We never shortened the name of these scones, even though it barely fit on our labels at the bakery. Why? Because each element was a crucial part of the description. These are scones with a lot going on.
There’s sweetness, plus a little tart, from the apricots. Crunch and character from the walnuts. Smoothness and more sweet oomph from the white chocolate. Texture and a visual flourish from the sugar on top. Combined with the lightness of the scone, all of this added up to one of our most-requested breakfast items — and a big reason for the lines each Saturday morning at our farmers’ market stand.
No need to stand in line anymore: Just brush up on my tips for baking scones, then make up a batch yourself. Serve them warm from the oven with a cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy the sweet complexity.
I was not born into biscuit-baking. I was raised far north of the Mason-Dixon line, bereft of biscuits and other Southern staples. The first time I saw red dirt piled near construction sites, I was stunned. Was that color real? The first time someone called “Y’all come back now” as I was leaving a shop, I figured it was tongue-in-cheek. No: Just friendly.
I’ll never deny my Bostonian pride, but I have lived in the South for a long time now and I have come to love so much about it, from the climate to the magnolias to the hospitality.
And, of course, The Biscuit — six bites of love.
I got my biscuit recipe in college, from an Atlanta woman who knows the score. Mrs. L is the mother of a close friend from freshman year; I was a guest of the family one holiday weekend. In addition to a trip to the Varsity and a short history of Coca Cola, I was treated to some fine home cooking — including a breakfast complete with grits and home-made biscuits.
I told my kind hostess that I loved to bake and asked if she’d share the biscuit recipe. To my pleasure, she did. I knew immediately that I had something good: Mrs. L was from a long, proud line of Atlantans, and her biscuits were perfect.
When I tried to recreate those Atlanta biscuits, however, they wouldn’t come out perfectly for me. I remember baking a passable batch a in California sublet one summer; taking another few cracks in two consecutive Boston kitchens; and falling somewhat short yet again in a Brooklyn kitchen the size of a small closet. I nearly forgot what I was aiming for — but I kept trying.
(One of my greatest strengths as a baker, by the way: I’m happy to eat the stuff that’s not quite right, and I’m never too discouraged to try again.)
Ultimately I buckled down and dove deep into Southern biscuit-baking lore. I learned that a great recipe is just the start. You also must master Southern technique and details.
Let’s step back for a second. Biscuits are not the same all over the South. Some like them tall, some like them wide. Some like them big, while others think big biscuits are plain uncouth. Most will agree that a ham biscuit is the height of Southern civility and hospitality — it has ever been so and ever will be, amen. But then there’s biscuits and gravy, and biscuits with homemade peach preserves, which may be even better.
There’s lots of common ground, though. A good biscuit is hearty and light at the same time. It is golden and slightly crunchy on top, and it steams when you open it warm. Each bite melts in your mouth.
All of that, I knew.
What I had yet to learn: All Southerners know, for instance, that you bake biscuits with White Lily flour — it’s such common knowledge that their recipes generally don’t bother mentioning it.
White Lily is made only from “soft” winter wheat, which is lower in gluten and protein than the “hard” wheat used for bread flour. It’s almost like finely milled cake flour, so it rises better and makes a lighter biscuit. (Standard all-purpose flour, by contrast, is a mix of soft and hard wheat, with a blend that varies by brand.)
I also had to learn how Southerners handle biscuit dough (as little as possible); how Southerners cut biscuit dough (don’t use the top of a glass!); and how Southerners treat butter (keep it cold all the way to the oven).
When I put all of this together, I finally unlocked the genius of the Atlanta recipe. I have loved making biscuits ever since. I may not have been born in the South, but I’ve worked hard to learn its ways — and I have been rewarded in return. The ultimate moment, perhaps, was in 2007, shortly after I opened my bakery here in Virginia: I was featured in Southern Lady magazine. Mrs. L would be proud!
Here, then, is the recipe for Atlanta biscuits. On a separate page I’ve gathered all I’ve learned about bringing biscuits to their full glory. Once you know the techniques, it’s all fairly simple. In the words of a baker whom I heard summing up biscuit-baking: “It’s just baking powder, flour, shortening … and then you put the love in.”
In bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt
Add butter to mixer on low speed; run until butter is broken down into bits slightly smaller than pea-sized
Add cream in a steady stream as the mixer runs. Keep running until just combined.
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface
As quickly and gently as possible, pat dough into a ball, then roll out to about 1” thick.
Use a sharp round biscuit cutter to cut out biscuits. (I use a round cutter 2½" in diameter. If you use a smaller size, your biscuits might take slightly less time to bake.) Arrange them close together on a baking pan. Brush all with beaten egg.
A friend who grew up in Memphis once told me that when she didn’t move fast enough in P.E. class, the teacher would prod her: “Whatcha doin’ Sarah? Baking biscuits??”
I love this taunt for so many reasons. It’s funny and fond and just so Southern to my Yankee-bred ear. I love it as a baker, too, because it comes from a culture that understands biscuits: Biscuits need care and attention — you can’t bake them while running laps or whatnot.
In short, baking biscuits (and scones, which use the same basic techniques and ingredients) is a craft. It’s about knowledge and technique and focus. Once you have the touch, however, you can dash off perfect biscuits and scones every time. You don’t even need to be Southern: A few basic tips will get anyone pretty close to perfection.
Here are what I consider to be the essentials of biscuit and scone baking:
Butter carries flavor like nothing else. It gives the best mouth texture. It outperforms any alternative. I know there are lard fans out there, and I try to be open-minded, but I have tested and tasted and I am sure where I stand on this. Furthermore, in the words of a fine Georgia woman who shared her biscuit recipe with me, “Sometimes you can be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”
2.Add Butter and All Liquids Cold
Here’s where you get that oomph. Add ingredients cold, and try to keep them cool as you work. Don’t cream the butter, as you might for cakes or cookies. Break it down into little grains within the flour. I do this with a mixer, but some bakers cut in their butter by hand. Either way, keep it cool all the way to the oven. Don’t over-handle the dough with your warm hands. Don’t leave it on a warm counter for an hour. The best rising happens when cold butter enters a hot oven. Maximize it.
3.Work Fast and Light
Mix and shape dough only just enough, and no more. For one thing, over-working means over-warming. But dough-handling is a separate point, too, because biscuit and scone dough is sensitive. Shape it on a cool surface by patting it lightly — never knead it like bread.
4.There Is a Minimum Height
Don’t pat your dough too thin! I am religious about this. At Lola’s I used a ruler every time to ensure that my biscuits were at least 1″ thick when I cut them. Scones should be at least 3/4″ high when they’re cut. Any less and they just won’t bake right.
5.Make a Clean Cut
If you’re cutting biscuits, don’t twist the cutter, even at the end. If you’re cutting scones, don’t drag a knife. Use a nice sharp instrument and cut decisively — straight down. Tearing your dough will inhibit its rise.
6.Bake ‘Em Close Together
Whether you’re baking scones or biscuits, fit them together on your pan somewhat snugly. I leave about a finger’s width between items. And place your pan near the top of the hot oven. This is all about air circulation and maximizing the rise.
There you go: A light, flavorful final product, every time.
Not enough for you? Want to learn more, more, more about biscuit culture? Craving a stroll down Biscuit Boulevard? Yearning to become Miss Biscuit? (Or Mr. Biscuit?) Itching to submit your Biscuit Art for judging — or your Biscuit Songwriting? Have I got a 2016 vacation for you!
I started by selling cookies at the farmers' market. Then, in 2006, I rented a few small rooms in an old Victorian building in historic downtown Leesburg, Virginia, and turned them into the bakery of my dreams.
We baked everything in our open kitchen using no preservatives and no artificial flavors — because that's how it tastes best.
Lola's was featured on The Rachael Ray Show and Fox 5 TV; in Washingtonian magazine and Northern Virginia magazine; and on the cover of Loudoun Magazine.
In 2013 our building was sold and converted to office spaces, so we closed — at least for the moment. So many customers asked for our recipes that I started this blog in response.