Biscuits on the table signal warm hospitality and are a quick way to butter up customers.
This article first appeared in the 15 March 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
Executive Chef Erin O'Shea sources artisanal Virginia ham, serves grits with shrimp and pairs pork with collard greens, pickled peaches and ham-hock vinaigrette. Not surprisingly, she also makes buttermilk biscuits.
"They're definitely going to be a staple," she says of her new menu for Marigold Kitchen in Philadelphia. She already has started using the simple quick bread for passed hors d'oeuvres, topping the biscuits with house-made jam. She's also contemplating using biscuits as the base of an appetizer. For a puréed turnip soup poured tableside, she tops a thin, crisp biscuit not much larger than a quarter with apple purée, ham brunoise and chives.
O'Shea's Southern-inspired menu is a big change for Marigold Kitchen, where she recently took over from Chef Michael Solomonov. Yet the switch from a modern menu with a Near Eastern slant to one that is distinctly regional American might be timely. Although offering biscuits isn't a particularly new idea, more restaurants are reviving the simple quick bread to meet diners' desire for simple comforts.
At Chicago's Table Fifty-Two, Chef-owner Art Smith starts guests' meals with buttermilk-goat-cheese biscuits. Buttermilk biscuits served with andouille sausage, maple-pecan butter and seasonal compote compete with artisan bread for attention at Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco. And in Alexandria, Va., Jackson 20 New American Tavern offers country-ham biscuits with mustard butter for breakfast.
To Jeramie Mitchell, it's the warm-from-the-oven quality of a quick bread that appeals. "There's nothing better than bread being made at the restaurant," he says.
Mitchell, executive chef at Busch Stadium in St. Louis (a Delaware North Cos. account), began serving Cheddar-chive drop scones in the members-only Stadium Club at the original Busch Memorial Stadium (torn down in 2005 and replaced).
His scone recipe provided a way to offer a house-made product that didn't require the space and time needed to make a yeasted bread. Drop scones are faster to make than biscuits because they don't require rolling the dough and punching out rounds with cutters-an important consideration for Mitchell, who used to serve more than 700 scones on game days. The scones made the impact Mitchell intended. Today, although the new stadium does not have a members-only restaurant, Mitchell hears requests frequently for the scones and continues to serve them at VIP dinners and functions.
Biscuits' homey appeal translates to the drive-thru window for Charlotte, N.C.-based Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits. CEO Randy Kibler estimates that 80% of the company's customers receive a biscuit with their order.
Because biscuits are a hallmark of the Bojangles' brand, buying a ready-made product is not an option for Kibler. "There is no way that anyone can produce biscuits elsewhere and freeze them and get the quality that we provide," he says. Each batch is made from scratch and baked immediately after it is prepared. If the baker waits too long before baking the biscuits, the baking powder will react with the buttermilk, affecting the biscuits' quality. "They end up coming out too thick or too smooth on top," Kibler says. "They have to look like a made-from-scratch biscuit."
Among biscuit devotees, opinions vary about the practice of enhancing dough with additional ingredients. "The farthest I go would be adding black pepper," says O'Shea, who prefers to add flavors using jellies and jams. One jam she prepares combines golden raisins plumped in apple-cider vinegar with red bell peppers, jalapeÁ±os, onion and eggplant.
Pastry Chef Candace Rowan also believes that a classic biscuit should be left alone. She disapproves of adding sugar to biscuit dough, but at Town Hall in San Francisco, she makes a pepper jelly that features red and green bell peppers, sugar, apple-cider vinegar and pectin, serving the flavorful topper with buttermilk biscuits and ham for an appetizer.
Sometimes a slight variation is permissible. Although Bojangles' most popular biscuits are its classic buttermilk variety, the chain's breakfast menu also offers biscuits mixed with blueberries or drizzled with cinnamon-sugar icing.
In Seattle, Maria Hines, chef-owner of Tilth, wanted to add biscuits and gravy to her brunch menu but decided to do something a little different. Smoked and braised chicken thigh meat, béchamel sauce and two eggs any style accompany a square-cut Cheddar-chive biscuit. "Cheddar gives it a sharp, nutty quality," she says.
Even though they don't reach a consensus on flavor, chefs agree that the worst thing to do to a biscuit is to overwork the dough. For many, avoiding this problem means making biscuits without a mixer or a food processor. "You can make them in a mixer, but they're not going to be as tender," says Rowan, who makes by hand the 70 biscuits needed for Town Hall's dinner service. Her most loyal customers-her kids-always can tell the difference.
Tips from Biscuit Pros
A few simple biscuit-making tricks can make a big difference in outcome.
- Dust your cutter with flour before you punch out the biscuits. You need a clean cut to get the biscuits to rise evenly in the oven. - Executive chef Erin O'Shea, Marigold Kitchen, Philadelphia
- Use a finely ground self-raising flour, preferably one low in protein, to help create a flaky, light biscuit - Pastry Chef Candace Rowan, Town Hall, San Francisco
- Bake the biscuits as soon as you make the dough. If the dough sits too long, the baking powder will react with the buttermilk and the biscuits won't rise as much when they are baked. - Randy Kibler, CEO, Bojangle's Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits, Charlotte, N.C.
- To speed the next morning's biscuit-prep process, measure out all ingredients separately the night before so that the baker can put the dough together quickly. - Jeramie Mitchell, Executive Chef, Busch Stadium, St Louis
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