Wednesday, March 22, 2023
March 22, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Biscuits that take the cake

Search for perfect biscuit yields doughy disaster

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
What could be simpler than biscuits? My Southern mom made them as easily as breathing. I guess I should choose breathing over biscuits, because these were awful.
What could be simpler than biscuits? My Southern mom made them as easily as breathing. I guess I should choose breathing over biscuits, because these were awful. (Photos by Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Around Christmas, we usually take a trip to the coast because I have an unreasonable love for stormy skies, thundering waves and misty Northwest beaches. We could go anywhere, but when Christmas bells are ringing it awakes in me a wild desire to stand at the edge of the continent and cast my eyes to the horizon. Call me sentimental. Mostly, you can call me wet and cold, because that’s what you get from standing on a beach in December in Washington.

This year, we decided to explore Westport. Unfortunately, many things were closed, like the Grays Harbor Lighthouse (the tallest lighthouse in Washington at 107 feet), the Westport Maritime Museum and the Cranberry Museum in nearby Grayland. The International Mermaid Museum was open, however, and we spent a happy hour learning about mermaid lore from every continent. My daughter and I tried on sparkly fabric mermaid tails and posed for photographs. That was the first day of our vacation. After that, we ran out of things to do in Westport and decided to explore farther afield. We drove south as far as Raymond, where we got a tip to visit the Tokeland Hotel, Washington’s oldest still-operating hotel.

Game for anything, we found our way to the hotel on Toke Point, built in 1885 on the delightfully named Kindred Avenue. The hotel is now home to the famed Wandering Goose restaurant, which migrated from Seattle in 2018 to this scenic spot on Willapa Bay. I’d never heard of The Wandering Goose (I do need to get out more) but I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the chance to dine in such a storied setting.

A portly yellow Lab followed us into the lobby, leaning his wide girth against us in hopes of a pet or two, which we gave him without reservation. We learned that his name is Gus and he’s the hotel’s erstwhile mascot. (We suspect he’s reached his astonishing width by cadging scraps from restaurant patrons, including our family.)

The dining room and lounge is furnished in century-old antiques and lit by dozens of Edison bulbs in chandeliers. There were merry lights around a huge Christmas tree and a crackling fire in the old fireplace, plus a wood-burning stove that didn’t make quite enough heat to beat the icy wind coming in around the edges of 138-year-old doors and windows. With taxidermied woodland creatures nestled here and there, wide-plank hardwood floors and molasses-hued walls, it felt like walking into a fairy-tale chalet.

The restaurant specializes in Southern-style food from chef Heather Ernhardt’s native North Carolina, so we really had no choice but to order the crispy fried chicken, creamy mashed potatoes and maple syrup-laced collard greens. The very best thing about the meal was the huge buttermilk biscuit, practically the size of a newborn baby’s head, with a crispy exterior and a cloud-soft interior. Ernhardt may be famous for her foot-high layer cakes, but I didn’t want any dessert except that biscuit, slathered with sweet-cream butter and housemade raspberry jam.

I haven’t been able to stop wondering why that biscuit was so sublime. My Southern mom made biscuits as easily as breathing. They were good, but not as good as Ernhardt’s big, round, golden creatures. I was so inspired by her biscuits that I was seized by a sudden compulsion to learn all the secrets of a superior biscuit, which I’d never been able to achieve. I decided to research biscuit-making techniques and actually — shocker! — follow the directions. Experienced cooks will already know to employ these suggestions when making their own perfect, fluffy biscuits, but for novices like me, here’s a summary:

  • Use chilled butter, not room temperature. As the butter melts, it makes steam, and that’s what makes biscuits fluffy.
  • Measure your ingredients with exactitude because it ensures that the ratio of dry to wet ingredients produces a tender biscuit.
  • Fold the dough to get layers, almost like making pastry. Layers will give the biscuits a further lift.
  • Don’t twist the biscuit cutter; a straight up-and-down motion with a floured cutter will allow them to fluff up better. Twisting can seal the sides and prevent expansion.
  • Let the biscuits “kiss” each other on the baking sheet. If they’re slightly connected, they will help each other to rise.
  • Chill the cut biscuits in the fridge for 10 or 20 minutes to ensure the butter is cold when they go into the oven.
  • Brush the biscuits with melted butter, buttermilk or an egg wash to create a golden crust.
  • Preheat the oven to a very high 500 degrees and lower the temperature just before baking. This makes for even more steam.

Ernhardt’s biscuit recipe is in her cookbook, “Big Food Big Love,” and is also online at She offers some of the above tips but not all of them.

I’d like to emphasize that I did not use Ernhardt’s recipe but devised my own after studying many biscuit recipes. I donned an apron and spent a satisfying half-hour mixing the dough and applying my deep knowledge of biscuit lore, garnered over a couple hours of internet surfing. I used a battered old tin biscuit cutter that had belonged to some female forebear or other — or maybe I picked it up in an antique store. This cutter endowed me with the supreme biscuit-making powers of all the Southern women in my family, or if not my own relatives, then definitely some women, somewhere. The unbaked biscuits looked so beautiful on the baking sheet, like 10 little white hens nesting in two friendly rows.

The biscuits that came out of the oven were so abominable that even Gus would decline to eat them. Wet chicken feathers would taste better. First of all, I forgot the egg wash and took them out of the oven so that I could quickly slap some buttermilk on them. I don’t know if this was the cause of their demise, or the fact that when building my own recipe, I misjudged the proportions. Maybe they didn’t cook properly because they were too close together, less like friendly chickens and more like sumo wrestlers trying to push each other off the mat. They taunted me with what appeared to be flaky layers but inside they were stodgy as a sack of slugs. I picked up a biscuit and dropped it back on to the baking sheet. It landed like a paperweight with a disconcerting “wham.” I dutifully buttered one of the hot pucks and took a nibble. It was essentially a blob of dough, not raw but not remotely fluffy. I offered my daughter a bite and she said, “Yes. You have failed.”

In conclusion, please just go to the Tokeland Hotel and order the biscuits. Say hi to Gus.