WHERE I COME FROM, all for-serious home cooks have a specialty, that one dish that’s lauded as simply “the best” by all who know them. As in, “Aunt Sally makes the best potato salad—probably because she puts Italian dressing in it.” Or “You know what makes Dad’s red beans and rice the best? Pickled pork and that pureed cup of cooked beans he finishes them off with.” So, about a decade ago, when I decided it was time to become a serious home cook myself, on top of learning how to boil an egg “the right way” and buying a litany of must-have kitchen gadgets (I regularly use the microplane zester but never got around to launching the ice-cream maker), I carefully selected the dish that would become my specialty: biscuits.
Why biscuits? Well, I’d recently stopped living with my best friend and was sorely missing her cooking—likely why I was getting serious in the kitchen to begin with. Years before, the two of us had made the move from Louisiana to New York City together, and it was her home cooking—from-scratch cinnamon rolls, beans, greens and cornbread casserole, but most especially her biscuits—that had helped me survive many a frigid Northern winter day and the challenges of earning enough as a writer to cover rent in Manhattan. When I moved to Los Angeles—a very different L.A.—in 2007, surviving winter had become a moot point. There was still the matter of making the rent in an alien, ginormous city. The ability to make the best biscuits, I reasoned, would not only bring the pacifying powers of a plate of biscuits back into my life but would afford me the ability to spread that comfort and care around.
I took about a year to perfect my technique (in case you’re wondering, butter, White Lily flour and a strict no-knead policy is its cornerstone), and while today I like to think my biscuits are among “the best,” I have by no means closed the door on my biscuit-making education. I’m always open to learning new techniques—and have picked up my fair share since arriving in Bentonville (like if you use a square biscuit cutter, you won’t be tempted to use over-rolled dough scraps, and a mix of White Lily and War Eagle Mill flours results in an insanely fluffy batch of biscuits. Credit chef Miranda Kohout and chef Matt McClure, respectively). With all of that said, it should come as no surprise that when a new restaurant by the name of The Buttered Biscuit opened not five minutes from my house, I made it my mission to get to the bottom of the place and its biscuits.
I DROP BY The Buttered Biscuit on a Monday. Upon stepping inside, I’m immediately taken aback by how packed and bustling it is. I had imagined business would be slow, given that it’s after noon on a weekday. I mention this to the waitress behind the counter before I take a seat. “This is slow for us,” she quips, rushing away with a pitcher of water and a check.
After taking a seat, I have a look-around. The space is warm and homey like many a Southern kitchen. The tabletops are copper-toned, and navy subway tile abounds. A bubble chandelier hangs above. Actual rolling pins adorn an entire wall.
Not long after I arrive, Anna Russell meets me at the counter. Anna co-owns the eatery with her husband, Sam Russell, who works in Rogers for one of Wal-Mart’s vendor companies. Originally from Lansing, Michigan, Anna is petite, blonde and blue-eyed.
Although she’s a brand-new mom—she jokes that she gave birth to her daughter Charlotte and The Buttered Biscuit pretty much at the same time—Anna explains that she felt called to open the restaurant upon moving to Bentonville because her specialty is breakfast, and Bentonville, she says matter-of-factly, “needed breakfast.” We settle into the restaurant’s private room for a quiet chat. Out of the window across from where I’m sitting, I catch a glimpse of the golden arches from the McDonald’s up the street.
As we chat about the menu, I come to understand that Anna’s idea of breakfast is a combination of classics, like buttermilk pancakes, cinnamon rolls, waffles, French toast, bacon and eggs, all whipped up with a few dollops of fun and whimsy. Case in point, The Old Orchard omelet: a medley of caramelized Honeycrisp apples, bacon and Brie, topped with whipped cream. Or, say, the Cajun Eggs Benedict: crab cakes, basted eggs and spinach topped with hollandaise. Not to mention those biscuit beignets.
As for the place’s namesake: Anna explains that she didn’t grow up eating homemade biscuits, so it’s not like nostalgia was the force behind the name and concept of The Buttered Biscuit. In fact, Pinterest was responsible.
“I was going through food images for breakfast, and I saw an image of a buttered biscuit that looked delicious and thought the name had a really nice ring to it,” she says.
When I begin to grill her on the eatery’s biscuits, she lets loose a key piece of intel. Shortly after the restaurant opened, she decided to outsource the biscuit making. Turns out she underestimated the popularity of the restaurant’s flagship dish.
“I thought three in 10 guests would order biscuits,” she says, “but it’s more like nine out of 10. Everybody gets biscuits. I didn’t realize how many people love biscuits!”
“I could’ve told you that,” I say, sounding far more know-it-all than I intend.
“I should have talked to you earlier, Bonnie!” she says, laughing good-naturedly. “Where were you?”
Anna spills that it’s The Bentonville Baking Co., a bakery located not five minutes from where we’re sitting, that’s charged with making daily batches of biscuits and delivering them before the doors open each morning. I breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing the news, as I’m well acquainted with the company and its owner, Gwen Hilligrass, and can say without hesitation that the biscuits are in good hands.
“NO PATTING. NO PATTING,” Gwen says gently to Audrey Parsons, one of her newest bakers. “The more you pat, the less they’ll puff.”
Once again, it’s a Monday afternoon. It’s been a week since I met Anna at The Buttered Biscuit, and my quest to get the scoop on her eatery’s biscuits has brought me into the kitchen of The Bentonville Baking Co.
