Finding biscuits in the biscuit capital
You don’t have to go far to find great biscuits in Natchez, Mississippi. They’re served in restaurants, inns and B&Bs across town. Here are some suggestions if you’re planning a trip.› Monmouth Historic Inn› Dunleith Historic Inn› Natchez Coffee Co.› Biscuits & Blues› The Carriage House› King’s Tavern
NATCHEZ, Miss. - Regina Charboneau never made a biscuit in her life until, at age 24, she found herself living in Paris, France, attending La Varenne cooking school and wanting to treat some of her friends to a true Southern meal, one that had to include biscuits.
"I made them, and they were so good, I've been making the same recipe since - tweaking it a few times - for the past 40 years," she says, sitting in Biscuits & Blues, her brother Peter Trosclair's restaurant in downtown Natchez.
Four decades since that memorable meal, she's back in her Mississippi hometown, having moved around from the wilds of Alaska to San Francisco, where she opened her first restaurants, Regina's at the Regis and Biscuits & Blues (San Francisco location). Known far and wide for her biscuit business, she's been named the "Queen of Biscuits" by Gourmet magazine.
"No one taught me how. I guess I just have the touch," she says.
Charboneau is also the woman responsible for naming her city "The Biscuit Capital of the World."
Biscuits are by no means unique to Natchez. They're made in homes and restaurants across the South and beyond.
So she began looking for a way to capitalize on the biscuits she and others were making in Natchez, did her research and found no other city's claim as the Biscuit Capital. She grabbed hold of the domain name and established the town's position in the food world as a place that celebrates a food central to the role of Southern identity.
"They're part of our Southern culture - the ultimate comfort food. We're encouraging our restaurants to showcase their biscuits," Charboneau says, adding that her own Natchez restaurant, King's Tavern, which she opened five years ago, not only serves biscuits but uses leftover dough to make toppings for the eatery's made-from-scratch potpies.
The Carriage House, a lunchtime institution in Natchez since the 1930s, is a hot spot for biscuits in town.
"If we run out of biscuits, our customers will run us out," says executive chef Bingo Starr, a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Starr serves his buttered biscuits with jelly or slices of country ham; he splits them, toasts them and serves them like an open-faced sandwich with pimento cheese or shrimp remoulade; reduces day-old biscuits to crumbs to use as a breading for catfish and trout; and cuts the dough into strips for chicken and dumplings. The possibilities show the versatility of a bread that was once relegated to breakfast only.
The Carriage House makes them slightly different from those served at Biscuits & Blues, but the bottom line is the same: Biscuits made and sold at each numbers into the thousands on a weekly basis.
"Some people come to Biscuits & Blues for our biscuits alone," Trosclair notes.
Securing its place as the Biscuit Capital, Natchez plays host to the annual Biscuit Festival each September, an event that includes a biscuit competition and live music. Entries for the 2018 event showed the versatility of this simple bread, from lemon biscuits made by Natchez Coffee Co. to the biscuits made from spent grains and candied orange that Natchez Brewing Co. entered in the competition.
As simple as a biscuit recipe is - nothing more than flour, margarine, salt, baking powder and butter for the most-basic of recipes - some folks make biscuits more akin to hard tack.
"The biggest mistake people make is overmixing," Charboneau says. "The key is not to overincorporate the fat."
And Trosclair chimes in: "The colder the butter, the better."
As we sat at the table at Biscuits & Blues, buttering biscuits and lathering them with apricot butter, Charboneau revealed a few more tips, perhaps ones that had Bob Hope licking his lips; members of the Rolling Stones including them on their Thanksgiving table; and Huey Lewis, among other celebrities she's made biscuits for, going back for seconds.
Here are some of the tips she shared:
* Place the biscuit dough on a tea cloth, roll it out to an oblong shape, fold it over, then turn the towel and repeat eight times, before cutting the dough. Folding the dough helps create layers. Both Trosclair and Starr use a 6-ounce Dole pineapple juice can, the lid and bottom cut out. Nothing fancy.
