One of the earliest memories Chef Virginia Willis has is making biscuits with her grandmother at three years old, and she has been in love with them ever since. Chef Willis recently shared her favorite biscuit recipes in the “ChefsForum: The Secrets of Southern Biscuits” webinar, and we caught up with the James Beard award-winning cookbook author to learn more about how much biscuits mean to her (and how she still managed to lose 70 pounds enjoying them!).
Q: Why do you love biscuits so much?
A: They’re the bread of my people and I love teaching how to make biscuits because people are so intimidated about them. We see images of these tall, fluffy, layer-y biscuits at fast food places and canned biscuits and all this stuff, and then when people try to make them, they don’t turn out like that. It’s frustrating for people and it just feels like this impossible peak to attain, but I’m of the very strong belief that it’s not that hard, and you can make a biscuit.
Q: What are the challenges to making the perfect biscuits?
A: Well, the first challenge is determining what one considers the perfect biscuit to be because there are cakey biscuits, there are flaky biscuits, and then there’s pretty much everything in between. I would say that for everyone, the closest thing to the perfect biscuit is whatever somebody’s grandmother made—that’s their version of the perfect biscuit. Some people grew up with lard biscuits, some people grew up with butter biscuits, some people grew up with Crisco biscuits. And then there are a lot of people who didn’t grow up with biscuits at all, even in the South. From a chef’s perspective, it’s a fairly inexpensive quick, hot bread that can be produced and it can have a lot of applications. It can be in the bread basket, it can be a base of some sort of chicken and gravy dish, it can be sweetened up so it’s a shortcake. It’s versatile.
Q: What are some common mistakes chefs make if they’re not used to making biscuits?
A: I think the main thing is that people overwork the dough. When I did that webinar, the dough was a shaggy mass; I’m always about the shaggy mass. I always instruct that you don’t want to make the dough come together in the bowl. Basically, the bowl should be this sort of shaggy mass of ingredients and then you flip it out onto the board and start folding it over onto itself, not really kneading, but you really just folding the dough over onto itself. That’s when it comes together and becomes a cohesive dough.
I think what happens is that people forget they don’t want to activate the gluten. It is not a yeast bread. By definition, the modern biscuit is meant to be light and airy and fluffy, and not kind of like a durable beast, so you don’t want to overwork the dough. And then I think the second problem is that once they’ve punched out the first round, they overwork the dough even more cutting out the second round of biscuits.
Q: You mentioned in the webinar that you lost 70 pounds. As a chef, did you find it challenging?
A: No doubt about it. It was challenging, but I knew it was necessary. And it really just always boils down to choices. One of the things I really feel strongly about is what has happened to me. The way I look at it is that my palate has expanded, my taste buds have changed and adapted to liking less sugar and fat—but I haven’t stopped liking sugar and fat. Whereas before, I would gravitate towards the dishes that were more fatty, more sugary, and more indulgent, now I’m also very satisfied with less fat, less sugar, less indulgent, so I can go either way. Before I was more indulgent only, and now it’s more of a blend. I feel that my horizon, my palate, and my likes have expanded as opposed to narrowing.
To see Chef Willis make some of her favorite biscuit recipes, watch the “ChefsForum: The Secrets of Southern Biscuits” webinar on ACF’s YouTube page.