Audrey yanks her hand back from the just-cut biscuit round as if she’s been burned. I sympathize, knowing all too well the temptation to pat and knead biscuit dough. She grabs a biscuit cutter and begins to methodically cut additional rounds from the largest rectangle of biscuit dough I’ve ever laid eyes upon. Deftly, she nudges each of the doughy rounds from the table and places them onto an oversized cookie sheet. When she’s filled the sheet to capacity, she slides it onto a shelf in one of the bakery’s industrial-sized stainless-steel ovens.
Tucked into a corner of the “Icehouse” building in downtown Bentonville’s Market District, the Bentonville Baking Co., which evolved from the cottage baking business Gwen first started when she moved to Bentonville about four years ago from New York state, is a full-service bakery offering daily fresh-baked artisan breads, cakes, pastries, cookies, cupcakes and much more.
The Bentonville Baking Co. is not Gwen’s first time at the small-town bakery rodeo. Back in New York, she was the proprietor of The Piseco Baking Co. Tall with dark, short, wavy hair, Gwen’s always reminded me of one of my favorite classic Hollywood stars, Rosalind Russell. In addition to partnering with The Buttered Biscuit, Gwen also makes breads and desserts for a handful of other locally owned businesses, such as Bentonville Butcher & Pint and Kennedy Coffee. On top of that, each Saturday, she and her team man a stall at the farmers’ market.
Gwen’s own personal biscuit-making strategy is a bit different from the recipe she uses to make the biscuits for The Buttered Biscuit. For one thing, she uses whole milk as opposed to buttermilk, and for another, she’s a drop-biscuit kind of gal, explaining that with a drop biscuit, you completely eliminate all hand-to-dough contact. In making the biscuits for The Buttered Biscuit, she’s simply executing the recipe that Anna and her chef had already developed. Another major difference between Gwen’s personal biscuit recipe and the biscuits she makes for The Buttered Biscuit is that the latter’s recipe calls for the inclusion of eggs. The eggs, Gwen explains, make for a sturdier biscuit, which is necessary for The Buttered Biscuit because of the litany of biscuit sandwiches on its menu, like the Razorback (sausage, tomato, avocado, egg and pepper jack cheese) or the Eureka (fried chicken, bacon, tomato, lettuce, egg and cilantro aioli).
Gwen’s approach may differ from The Buttered Biscuit’s, but the two ventures share a recipe for running a business, Gwen points out. “They have the same vision as us in that their aim is to supply a high-quality, small-batch, homemade product to their customers,” she says. “And I think what they’re doing so well is that people can go and get a good breakfast, whether they’re dressed up, dressed down, with their kids. So it’s elevated, but still accessible.”
At that, Gwen excuses herself and begins pulling trays of biscuits out of the oven. Mingled with the buttery fresh-baked-bread smell is a waft of cinnamon. Turns out that in addition to the biscuits, batches of cinnamon rolls, also destined for The Buttered Biscuit, are also in the works.
As I watch the trays of biscuits come out of the oven, I finally get a sense of just how big this joint operation is. Today’s efforts will result in about 225 biscuits. And in total, Gwen and her staff make about 1,800 biscuits a week for The Buttered Biscuit.
Back at The Buttered Biscuit the following day, I work up the nerve to make a final request after I’ve placed my order.
“Please don’t butter my biscuits,” I ask sheepishly.
I do believe I may be the very first customer to make this blasphemous request, as it takes a little explanation and hand gesturing to relate exactly what I’m proposing.
The thing is that The Buttered Biscuit more than lives up to its name, not only with the butter used in the baking of the biscuits, but also by buttering then toasting them before serving. And me? I’m a biscuit purist. I like to fully experience that particular magic that happens when you gently coax flour, salt, milk and butter together. A slather of butter, in my opinion, ends up making the butter the star of the show. (I’m not above adding a dab of jam to my biscuit, but only sparingly and noncommittally, one bite at a time.)
I also order the Kiss Me (I’m Irish) omelet, a medley of corned beef, redskin potatoes and cheddar cheese. (Pro tips: If you order an omelet, substitute a biscuit for the toast, and if you order the bacon, and you like it crispy, be sure to stress that fact.)
As I wait for my breakfast, I take in my surroundings, once again marveling at the fact that every table is full. The crowd consists of those dressed for the office and those dressed in flip-flops and baseball hats, and nearly everyone who is eating either has a biscuit on their plate or in their mouth.
When my omelet and biscuit arrive, I dig into the omelet first. It’s a lovely marriage of ingredients. The fluffy egg is a nice envelope for the true star of the show: The corned beef and the perfectly cooked, creamy potatoes are accentuated nicely by a dip into the subtle horseradish sauce that comes on the side.
Now it’s biscuit time. Nearly as big as my hand, it’s golden brown and marvelously puffed. The top tears off with ease. I take a bite. It’s pillowy and buttery and crumbly all at once. Then I go in for a coffee dip (the house brew is Onyx’s Red Queen espresso). And that’s when I see how handy that egg comes in. Instead of losing a good bit of the biscuit when I dip, only to be dredged back up as biscuit sludge in the last sip, the biscuit stays intact, becoming the perfect coffee sponge. Nice.
Taking my last bite, I can’t help but think about what Gwen had said the day before when I’d asked her why she thought people loved biscuits so much.
“The process of making biscuits is a delicate dance,” she’d explained. “As you know, it takes patience and attention—you have to make sure the butter’s visible, that you’re not overworking the dough and so on and so on.”
So basically, I conclude, biscuits are like warm, handy diskettes of “somebody cared enough.” I can’t help but smile at that realization, especially now that I know firsthand that so many of my fellow Northwest Arkansans are starting their day with one of Gwen and Anna’s biscuit collaborations. Only good can come of it, I think.