Tuesday, April 3, 2012

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Court Cafe Southern Buttermilk Biscuits


The perfect biscuit: crispy outside, pillowy inside.
In the South, where I grew up, buttermilk biscuits signify something much deeper than the start of a hearty meal. They're the symbol of down-home tradition, of a place where dinner doesn't come from a can. The irony is that the only biscuits most people can make are those Pillsbury Flaky canned jobs—a shameful adulteration of the real thing. Mimicking the pillowy perfection of Granny's biscuits is admittedly tough. They're finicky little things, requiring both time-honored technique and a real Southern recipe. And, no, Paula Deen isn't the answer. 

        I learned my technique from Margaret Byrd, who cooked for two decades at a mom-and-pop diner, Court Cafe, in my hometown. The caf
é stood at the tail end of Knoxville's main thoroughfare, Kingston Pike, a stretch of which was once a moonshiners' route. Back in the 1930s, Court Cafe served breakfast and lunch to guests of a nearby motel, long since demolished. Later, it became the morning spot of dozens of locals, my parents included. 

       The cafe was once featured in a documentary about Hank Williams Sr., but it was still best known for its food: sausage gravy, biscuits, chicken and dumplings, all the classics of home cookin'. Then, a few years back, as strip malls sprang up in the area, Court Cafe was forced to suddenly close. And my parents were forced to eat sausage biscuits at Hardee's. An utter tragedy. Fortunately, with the help of Byrd, you'll never reach such a level of biscuit desperation. 

The perfect homemade biscuit, she says, starts with soft flour, baking powder, Crisco, and ice-cold buttermilk. It sounds simple, but Byrd swears by it. "You can tell the difference between a homemade and a store-bought biscuit," Byrd told me. "We use White Lily Flour, nothin’ but White Lily Flour, self-rising. Our biscuits are made the old-timey way with buttermilk. We don’t add any water at all. That’s all I have ever seen my Mom do." 

     The recipe is basic, but it's easy to screw up the technique. Working the dough for more than 2 or 3 minutes will make your biscuits tough, as will twisting the biscuit cutteror in Byrd's mother's kitchen, the round edge of a tin can. 

Court Cafe Southern Buttermilk Biscuits

What you need
2 cups self-rising White Lily flour
¼ cup Crisco (vegetable shortening) 
¾ cold buttermilk
½ Tbsp baking powder
Melted salted butter

Put it all together
  1. Preheat the oven to 500°F.
  2. Sift the flour and baking powder together. Then using your hands or a pastry blender, gently cut in the vegetable shortening to create a coarse mixture.
  3. Stir in the buttermilk, only until a soft dough firms, then turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Knead it for 2 to 3 minutes, no longer. 
  4. With a rolling pin, flatten the dough to ½” thickness. Then without twisting, cut out your biscuits. Arrange them on an ungreased baking sheet, with each round barely kissing its neighbor.
  5. Bake 10-12 minutes, and immediately after removing, brush the tops with melted butter.



  1. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!