Some people are afraid of making biscuits.
Natchez chefs share their secret dough
Story By Meghan Holmes
Janet Tyler used to be one of them. Like many other accomplished cooks, she avoided them for decades. There’s a certain alchemy involved in a perfect biscuit – an intangible element, and the best cooks respect it. A good biscuit requires a certain touch and feel, a physical knowledge beyond what recipes convey, and that knowledge often comes from Southern mothers and grandmothers. In Tyler’s case, she learned to make her employer’s recipe.
“Regina was out of town and we had a group coming to tour the house. I called everybody I could think of trying to get somebody over here to make the biscuits. Nobody could do it. It had to be me,” says Tyler.
Tyler made the biscuits successfully, and now she makes them often. (At work. Not in her home kitchen.) Tyler spends much of her time at Twin Oaks cooking alongside owner Chef Regina Charboneau, who entertains groups of visitors touring the home or staying in one of the B&B’s six guest rooms.
“We serve almond iced tea and biscuits with preserves during every tour,” says Charboneau, also an author and restauranteur as well as Chef de Cuisine for the American Queen Steamboat. “My biscuit recipe reflects my culinary training in France as well as techniques I learned growing up in Natchez. The method I use to make my dough is similar to that used for puff pastry or croissants, with the butter suspended in flaky layers. I keep a tea towel under the dough as I fold and turn to make the whole process easier,” she says.
Raising two boys and balancing myriad projects in addition to Twin Oaks, Charboneau found herself sending guests across the street for breakfast – to Dunleith. They came back praising the sweet potato biscuits made there by Ms. Rose. Visitors praised the biscuits all across town, inspiring Charboneau to begin promoting Natchez as the Biscuit Capital of the World, a title the local government has claimed and celebrated since 2008. There’s a (Martha White sponsored) biscuit cook off, a yearly biscuit festival in September and innumerable biscuits to eat.
One of the oldest restaurant biscuit recipes in town comes from The Carriage House on the grounds of Stanton Hall. The restaurant opened in 1946, serving baby biscuits and tomato aspic to lunching ladies and members of the Natchez Garden Club. Current chef Bingo Starr faithfully replicates these menu items using original recipes, but reinvents and updates other regional dishes with global culinary influences. He’s part of a growing number of chefs moving to Natchez and adding to the culinary scene, including Cody Wallace at the recently opened Pilot House restaurant in Hotel Vue.
Wallace learned to make biscuits from his mother, a short order cook. His biscuits at the Pilot House, “come from her recipe but with my own twists. I add herbs for the biscuits in our appetizer,” he says. This dish also features fried rabbit and goat cheese with mayhaw jelly and local honey, reflecting the restaurant’s focus on regionally sourced ingredients. “Our goat cheese is made in Natchez and we source most produce nearby. There is a lot available to us in the Delta,” says Wallace.
Other well-regarded biscuit stops downtown include Biscuits and Blues and King’s Tavern. The former serves baskets of biscuits with apricot butter and offers live music most nights. The atmosphere is vibrant and relaxed. King’s Tavern embraces a different ambience. The motto “Spirits of All Kinds” alludes to their signature rum produced next door as well as the ghosts said to haunt the building, constructed in the late 18th century.
Muted lighting and exposed bricks enhance the feel that spirits might be lurking. The menu leans toward rustic and casual, but with upscale touches. The most popular flatbread (the menu contains several) features braised brisket, olive oil, caramelized onions and a drizzle of horseradish cream. The salads are perfectly balanced – one offers slightly bitter green apples with a sweet preserved lemon vinaigrette, a crisp round of prosciutto, shaved Parmesan and greens.
Charboneau oversees menu development while husband Doug and son Jean Luc oversee operations of the distillery next door. Charboneau Rum sold its first bottles in late 2014. It’s a small batch white rum, produced with local sugar and molasses, and it works well in the craft cocktails served at King’s Tavern. Bar manager Ricky Woolfolk’s riff on a rum and coke (called the RC Cola) features Charboneau rum and black cherry cola made in house with angostura bitters, lime and effervescence. Overall the bar program is familiar but fresh, a mantra that also guides the menu.
