The word ‘biscuit’ is very culturally specific–in Great Britain, when they refer to a biscuit, they’re talking about what Americans would refer to as a cookie. In the US, biscuits are rather different–buttery, fluffy, almost pastry-like in structure but half leavened with baking soda rather than the steam from hot butter.
The perfect biscuits are made in the Deep South, land of fried everything and soul food. In terms of health, they’re fairly high up on the list of “worst things you can eat”, especially as (as a breakfast food) they are typically served with gravy, with bacon and sausage, or with other greasy, cholesterol-laden artery cloggers.
They’re also incredibly delicious–when made right.
The basic recipe is as follows:
1/4 tsb baking soda
1 tbs baking powder
1 tsp salt
6 tbs unsalted butter, very cold
3/4 c buttermilk–approximately, may require more or less.
Combine the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal. Add buttermilk until you have a wet, sticky dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface; quickly pat down to 1/2″ thickness and cut into biscuits using either a round cutter or a knife. Bake on a lightly greased baking sheet in a preheated oven @ 450 F until golden brown.
There are certain specific requirements for this style of biscuit: first, no kneading. The light, fluffy texture of the biscuit depends on not drawing out the glutens in the flour; this is why the butter is worked in while it is very cold and why, after the buttermilk is added, as little interaction with the resulting dough as possible is called for. The baking powder does the bulk of the raising work, but the baking soda is required for tuning the mixture–buttermilk is slightly acidic, and the soda will react with this to help the rise. The arrangement of the biscuits on the baking sheet (as noted in my source for this version of the recipe) also matters: adjust the separation according to how much “crisp” you want in the sidewalls of the biscuits.
Interesting results may be obtained by adding herbs spices to the flour mixture before the addition of the cold fat and the buttermilk. If the biscuits are going to be served as an accompaniment to, say, chicken, use herbs that compliment those being used to flavor the chicken–tarragon, for instance. For pork, a little sage in the biscuits might work. For nearly anything, some ground red pepper adds a very lovely zest.
With this biscuit recipe, a variant on shepherd’s pie can be made fairly easily: layer, in a baking or casserole dish, some meat and vegetables, then lay a batch of the above-mentioned biscuits (spiced, preferably) over the top; bake long enough at 425 or 450 to brown the top layer, then reduce heat to 350 F until the ingredients are cooked through. I have no name for this particular recipe, but having made it several times, it has always turned out quite deliciously.