reading last month. You are keeping the dream alive. I will make these today. These will be the first recipe I make with my newly made starter.

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