King’s Tavern’s ode to biscuits comes from Charboneau’s bacon-thyme biscuit crust topping the chicken and crawfish pot pies. The filling is a traditional cream sauce with sautéed mushrooms, carrots, peas and corn. The crust’s flaky layers come from Charboneau’s unique biscuit recipe, with the addition of fresh thyme and crisp, crumbled bacon during the process of folding and turning the dough.
Home cooks often utilize the drop biscuit method. Rather than rolling out dough and cutting individual biscuits, they drop lightly mixed balls of dough directly onto a baking sheet. Vonice Jester lives just across the river in Vidalia, La., and prepares an updated version of her grandmother’s biscuits. “She had a wood stove and she would drop biscuits on the top of it and make them a little thin and pour oil on them. She called them Wisner flapjack biscuits,” she says. “I roll mine out now and make them with buttermilk, but I still like to make them thin so they almost have a crust.”
The Carriage House biscuit recipe2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ tsp salt
5 tbsp solid vegetable shortening
¾-1 cup milk
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix all dry ingredients and sift. Add shortening and cut with pastry cutter until mixture looks like coarse meal, add milk and stir until it forms balls. Place ball on boards sprinkled with flour. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness and cut in ½ inch circles. Place on ungreased cooking sheet and cook for 15 minutes.
Regina’s Butter Biscuits with Orange Marmalade ButterNote: Freezing the biscuits before they’re baked is essential—it adds to the flakiness, and the unbaked biscuits can be made ahead and kept for up to two months in the freezer.
Makes 2 dozen
4 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup baking powder
¼ cup sugar
½ cup (1 stick) salted butter, chilled and cut into 2-inch cubes
1½ cups (3 sticks) salted margarine, chilled and cut into 2-inch cubes
1¾ cups buttermilk, chilled
Put the flour, baking powder, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Turn the machine on low and blend the dry ingredients for 15 seconds.
Add the butter and margarine cubes and the buttermilk to the flour mixture before turning on the mixer. Turn the mixer on medium and count to ten. This goes very quickly; the key is to not overmix the dough. There will be large chunks (the size of quarters) of butter and margarine in the dough. That’s just how it should be. Don’t mix it any more. Once the dough is rolled and folded, it will become smooth.
Scrape the dough from the bowl onto a generously floured work surface and shape into a rectangle about 2 inches thick. Fold the dough into thirds and, with a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 2-inch thickness. Fold it again into thirds, give the dough a one-quarter turn, and roll it out again to a 2-inch thickness. Continue folding, turning, and rolling the dough until it is smooth and the dough has yellow ribbons of butter and margarine. This is a sign that the biscuits will be flaky.
Roll the dough to 1 1/2-inch thickness. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds. When rerolling the dough, gently stack it to retain the layers. Do not overwork the dough.
Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer the biscuits to plastic bags.
To bake, preheat the oven to 350°F. Place however many frozen biscuits you want to serve in the cups of muffin tins Let thaw in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake until golden brown, 23 to 25 minutes. Serve right out of the oven—biscuits are best freshly baked. Baking them in muffin tins is key, as it helps the biscuits keep their shape and get the perfect crispness on the bottom.
Orange Marmalade Butter1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons sweet orange marmalade
Put the butter and marmalade in a mini food processor and pulse to combine. (Alternatively, whisk together the butter and marmalade in a bowl.) Using a rubber spatula, transfer the butter to a decorative serving bowl.
Serve the butter with hot biscuits or other breakfast pastries.The butter also can be spread onto a sheet of plastic wrap, shaped into a log, wrapped, and frozen. Bring to room temperature before serving, either on a butter dish or cut into thin slices.