In France, dessert is often constructed from towers of flaky puff pastry, and in the Middle East, paper-thin phyllo dough is either left crispy or made soggy with syrup. But the U.S. has biscuits to call its own. Biscuits--moist, tender and rich--are used as an alternative to a yeast-leavened bread. Biscuits are closer in technique to making pie crust than to making bread.
The steps follow the same order: Cut the shortening into the flour mixture, add some liquid and roll it out. Once you've mastered the technique, you can not only delight in the aroma of biscuits browning for breakfast, you can also bake scones for a proper English tea. (The difference is there are eggs in scones and not in biscuits). Biscuits are similar to real shortcakes, rather than the hockey pucks made from cellulose sponges found next to the red glop in the produce department. And you can crown fresh fruit with a biscuit dough topping and call it a cobbler.
Start by sifting the dry ingredients -flour, baking powder or soda, salt, sugar and so forth. Then cut in the butter or shortening until the mixture resembles a fine meal, like breadcrumbs. While a wire-blade pastry blender is useful, you can use two knives, pulse a food processor fitted with the steel blade on and off a few times, or use your fingertips.
The third step is adding the liquid. The trick is to accomplish this quickly, so that the ingredients are just blended enough to hold together. It's tempting to do more, but that's what makes biscuits or their first cousins tough.
Once liquid is added to flour the gluten formation begins, and any agitation intensifies this process. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, such as a counter or a pastry board, and use the same restraint that went into adding the liquid. Don't knead it more than 10 times, just enough to give it a push in the oven, but not enough to make it chewy.
Now either roll or pat the dough into the proper thickness. The dough should be less than 1 in thick. Cut it into desired shapes. No fancy cutters? Use juice cans (a 2 in diameter) or an upside down glass.