* Once the ingredients are placed in the mixer, turn it on and count to 10. By hand, use about 20 strokes. That's all the time it takes. Again, you do not want to overmix.
* Once the dough has been cut, place the biscuits on a sheet pan and freeze the biscuits. "That makes a huge difference," Charboneau says.
* To bake, place the biscuits in individual ungreased muffin tins. "The butter in the biscuits won't run out. Rather, when in the muffin tins, the biscuits will suck the butter back in," notes Charboneau. "It also makes the bottoms crispy."
* Don't roll the leftover dough in a ball and place it in the freezer. Instead, cut it into strips and stack them to help protect the layers.
You can catch the next Natchez Biscuit Festival on the last Saturday in September. Until then, here are the recipes from Starr and Charboneau to tide you over.
Chef Regina's Butter Biscuits
Charboneau is specific about ingredients. "They don't taste quite like my biscuits if you change the ingredients," she says.
She prefers Calumet Baking Powder and Land O' Lakes salted butter and salted margarine.
4 cups flour
1/4 cup baking powder (preferably Calumet)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 pound salted margarine (preferably Land O' Lakes), well-chilled
1/4 pound salted butter (salted) well-chilled
1 3/4 cups buttermilk (full-fat if available)
In a metal mixing bowl, add flour, baking powder and sugar. Blend well. Cut margarine and butter into small cubes (1/2 inch). Mix with dry ingredients, and coat the margarine and butter well with the flour mixture.
Add buttermilk, and mix into a dough. Do not overmix. There should be visible pieces of butter and margarine; that is what makes these biscuits flaky.
Flour a work space and roll out 3/4-inch thick, fold and roll again. Repeat this process two to three times until you have a smooth dough. The dough will be layered with butter and margarine. Cut into rounds, whichever size you prefer. I prefer 2 inches.
Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown. You may bake in muffin tins to brown evenly.
Makes 2 dozen large or 3 dozen small.
Regina's Sweet Potato Biscuits
Although these use the same technique as Charboneau's butter biscuits, they're a softer, sweeter biscuit because of the sweet potato.
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter, chilled and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 cup (2 sticks) salted margarine, chilled and cut into 2-inch cubes
1 small sweet potato, baked, peeled, mashed and chilled (to measure 1 cup)
1 1/4 cups buttermilk, chilled
Put the flour, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Blend the dry ingredients on low for 15 seconds. Add the butter, margarine, mashed sweet potato and buttermilk to the bowl. Turn the mixer on medium speed, and count to 10. There should be visible chunks of margarine and butter in the dough.
Generously flour a work surface. Roll the dough into a rectangle about 2 inches thick, fold into thirds, and roll again. Turn the dough one-quarter turn and roll out again to a 2-inch thickness. Fold into thirds again, and repeat the process for a total of four to five times until the dough is smooth. The dough should have a yellow ribbon effect where the butter and margarine are rolled out. This is a good sign that the biscuits will be flaky. Roll the dough one last time to a 1 1/2-inch thickness.
Using a 2-inch floured biscuit cutter, cut the dough into rounds. When rerolling the dough, gently stack it to retain the layers. Do not overwork the dough.
Arrange the biscuits on a baking sheet and freeze. The biscuits are best if first frozen. Once frozen, transfer into a zippered plastic bag. (Unbaked biscuits can be frozen for 2 months.)
When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the frozen biscuits in the cups of 2 muffin tins; these biscuits are best if not baked on a baking sheet. Let the biscuits thaw in the tins in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake until the tops of the biscuits are golden, 23 to 25 minutes. Turn the biscuits out onto a wire rack, and serve warm. Makes about 24 biscuits.
Chef Bingo Starr's Butter Biscuits
2 cups self-rising flour
5 tablespoons butter
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon sugar
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Mix together all dry ingredients, and sift. Add butter, and cut mixture until it looks like coarse meal. Add buttermilk, and stir until it forms ball.
Place ball on board sprinkled with flour. Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness, and cut into circles. Place on ungreased baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.