A Southern Biscuit and Dinner Roll Taste-Off with Nora Ephron
Sister Schubert's vs. Callie's vs. Marshall's
I'm not afraid to admit it. Just about everyone at Serious Eats has a mad crush on Nora Ephron. And why not? She's written and/or directed some of our favorite movies, from the recently released Julie & Julia to You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, and When Harry Met Sally. Before she started making movies she was (and in fact still is) a funny, knowing, and exceedingly graceful essayist and novelist whose passion for food rivals ours.
Last year I wrote about being an extra in Julie & Julia. To promote the film, Nora attended various food events this year. When Erin and I caught her wandering around the James Beard Awards in May, making the rounds at tasting tables with Ariel Levy, who wrote the recent New Yorker profile on Nora, biscuits eventually came up in conversation.
I told her I couldn't wait to see the back of my head in the film—which is all that made the final cut. Nora smiled that 5,000-watt smile of hers and said, sotto voce, "You're incredible in the movie. Everyone is talking about it." Of course now that the movie is out, nary a serious eater has so much as noticed my star turn. But Erin and I couldn't stop laughing at Nora's quip, after which our conversation took a more serious, purposeful turn toward a subject near and dear to all of our hearts: biscuits and dinner rolls.
Nora asked, "Did you see that article in the New York Times about frozen packaged biscuits and yeast rolls. They sounded fantastic. Are they any good? Have you tried them?" I remembered the piece from April (by my friend John T. Edge), and man, it made those biscuits and rolls sound like they were worth trying.
"Why don't you come down to Serious Eats World HQ with J.J. (J.J. Sacha is Nora's assistant) and we'll taste-test all the rolls and biscuits John T. mentioned. We'll also get some of the great biscuits we've written about from Callie's." Knowing Nora, I made sure we had the salted butter stocked. (She is not an unsalted fan.)
"Let's do it," Nora replied. She and J.J. showed up to SE World HQ recently for the first annual Serious Eats-Nora Ephron Biscuit and Yeast Dinner Roll tasting. Though we were anxious to start as soon as they arrived, Nora insisted that the first batch was sent back—they were not golden brown enough. (She's good.)
- Sister Schubert's based in Luverne, Alabama
- Callie's based in Charleston, South Carolina
- Marshall's (no website) based in Saraland, Alabama [Ed. note: They started as a restaurant in Mobile in 1923, and after closing, continued to produce and sell biscuits. The company was acquired by Sister Schubert's in 2007.]
Sister Schubert's biscuits were more crumbly than flaky, but they were light and slightly crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. Pleasantly salty, they also offered a nice butter representation. We all agreed: we would happily eat SS's biscuits any time. We were especially partial to Sister Schubert's Parker House Style Rolls (man, those were seriously tasty), as well as her moist and slightly-too-sweet cinnamon rolls. Important caveat: Do not make the mistake of ordering the pre-baked versions of any of the above. They aren't worth the calories or shipping costs.
Callie's biscuits were the clear-cut winner, which is only right considering they cost a lot more than the others (about $10 at the Soho Dean & Deluca, where they're shipped in from South Carolina every week). Buttery, flaky, and tender, they were almost everything you'd want a biscuit to be. Plus, reading Callie's ingredient list revealed a special ingredient: cream cheese. We thought we picked up on a cheesy hint, and were pleased to find this recipe for them in the Washington Post.
Dense and not very flaky, the Marshall's biscuits were disappointing on almost every level. The crispy-to-soft ratio was off, and there was only a vague trace of butter. Nora and J.J. liked them well enough, but I think they were just being polite.
Ordering the Biscuits
- Sister Schubert's: Look for them in grocery stores all over the South (especially TN, AL, GA, SC, FL, LA, AR, OK, TX, NC, OK, MS, and FL). The rolls and biscuits retail between $3.49 and $3.99, or you can order them online here or by calling 1-888-55-ROLLS. [Ed. note: How good is dialing R-O-L-L-S?]
- Callie's: They're also for sale in the South. If you're not nearby, you can order them online or by calling 1-843-577-1198. [Ed. note: 1198 sadly does not spell R-O-L-L-S.]
- Marshall's: Look for them everywhere between Texas and Virgina, and south of the Virginian border. They retail between $2.25 and $2.75 in stores, or you can order them by calling 1-800-368-9811 [Ed. note: Ditto for 9811.]
Our next taste test with Nora and J.J. might need to involve cupcakes. The day after the carb fest, a delivery from Georgetown Cupcake in Washington, D.C., arrived at Serious Eats World HQ along with a note from Nora:
These cupcakes aren't bad.
She was right, of course. They were a little too sweet, but they were pretty swell, nonetheless. I guess we're tasting cupcakes next.