There's a Southern influence that lately has wended its way through Los Angeles restaurants, and its emblem is the biscuit. Tender, flaky, golden biscuits have risen on menus from Manhattan Beach to Melrose Avenue. Buttermilk biscuits, oat biscuits, cheesy biscuits, biscuits made with lard rendered from the fat of Mangalitsa pigs.
Govind Armstrong shows his Georgia Low Country roots at Willie Jane in Venice, Calif., where diners have been known to dunk the buttermilk biscuits into the broth of Prince Edward Island mussels with tasso ham and preserved lemon butter. The most popular dish at the Hart & the Hunter in the Palihotel — besides maybe the plate of fried chicken skin that comes with hot pepper vinegar — is the tender, buttery biscuits. (And like some Southern grandma not willing to reveal her biscuit secrets, Brian Dunsmoor and Kris Tominaga won't give out the recipe.)
David LeFevre's kitchen at Manhattan Beach Post turns out 200 bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits a day, sometimes double that on the weekends. “I've never experienced the kind of reaction that we've gotten to biscuits,” he says. “We make them throughout the day, and everybody, including the dishwashers, knows how to bake them, they're that integral.” (Still, he refused to share his recipe too.)
At its most basic, a biscuit is flour, water and leavening, and anything else — liquids such as buttermilk or cream and fats such as butter, lard or shortening — are additions (though those additions have come to be expected). Distinctly American, biscuits are closely associated with the South because of the history of the region's flour. Southern flours were made from the soft winter wheat that grew well in the warmer climate of the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. And flour from soft wheat, such as the highly coveted White Lily, has less protein, better suited to making quick breads (including biscuits) than flour made with harder spring wheat.
Los Angeles chefs might skip the White Lily, but they can't seem to do biscuits without buttermilk. Armstrong says he has several biscuit recipes, but they're all buttermilk biscuits. “Always buttermilk. It adds tanginess, and really good buttermilk has those little tiny globules of fat.”
The acid in buttermilk activates the leavening power of baking soda, notes Cooks County pastry chef Roxana Jullapat, who has for several years tweaked the recipe she originally took from a can of baking powder. “They get really good height and are moist in the middle without being underbaked” because the buttermilk also creates steam as the biscuits bake.
“As a baker, what I really like about biscuits is that they require really good execution,” Jullapat says. “Recipes are full of warning signs. Don't overwork, be gentle, etc. Can you really over-mix a cake that much? But with biscuits, all that (stuff) is actually true.” Whatever you do, do not over-mix.
And then there's the great fat debate: butter or shortening or lard? As soon as Southern-trained and schmaltz-obsessed Jessica Koslow, the proprietor of Sqirl cafe in Silver Lake, got her hands on half a Mangalitsa pig from farmer Oliver Woolley, she rendered her own lard. (Mangalitsa is a heritage breed known for the flavor of its fat.) And when you have lard, you bake pie crusts and biscuits, says Koslow, who has worked at Bacchanalia and Abattoir in Atlanta, where making lard was part of the process of breaking down whole pigs.
Now Sqirl pastry chef Meadow Ramsey bakes dozens of lard biscuits every Saturday (the only day they're available at the cafe), served with sausage gravy and an over-easy egg, sometimes a duck egg.
“I've been energized that people are allowing us to do these things,” Koslow says. “It's an exciting time to be exploring food. If I get to make emu egg quiche and Mangalitsa lard for biscuits, then it just pushes us more.”
Tips for better biscuits
It's an adage passed down by expert Nathalie Dupree in her cookbook “Southern Biscuits”: “No two cooks make the same biscuit.”
Some swear by cream or a mix of baking powder and baking soda. Some drop their biscuits from a spoon instead of cutting them out. Some people use butter instead of lard, or shortening instead of butter. They cut them big or cut them small. They might dunk each one in melted butter before baking, the way James Beard did. But there are a few tips everyone can follow for better biscuits.
» Make sure all of the ingredients, including the flour and baking powder, are cold.
» Do not overwork the dough: Mix just until the liquid is incorporated, and knead just until the dough comes together.
» Roll the dough so that it's about an inch thick, and not much less, for high biscuits.
» Cut the biscuits out without twisting the cutter to prevent the sides from getting pinched.
» Eat biscuits as soon as possible; their lifespan is short.
Recipe: Mangalitsa Lard Biscuits and Sausage Gravy
1 hour, 10 minutes. Serves 4 to 6
• 5½ cups (23.4 ounces) flour
• 3 tablespoons baking powder
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 12 ounces cold lard (Sqirl uses lard rendered from Mangalitsa pigs)
• 1½ cups buttermilk, plus extra for the egg wash
• 2 eggs, divided
• Cracked pepper and fleur de sel
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut in the lard until it is reduced to pea-sized pieces. Stir in the buttermilk and 1 egg just to form a dough.
Remove the dough to a well-floured surface, and pat to a thickness of about 1 inch. Cut out biscuits using a 2-inch round cutter and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing the biscuits about 1½ inches apart. The recipe makes about 1 dozen biscuits. Beat the remaining egg with a few tablespoons of buttermilk to form the egg wash. Brush the biscuits with the egg wash, and sprinkle the cracked pepper and fleur de sel on top.
Bake the biscuits until puffed and golden, 12 to 17 minutes, rotating the tray halfway for even baking.
• 1 pound breakfast or standard pork sausage, crumbled
• 1 shallot, small dice
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• ½ teaspoon black pepper
• Pinch of chile flake
• ¼ cup flour
• 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
• 3 cups warm milk
• Salt, to taste
In a dry skillet, cook the sausage over medium-high heat until the fat is rendered and the sausage is golden-brown, about 10 minutes. Add the shallot, garlic, black pepper, chile and thyme. Cook until the shallot is translucent and the herbs are aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes.
Sprinkle the flour over and briefly cook, stirring to mix well, about 2 minutes. Slowly drizzle over the warm milk, whisking to mix well so lumps don't form; the milk will begin to thicken quickly. Bring the mixture down to a simmer and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Taste and season as desired with salt before serving.