BOURBON & BISCUITS: Southern culinary experts talk recipes, history

Nov. 09, 2013 @ 06:59 PM

A basket was filled with flaky, buttery squares of biscuit, still warm to the touch. Right next to it, a platter was lined with bourbon balls, which started sweet with a darker chocolate, then finished with a smooth kick of sharp liquor.

Kathleen Purvis, author of “Bourbon” and food editor for The Charlotte Observer, and Belinda Ellis, author of “Biscuits” and senior editor of Edible Piedmont magazine, spoke at Southwest Regional Library’s culinary book club Saturday to 25 foodies.

They spoke of the all-American drink, aged an average of two years in oak barrels that are charred on the inside. They talked of grandmother’s biscuits, of the family recipe always being the best recipe. Both are Southern staples, both reminders of home.

Multiple generations of Purvis’ family grew up in Georgia, which led her to originally start writing about pecans.

“I knew I could do 50 recipes on pecans while standing on my head,” she said.

Her next challenge was finding 50 recipes for bourbon, because her husband said he would leave her if she spent weeks cooking collards in their kitchen.

Ellis remembers visiting White Lily food company as a young Girl Scout and receiving a little booklet of recipes. She started cooking after that, and her grandmother made biscuits every day, eating them for breakfast, using them for her lunch sandwiches, then incorporating them into dinner. The leftovers would be used for a bread pudding or other dessert.

Ellis ended up studying food science and circling back to White Lily, where she taught young children how to make biscuits. She’s taught thousands of people, bowl and whisk in hand, since then, and has tested thousands of biscuit recipes.

Both books are part of the “Savor the South” cookbook series by UNC Press. There are 24 books planned for the collection, new editions to be released every fall and spring. The most recent releases feature okra and pickles and preserves.

Biscuits are built on flour, fat and milk, Ellis said, with soft wheat flour, buttermilk and lard as the original Southern “trinity”.

Her book features classic recipes, which use cream or puff pastry, where the layers flake apart and are sandwiched with a swipe of butter.

Then there are the unusual recipes, such as the Southern Reuben, with biscuits made with rye flour and caraway seeds, and a sweet potato version.

“I try to be your grandma in the book,” Ellis said.

Purvis said her favorite sipping bourbon right now is Wathen’s. She had to take special care in crafting her 50 recipes, where too much bourbon among the other ingredients would give the whole dish a peppery taste, or the wrong amount of heat would cook off the bourbon flavor.

Purvis added that bourbon can be made anywhere in America, but outside the U.S., you can’t call it bourbon. The average batch is aged two to 20 years, an art of patience. The process takes place in open-air brick houses, wood encasing the room, with heavy barrels. Windows and shutters control the temperature of the room, like sails.

“I’ve kind of lost all my respect for the white liquors now,” she said.