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!
Like so so many things, it’s a balance. Of course you don’t want it to be a flat, too-crispy, wafer with no substance. But you don’t want it overly solid, either, like ship’s hard tack.
What you need, more than anything, is to start with a great recipe — and great oatmeal raisin recipes are surprisingly rare, it turns out. You need the right balance of sugars: More brown than granulated. You need to use the right oats: Whole, not quick. And you need to add enough structure to hold the cookie together despite its heft.
I love a good oatmeal raisin cookie myself, so I worked out my ideal recipe years ago. It wasn’t until I started selling these cookies, however, that I learned that a great recipe must satisfy three separate camps of oatmeal raisin fans:
First, there are people who insist they’re not into oatmeal raisin cookies, but actually are just waiting for a great recipe.
Second, there are people who love oatmeal raisin cookies — but still have been known to eat other cookie types on occasion. (I am in this camp.)
And third, there are those who have devoted an entire lifetime to seeking The One True Oatmeal Raisin Cookie.
This recipe works great for all three camps — we proved it at our little bakery every day.
The truly rabid fans, however, seemed to prefer shopping at our stand at the Leesburg Farmers’ Market. I remember one older guy in particular. He bought a half-dozen on his first-ever visit, then returned just a few minutes later in a state of rapture: He had eaten one, he said, and it was the very best oatmeal raisin cookie he’d eaten in more than 90 years!
That was quite some praise, said the younger woman with him — his daughter? — because finding perfect oatmeal raisin cookies had become his life’s mission, quite literally. The man was happy to agree, and told us he’d be back every single week for more: His quest was now complete.
He did come back weekly, too, for as long as we were there. (And he sometimes brought us gifts!) How sweet is that?!
Put butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer. Set it on low and run it until the butter is mostly broken down, then turn it up to medium speed an beat for 2-3 minutes until the butter is light and fluffy.
Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat for about 20 seconds.
In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, salt, baking soda, and oats. Scoop this mixture into the mixer bowl and run the mixer on low speed until batter is almost fully combined. Then add the raisins and stir the rest of the way.
Take the paddle off the mixer and scrape it down. Use a spatula to turn the dough and scrape it off the sides of the mixer bowl, then run the mixer on low for another 30 seconds-1 minute. (If you skip this step, you risk an uneven batch — some flat cookies that have extra butter in them, some cookies that bake much thicker.)
Scoop cookies onto prepared baking sheets using a #20 yellow-handled ice-cream-style scoop. (See my cookie baking tips for more about scoops.)
A family recipe book is like a family photo album. Just browsing a page can transport you back in time; follow the recipe and you can recapture the memory over and over. In some families there is a member who gathers and preserves family recipes: This person is a historian, valuable as any genealogist.
Congo Bars are part of my family’s history. Some people call them “blondies,” but not in my family. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, our family friend John turned us on to them — and John called them Congo Bars.
Flashback: My Massachusetts memories
John was (still is!) a wonderful, funny guy who brightened all our family parties. Aside from his delightful company, he often brought these dense, chewy chocolate chip bars with walnuts that were so satisfying to sink your teeth into.
When I think of Congo Bars, an old flashbulb fires in my head and I see a yellowing Polaroid of kids riding bikes with banana seats and streamers on the handlebars. The sun is up late on Massachusetts summer nights and my mother bought blackout shades so my room will be dark at bedtime, but in the end she lets me stay out with the other kids.
I flash on those family parties, too. John arrives into our busy kitchen with a pan full of bars. (Congo Bars are great for parties because they travel well.) One of the adults is working the blender. Kids are all over the house, and outside too. After we grab a bite, we’re racing down to the pond.
Where did these good-time bars come from before they appeared in my family?
Apparently the recipe was published in the Boston Globe sometime in the 1950s, and spread all over New England. Some versions included coconut and other ingredients that seemed exotic to mid-century Yankees — so maybe that’s where “Congo” comes from, although the Congo was never a producer of coconut (or chocolate or walnuts).
Another theory: “Congo” is slang for Congregational churches, where these bars were a potluck staple.
Oh, well, the name sounds great either way. For me it evokes the Boston-area of my 1970s childhood, of community and sharing.
When I came to Virginia, I brought John’s recipe with me and started making Congo Bars for the local farmers’ markets and then at my little bakery. Before long they were on national TV, chosen as “Snack of the Day” on the Rachael Ray Show!
Did that make me love them more? No, I already loved them totally — but it did give me a great new memory to be triggered by my recipe book.
Do you have a memory of these Congo Bars? Did you taste them for the first time at the Leesburg Farmers’ Market on a hot Saturday morning, perhaps chased with a slice of fresh local peach? Or outside the Lola’s bakery on a First Friday night as you enjoyed live music on our patio?
Or maybe your first taste will be today, after following this recipe at home.
Whatever your chewy, chocolate-y memory, please be sure to share it — and the recipe — with friends and family. That’s what these bars are all about.
Classic chocolate chip bars with walnuts. These very bars were served as the "Snack of the Day" on the Rachael Ray Show!
1 stick plus 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lb dark brown sugar (~2¼ cups)
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
14 oz flour (~ 3 cups plus 3 Tablespoons)
2½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
13 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips (~2 cups)
4 oz chopped walnuts (~1 cup)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the dark brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Melt the butter in a metal bowl in the oven (takes about 3-4 minutes) or on very low power in Pyrex in the microwave oven (takes about same time). Stir out any last lumps until it's all liquid, then pour it into the mixer bowl with the brown sugar.
Stir on low speed until combined and not too hot.
Add the eggs and vanilla and stir until just combined. (If you beat the eggs too long, your bars will be cake-like, not dense as bars should be.)
In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt, then add them to the mixer on low speed until just barely combined.
Now add the chips and walnuts and stir until fully combined.
Remove the mixer paddle and use a rubber spatula or scraper to turn the dough over and get it all off the sides, making sure it is all evenly mixed.
Prepare a 9" x 13" pan by spraying it with cooking spray or lining it with parchment as you prefer, then spread the batter in the pan. It helps to get a little water on your hands and pat it a bit on top as you finish it.
Put it in the oven for 25-30 minutes until the outer edges get slightly golden and a tester comes out clean.
They taste great warm, but if you want to cut the bars cleanly, you'll need to let them fully cool and even chill them — perhaps overnight — in the fridge, then cut with a sharp knife. At that point you can bring them back to room temperature or warmer and serve them all soft and lovely.
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.