Chefs are typically known for a signature dish. If someone mentioned boeuf bourguignon, I would immediately think of Julia Child. If I want to know how to cook a classic bucatini all’Amariciana I’ll Google Mario Batali’s recipe. For pork buns I’m going with David Chang.
For biscuits, that light and airy staple of the Southern kitchen, the choices are not so easy. I don’t think I could narrow the field to just one person.
First and foremost, my late grandmother would top my list. Her biscuits were the best I have ever eaten. I used to sit on a stool in her kitchen watching her make them, but she never followed a recipe and I never wrote anything down while she was preparing them. It’s one of those situations that one almost takes for granted. I always enjoyed her biscuits and she prepared them with such ease, I guess I subconsciously assumed I’d be able to replicate them. After 36 years in the restaurant business with 10 books in the can, I have yet to even come close.
In 1997 I was giving a speech at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. After the speech my hosts took me to lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant. The biscuits I ate there on that day were the closest to my grandmothers I have ever eaten. I asked for the recipe and they gladly gave it to me. Though when I prepared them they were not the same.
These days, if one is in Natchez, there’s no need to look any farther than Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast for some of the best biscuits on the planet. Twin Oaks owner, Regina Charboneau, is considered the Queen of Biscuits in that part of the world, and it’s a title she has rightfully earned, beginning in the 1980s at her San Francisco restaurant Biscuits and Blues.
I have cooked biscuits with Charboneau twice. More accurately, I have stood by and watched Charboneau cook biscuits on two occasions. As most bakers do she measures carefully and precisely, but the most surprising detail of her biscuit recipe is the short amount of time she mixes the dough. Her recipe states 15 seconds, a bowl scrape, and then 10 seconds. But when I was with her it didn’t seem like the mixer stayed on for 15 seconds total. I know that over-mixing results in tough biscuits, yet the short amount of time Charboneau takes in mixing is the perfect amount, as her biscuits are always light, airy, and buttery.
A few hours north up the Natchez Trace and east on Highway 12 one will find Michelle Tehan, more affectionately know as The Biscuit Lady. Tehan opened The Biscuit Shop just off of Main Street in Starkville in June of 2014 without a traditional business loan and nothing more than a Kickstarter campaign used to purchase her ovens. This mother of nine-year old triplets and a seven-year old gets to work at4:00 a.m. on weekdays and 2:00 a.m. on weekends and makes every single biscuit that ends up on The Biscuit Shop shelves. The walk-up shop is open from 6:30 a.m. until she runs out of biscuits which is almost a daily occurrence.
Tehan prepares biscuits in plain sight of her customers and never measures anything. Lines form daily to purchase her buttermilk, blueberry, and sprinkle biscuits. She also offers several savory varieties. I have never been in The Biscuit Shop when I didn’t see Tehan elbow deep in flour.
Tehan doesn’t give out her recipe, but from what I have seen, she always has self-rising flour and Crisco on the prep table. She eyeballs the buttermilk and never rolls out the dough, opting to work the large mass with her hands while using a small Mason jar to cut and portion the biscuits, just as her grandmother did, just as Charboneau’s grandmother did, and just as my grandmother did.
I have always believed that success follows passion. The only thing that exceeds Charboneau and Tehan’s passion for business is the taste of their biscuits.
The Biscuit Queen and The Biscuit Lady, two talented and hard-working business women, one with a small inn on the river and the other with a small shop on the plains. Both make biscuits. One uses sugar and salt, the other uses neither. One is precise, the other flies by the strings of her apron. Both juggle motherhood and business. Both are talented and have gained success at their chosen profession. These days if anyone in Mississippi mentions biscuits we know who to Google.
Regina Charboneau’s Biscuits
4 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup baking powder
¼ cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, chilled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) salted margarine, chilled and cut into 2-inch cubes
¾ cups buttermilk, chilled
Put flour, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Turn the machine on low and blend for 15 seconds. Add the butter, margarine and buttermilk to flour mixture before turning mixer back on. Turn mixer on medium and count to 10. This goes very quickly; the key is to not overmix the dough. There will be large chunks of butter and margarine, the size of quarters, in the dough.
Scrape dough from the bowl onto a generously floured work surface or tea towel and shape into a long vertical rectangle about 2 inches thick. The dough will seem rough and messy. Using the edges of the towel, fold the lower part of the dough (about one-third) toward the center, then fold the top portion down. With a rolling pin, roll dough out to a 2-inch thickness. Fold the two ends in again, lifting the edges of the towel to help move the dough. Give dough a one-quarter turn, and roll it out again to a 2-inch thickness. Continue folding, turning and rolling dough until it is smooth, with noticeable yellow ribbons of butter and margarine throughout.
Roll dough to 1 1/2-inch thickness. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut dough into rounds. Punch cutter into dough cleanly, without twisting. When refolding and rerolling the dough, gently stack it to retain the layers. Do not overwork.
Place biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze. Once they are frozen, transfer biscuits to plastic bags. The unbaked biscuits can be frozen for 2 months.
To bake, heat oven to 350 degrees. Place frozen biscuits in the cups of muffin tins. Let thaw in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 23 to 25 minutes.
Carriage House Restaurant Biscuit Recipe
2 cups All Purpose Flour
1 /4 tsp. Salt
4 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Sugar
5 Tbl Solid Vegetable Shortening
3/4 to 1 cup Milk
Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.
Mix all dry ingredients and sift. Add shortening and cut with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add milk and stir slowly until mixture forms a ball (do not over mix).
Place ball on board sprinkled with flour. Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness and cut into 1 1/2-inch circles.
Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes.
Robert’s Sunday Dinner Biscuits
2 cups Flour, self-rising
1 /3 cup Shortening, butter or lard
2 /3 –3 /4 cup Buttermilk
Preheat oven to 500 degrees.
Combine flour and shortening in mixing bowl. Work shortening pieces into flour with a pastry cutter until they are the size of small peas. Gradually stir in milk or buttermilk. Add only enough to moisten the flour and hold the dough together.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface. Knead gently two to three strokes. Using a light touch, pat or roll the dough to a 1 /4-inch thickness. Cut with a floured 2-inch biscuit cutter, leaving as little dough between cuts as possible. Gather remaining dough and re-roll one time. Discard scraps after second cutting.
Place biscuits on a baking sheet with sides touching for soft Southern-style biscuits. If you prefer biscuits with crisp sides, place biscuits close together but not touching.
Bake 8-10 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve hot out of the oven. Yield: 12 biscuits