Whenever Briana Holt is baking at home, her rescue dog, Gravy, is usually close by waiting for a treat. She named him after Wavy Gravy, the Woodstock-era peace activist and the former official clown of the Grateful Dead, one of Holt’s favorite bands. Her dog’s name, she says, has nothing to do with the fact that she happens to make the best biscuits I’ve ever tasted outside the South. Holt is an owner and the head baker at Tandem Coffee + Bakery in Portland, Maine, which has a line out the door more often than not. I met her for the first time at the front of that line. As I was ordering my third biscuit of the week, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. “Eric?”
Recipe: Buttermilk Sugar Biscuits
These buttermilk biscuits aren’t like other buttermilk biscuits. They deliver the kind of hefty absolution that only a specific ratio of butter, flour and sugar can provide. But where Southern-style biscuits are traditionally fluffy and airy, Holt’s are sturdy, salty-sweet Tempur-Pedic pillows that bounce back when you press into them. It turns out all you have to do is add a little more sweetness than you would think — about 100 grams of sugar — to achieve a burnished crust, an almost caramelized crackliness on the outside and steamy tenderness on the inside. It’s that texture that makes these biscuits so idiosyncratic. You can’t stop thinking about them. They stick to your ribs, to your mind. When you eat them, you feel swathed in a weighted blanket of carbohydrates. And if you’re eating them right, in the best way, they make you want a nap.
Most notable about Holt’s recipe is the balance between how easy it is to make and how big the payoff is. “It’s got some spe-ci-fi-ci-ty,” she says, punctuating the syllables so they come out as distinct as her biscuit’s layers, “but it’s not hard.” It helps that her instructions are reassuring and clear, cajoling almost in their generous certainty. You could, for instance, cut cold butter into the flour with a pastry cutter or use a food processor, but there’s something visually tactile and satisfying about grating cold butter into long primrose curls, like cheese. When I pointed this out, she said, “Everything is connected.” It’s the acid in the buttermilk that lends the pillowy texture, but for me, it’s also what gives you the savory aroma as you stir the dough together. Holt’s hands run warm, as do mine, which is why it’s important not to overwork the dough. To avoid a big mess, use a metal spoon to combine the cold butter, flour, sugar and buttermilk into a dough that will seem to be falling apart at first. Don’t worry, she says. “Just go for it.”
I pulled out a sheet of paper when I asked Holt whether I should be folding the biscuit dough in half “hamburger-style” or “hot-dog-style” (meaning along the short side or the long side), a motion that she calls for repeating five to six times for Tandem’s distinctive layered look. “Hamburger-style!” she said. One time, my hamburger-folded biscuits rose so high that they accordioned out and flopped over horizontally, like little rainbow-shaped biscuit Slinkies. The greatest joy of these biscuits might lie in their quirkiness, the way their layers are visible to the naked eye, because the way they’re folded keeps one corner exposed at all times. They’re vulnerable biscuits: buttery skyscrapers without scaffolding. As Holt would say, don’t worry. Not only do they look beautiful; they also taste divine no matter what. And you’ll be filling them later anyway.
The greatest joy might lie in their quirkiness, the way their layers are visible to the naked eye.
You could eat these biscuits plain, straight out of the oven, peeling layer by layer as the sweet steam wafts out, as if in a Miyazaki animation. Or enjoy them as they are served at Tandem, in breakfast sandwiches with steam-baked eggs and gooey American cheese nestled within. Or paint them with good butter and strawberry jam, a reliable classic. Me? I was taken to another dimension by a third filling choice: cool cream cheese and tangy-hot pepper jelly. This savory assemblage works well against Holt’s slightly sweetened biscuit, the cream cheese adding that other dimension beyond the butter that’s already very prominent in the gorgeous pastry.
Later, I would learn that the pepper-jelly idea came from a talented woman Holt worked with at Pies ’n’ Thighs, a Brooklyn restaurant that specializes in fried chicken and biscuits. This pepper-jelly angel would stir up a pot of it, which the crew would eat by the spoonful while on break. Soon it was on the menu. When I found out that person was my friend and colleague Yewande Komolafe, I felt my heart expand out into a rainbow. I love these serendipitous moments in life when you and someone you love meet at the edges, miles from each other in time and space, without even knowing it until later. Maybe there’s a reason I was most attracted to that pepper-jelly biscuit. Bound by a thick layer of it with cream cheese — as Holt said, everything is connected.
Recipe: Buttermilk Sugar Biscuits
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.
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