Next to cornbread, there is probably no American bread that inspires more passion than biscuits. They have a legendary mystique. Erika Council is a software engineer, writer/photographer, and biscuit maker who runs the Bomb Biscuits pop-up in Atlanta and the Southern Soufflé recipe website. She is unimpressed with all the pomp around making biscuits, but that’s not to say she doesn’t take them very seriously. She talked with Francis Lam about her biscuit process and how her family inspired a love for community support by way of Southern food. Erika also wanted you have her recipe for Biscuits with Syrup Butter.
Francis Lam: I've been told that you make the greatest biscuits of all time. I want to talk to you about so many things, but let's start with your ideal biscuit. Because there are a million styles of biscuit, right? But to you, what is a great biscuit like?
Erika Council: I like a biscuit that’s sturdy and is kind of crisp at the bottom, Even though it flakes in the center, it won't fall apart when I bite into it. When I bite into that biscuit, I want to pull it away from my mouth and it should still be intact with my teeth marks in it. I want a biscuit that will hold up to the gravy - you know, with sausage and a runny egg or country ham - and won't fall apart. I want a biscuit that can withstand that and not crumble to pieces. More sturdy than a softer biscuit.
FL: But still light with a good fluff to it?
EC: Yes. Still light. I think the word I'm looking for is “not crumbly.” It can be soft and light, but still sturdy.
Photo: Andrew Thomas Lee
FL: Here's the million-dollar question: how do you make a biscuit like that? What are techniques that you use to make a biscuit flaky, crisp on the bottom but still have enough body?
EC: I do know that for the crispness on the bottom of the biscuit, at home I’ll do biscuits in my cast iron skillet the same way I make corn bread. That's really how I learned how to make biscuits. With corn bread, you melt the butter in the cast iron skillet and add some sugar to the bottom of it.
FL: Oh, wow!
EC: You put that in the oven and let it get hot. And then once you mix the corn bread mix, you put that right in the skillet with a crisp butter and sparkling sugar. Once you bake it, you take that corn bread out, and it’s got the sugar crust, which is the best thing in the world. I adopted that same methodology to the biscuits at home. I'll let my pan get hot – without the sugar and butter – and then once I put the biscuit rounds on there they actually don't take that long to cook because they're crisp at the bottom. I make sure that the biscuits are not touching, so they get crisp all around. If the biscuits are touching, that side is going to be soft versus having it crisp all around. I like to use an all-purpose flour. I have noticed that if you use King Arthur or Gold Medal versus the traditional White Lily you hear all the Southerners talk about, it does make a firmer biscuit. I will make them with a cake flour/all-purpose flour mixture, but those tend to be the more delicate biscuits for shortcakes or things of that nature.
When I want to make a sturdy biscuit, I tend to stay away from the type of recipe that utilizes the fancier flours – as my grandma would say. One time I had some cake flour in my house and I remember my grandma said, “What are you going to do with this?” I told her that I use it to make cakes. She was like, “You don’t need cake flour to make a cake! That's what's wrong with y'all young folks, you got to have special stuff to make stuff nowadays.”
FL: The other question I always have with biscuit making is the butter. How do you treat the butter? How do you incorporate the butter?
EC: I cut my butter into half-inch squares to break it down and then I'll cut it into the flour and mix using a food processor if I'm making a big batch. If I'm making a small batch I tend to use a pastry cutter or fork to cut it in because my hand and my body temperature is so hot it melts the butter. I was taught to throw the butter into flour and then snap your fingers; take the butter and snap it into the flour to get that crumbliness. But my snap turns it into melted butter. [laughs] So, now I try to keep my hands out of the flour.
FL: In the food processor, how much do you want the butter cut into the flour?
EC: It’s through trial and error that you learn. I’ve got it down to where I can notice it is crumbling a little bit more than pie crust in my opinion. You want to incorporate it into the flour, but you still want to see some of that butter so steam will help get that flakiness that come from the butter separating in the dough.
FL: Then you mix in some buttermilk and that's your dough, right?
EC: Mix in some buttermilk, like cold fatty buttermilk. Cruz Dairy Farm out of Tennessee is the Beyoncé of buttermilk. I mean it reigns supreme among all others. And it's so hard to get. I'll drive to Chattanooga to get half a gallon. I go into Whole Foods and buy it all. I know when they see me coming in they’re probably like, “Oh lord, here she comes!” It's great, but not all buttermilk is created equal.
FL: A nice thick buttermilk and a little mix very light with your hands.
EC: Toss it a bit just to bring it together. My mixture sort of looks like a jumbled mess when I throw it onto the floured surface and start to pat it into a square. It looks like it's falling apart and it won't work, but it does. Then I take the flour bench scraper – to avoid my hands getting into it – and put it into a square, pat it down, and fold it over a couple of times. Not much though. Then I'll cut it in three and stack each layer on top of the other, roll it out and cut rounds or cut it into squares. And bake it in the oven.
Recipe: Biscuits with Syrup Butter
by Erika Council
FL: You brought up your grandmother before. You mentioned to me that you start making biscuits because both of your grandmothers. Tell me about them.
EC: My more well-known grandmother was Mildred “Mama Dip” Counsel from Mama Dip’s Country Kitchen, which is soul food and country restaurant. She was from a different generation. She’d refer to herself as “the country cook,” which I loved to hear her say. The restaurant was your typical meat and three. You could get a basket of biscuits and cornbread, so I always had lots of exposure to the mass production of biscuits and how to cut corners to make lots.
My grandmother on my maternal side was very much into the civil rights movement. Growing up as a child, every lesson in food tends to stem around liberation and black joy. She taught me a lot of her story through food. She had an opportunity to go to Columbia University to get an advanced degree in education and she took it. Back in the days of segregation black educators wanted to get advanced degrees, they wanted to be able to advance their careers and take the knowledge back to our communities. But there weren't a lot of schools offering that. So, to placate them Columbia said it would provide this program that allowed African Americans from the South to go and get advanced degrees – probably thinking that no one would be able to get enough money to go up there and take part. But I think a good 400 to 500 African Americans ended up taking part in that program.
She was in New York and would go into some restaurant and was so amazed at how white folks would just come up and talk to her as though it wasn't an issue – you know, because she came from the Jim Crow South. She's ordered these meals that came with a basket of what she called biscuit rolls. She said there was another couple that sat next to them and just started asking them all these questions, and they started eating together. For some reason that story stuck with me, and I think she could tell how much it affected me. That lesson triggered so many other memories around food. Like cakes she made to raise money to go hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, or booths they set up to talk about voter rights and would serve pimento cheese sandwiches.
The biscuit is powerful on both sides. Even now with a lot of the events that I'll have, if I'm able to raise money, it goes towards this program that I do where I teach underrepresented kids computer programming skills and ways of expanding your knowledge in case college isn't the route that you go or you're unable to get to this certain stage. It's about how you can take the technical route to get where you need to be. I use my food and these opportunities to liberate people as much as possible.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.