Success with Southern Biscuits

I am a west coaster born and bred; my family hails from San Diego and I happen to live in Seattle, which in many ways is the antithesis of the deep South. That being said, I don’t know how it happened — maybe Paula Deen is a long-lost-great-aunt-twice-removed or something (fingers crossed!) — but I harbor an intense love for Southern comfort food. Sadly, up here in the somber Northwest, I am rarely presented with the opportunity to try my hand at whipping up a grand dixie feast. With the exception of my impressive cole slaw making superpowers, I am pretty inexperienced in cooking Southern food.

So when ES was presented with the opportunity to preview Nathalie Dupree & Cynthia Graubart’s newest cookbook, Southern Biscuits, I knew this was a perfect chance. Fresh off the heels of an authentic creole food binge, I figured it was only fair to prove my love by giving Southern cooking a go myself. Southern Biscuits addressed a double whammy of insecurity, actually — not only am I lacking in the Southern cooking department, I am also mildly suspicious of baking in general. It involves so much precision, patience, adherence to directions…basically all of my weaknesses. Though Nathalie is a James Beard winner, she certainly had her work cut out for her with this book. Teaching a baking-skeptical Seattleite how to craft perfect Southern biscuits is no small feat.

Plus I had been slightly dubious about the breadth (no pun intended) of biscuit options. I mean, how many variations could there be? Turns out, about a million. After it covers the basics, Southern Biscuits also includes recipes for things you can do with biscuits, such as breakfast sandwiches, casseroles, bread puddings, etc. While some of the more complex recipes in the back of the book were tempting, I knew I shouldn’t get too overzealous. I decided to go with an intermediate biscuit recipe that included one of my very favorite ingredients: sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potato (or Pumpkin) Biscuits

2 1/4 cups commercial or homemade self-rising flour, divided
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
1/3 cup chilled shortening or lard, roughly cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup mashed cooked sweet potatoes or pumpkin puree
1/4 cup milk (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior is desired. For a soft exterior, use an 8- or 9- inch cake pan, pizza pan, or ovenproof skillet where the biscuits will nestle together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to circulate and creating a crisper exterior, and brush the pan with butter.

Fork-sift or whisk 2 cups of flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deeper, and set aside the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Scatter lard and flour as if snapping thumb and fingers together (or use two forks or knives, or a pastry cutter) until the mixture looks like a well-crumbled feta cheese, with no piece larger than a pea. Shake the bowl occasionally to allow the larger pieces of fat to bounce to the top of the flour, revealing the largest lumps that still need rubbing. If this method took longer than 5 minutes, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 5 minutes to rechill the fat.

Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Scoop the sweet potatoes into the hollow and stir with a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the sweet potatoes. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away form the sides of the bowl. If too dry, add 1 to 4 tablespoons of milk.

Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface with some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and sprinkle the top lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough  out into a 1/3- to 1/2- inch thick round, using a little additional flour only if needed. Flour again if necessary, and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat dough out into a 1/2- inch thick round for a normal biscuit, 3/4- inch thick for a tall biscuit, and 1- inch thick for a giant biscuit. Brush off any visible flour from the top. For each biscuit, dip a 2- inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter. The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although these scraps make tougher biscuits.

Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 12 to 14 minutes, depending on thickness, until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking sheet underneath to add insulation and retard browning. Continue baking another 6 to 8 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown.

When the biscuits are done, remove from over and slide them onto a rack.

The above photographic evidence of my success speaks for itself.¬† I would almost go as far to say it was… easy?! And now that I’ve purchased a huge sack of self-rising flour and a biscuit cutter (two necessities according to Nathalie & Cynthia), I think there are plenty more biscuits in my culinary future. As for all my biscuit leftovers, I decided to test their versatility by turning them into breakfast sliders, obviously.

Simply top a sweet potato biscuit with a tiny bit of honey (you could also use maple syrup if you’re in a McGriddle kind of mood), ham that I fried in a hot skillet for 30 seconds, a fried egg over medium, and a slice of aged swiss cheese. Decadence!

I heartily endorse Southern Biscuits for the individual looking to make their initial foray into the worlds of baking and/or Southern cooking, or just anyone who thinks that insta-dough out of the Pillsbury can = real biscuits (hey, I did for the first 25 years of my life).

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  • TheGourmetCoffeeGuy April 13, 2011  

    Sweet potato biscuits and pumpkin biscuits: what a delicious recipe and terrific alternative to only traditional Southern biscuits! My family favors Southern biscuits but the idea of a mixed serving of sweet potato, pumpkin and regular biscuits is what we will do for our Easter meal. Confident will be a “hit.” Very good idea, thank you for posting it.

  • Jon Laiche February 11, 2013  

    Well, well, well. It seems plagiarism is alive and doing fine on the WWW. I have been experimenting with Southern Biscuits for some months now. I happened to hear “the Spendid Table” broadcast on NPR this weekend and was inspired to give it another try. Afterwards, I began to look for some variations on the basic theme and found Emily’s post on sweet potato biscuits. When I read the directions I was intrigued. Who copied who I cannot say, but look at directions here and then the same ( and I really mean the same) at
    Anyway my biscuits came out very well and I look forward to adding sweet potatoes next time. Bon Appetit!

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