I’m a Biscuit Geek, and These Epic Biscuits Are by Far the Best
I’ve always had a thing for biscuits. During a summer spent in South Carolina, I learned to love fluffy biscuits made with White Lily flour, served at church potlucks and at neighborhood restaurants. And in California, I learned to bake them at home. They even once inspired a themed food crawl in Portland, Oregon. Flaky biscuits are my jam.
This is why in the days after the California shelter-in-place went into effect, I comforted myself with biscuits. Something about the tactile act of tearing them open and seeing the slices of butter melt and pool on the bottom half before drizzling on honey or spooning on jam gave me a perfect moment in an increasingly imperfect world. I treasured each golden biscuit, knowing the value of its currency, not knowing then how a flour shortage would leave bakers flour-broke later.
Travel is a no-go right now, but I’ve been inspired by the ways bakeries and restaurants are getting creative online to nurture their communities. I might not be able to go on a biscuit crawl right now, but I can take a virtual trip to a café I’ve never been before when they post a recipe on their site and social media.
So, I sought out biscuits at local eateries from Brown Sugar Kitchen and Sequoia Diner, then went back to the kitchen to make my go-to recipe, once baking a basic batch and the next time blaspheming the dough with a spice blend to change things up. In my quest, each biscuit taught me something different.
Then I came across a recipe from a bakery in Columbus, Ohio, called Fox in the Snow. I had never heard of their iconic mile-high biscuit before quarantine. With so many flaky layers to unpeel, Fox in the Snow biscuits have forever set the bar higher for what I require in a biscuit with a method that makes me rethink my biscuitry. There might still be a bag of frozen dough pucks ready to bake off when necessary. My son might have scarfed down two at breakfast one morning only to ask a week later when we could make them again.
Fox in the Snow co-owners Lauren Culley and Jeff Excell closed the doors at their three cafes in early March, but have since reopened for take-out and contactless mobile ordering only. In the early days of shelter-in-place, Culley opened the kitchen to share and film the recipe of a towering condo of a biscuit, painted with salted honey butter after it comes out of the oven, then peeled in half for homemade jam to be spooned on the top half sandwiching the jam so it just nudges out. As soon as I saw a photo of them, I knew what to make the next time I needed to stress bake.
They are the kind of biscuit meant to be shared, as I did at a six-foot distance last week, dropping off a bag of that morning’s baking session to a friend from the South who was having a really hard week. It’s as if I knew the solace they brought me might bring him solace too. He later texted that he needed the recipe.
“I want to be able to continue to share Fox in the Snow with you while we’re shut down so that you can feed each other and recreate some of that community right where you are,” the Fox in the Snow said in an Instagram post at the beginning of April.
What Makes These Biscuits So Special?
Fox in the Snow biscuits stand out for several reasons. First, it should be said they use a lot of flour — (5 1/2 cups for 8 biscuits!) but to achieve new heights in biscuit bakery, such sacrifices can be necessary for their substantial size. That’s not all that makes the biscuit method different.
Let’s talk butter. Some bakers swear by freezing butter sticks to grate into flour or cut cold butter chunks into cold bowls of flour. Rather than aiming for pea-sized pieces, Culley holds up a walnut-sized butter chunk to the camera, claiming they “will give more rise.” She folds the dough six times, into a book, laminating butter between sheets of flour, a process typically reserved for croissants or kouign amann, but here, essential to build all those flaky layers. This approach came out of necessity as Culley and one other baker initially cranked out all the baked goods upon opening the first Fox in the Snow cafe. She couldn’t afford a recipe that needed hours of waiting or freezer time. That same pretense against fussy recipes is now part of her baking style.
Then, there’s salt. Culley claims there is “as much salt as seasoning a piece of meat” in the biscuits. Salt is her favorite ingredient, but she cites how it might just be the most important ingredient in baking, period, both to counter-balance sugar but also to upset the baking process. You might flinch as I did at adding 1 tablespoon of salt in the biscuits, but they didn’t taste excessively salty. Culley says the salt is signature for her biscuits that otherwise might taste like “candy,” as salted honey butter glosses their tops and spoonable jam shimmers from their middles.
Lastly, these biscuits are beasts. When rolling out and cutting the dough, they clock in at 3 inches tall, stamped with large round cutters. She champions rolling the dough a second time, with nothing wasted as scraps get fried and then tossed in cinnamon sugar. The recipe yields eight biscuits, but my biscuit cutter prevented such heights as I happily ended up at 3/4-inch tall with a yield of a dozen. You can stamp out and brush the dough with the cream egg wash to bake off immediately or to freeze and bake later for 45 minutes or until golden.
Fox in the Snow bakes 200 biscuits in a batch, but Culley scaled the recipe down for home bakers. Customers and fans have flooded her Instagram private messages with photos of their take on her biscuits, commiserating over missing this café favorite. Of the biscuit video, Culley says, “This is a way for us to show we’re a family shop. There’s a person behind this business and allows us to humanize the places we love.”
Like so many other restaurateurs that shuttered during the pandemic, Culley and Excell tried to figure out when the right time was to reopen. What followed was a series of starts and stops familiar to other restaurant and bakery owners. They re-opened their Italian Village location for weekend to-go pre-orders on May 9 and then their other two locations for take-out and pick-up on June 9. A brief stint of indoor dining followed on June 15, shortly cut off by a spike in local cases. Out of safety for staff, Culley and Excell decided to switch to only contactless mobile order pick-ups and takeout for the time being. They are taking things one day at a time.
Biscuits on the brain isn’t a passing fad for me and maybe it’s not for you, either. It feeds something deeper. It helps normalize something none of us have lived through before. Is there anything a hot biscuit with melted butter and jam can’t make right? To use a piece of found wisdom from Olaf in Frozen 2, a movie Culley says she’s watched thousands of times as she’s home with her kids, “We’re controlling what you can when things feel out of control.” We don’t know what may happen next in this pandemic saga, but we do know after 35 minutes there will be biscuits ready to be honey buttered, a gift from a family-run Ohio cafe to all of us at home.