"Paula's face smiled up at me from the packaging, her familiar gray bob frozen into place, her lips shellacked with frosted pink gloss."
Last week, in Ed's Brooklyn Star review, Ed deemed chef Joaquin Baca's biscuits "probably the best in newly biscuit-crazed New York." This so-called biscuit craze isn't limited to the Big Apple: all over the country people are harkening back to a time when food was simple, unfussy, and honest. Out with the fusion and small plates, in with the fried chicken and family-style menus. It's no wonder then that the humble biscuit is having a renaissance. Is there a more modest, straightforward food out there? I don't think so.
Of course, biscuits are a snap to whip up from scratch—but there are also a wealth of prepared and refrigerated biscuit doughs and biscuit mixes on the market. There are the obvious (Pillsbury), the organic (Arrowhead Mills), the Southern belles (Callie's), and then there are Paula Deen's.
That's right, y'all. The infamous Food Network star has launched her very own line of boxed mixes for Southern-inspired specialties including scones, grits, and hoecakes. Just in time for Thanksgiving, I tested out "The Lady's" Sweet Potato Biscuit Mix ($9.99).
I ordered the mix on a Monday and it arrived less than a week later, on Thursday afternoon. Paula's face smiled up at me from the packaging, her familiar gray bob frozen into place, her lips shellacked with frosted pink gloss. I tore into the box expecting—I don't know what, exactly. Little pouches of Crisco, cream, and butter flavoring? Definitely something more outrageously fattening than the plain sack of sand-colored mix I found. It looked blah, and like Bisquick.
The instructions called for 1/4 cup of melted butter, 1/4 cup of whole milk, and 3/4 cup mashed canned sweet potatoes. My initial reaction was to recoil at the notion of using produce processed to the point of being nonperishable. Why not just bake a fresh sweet potato and mush it up with a fork? But then I reminded myself this wasn't about what I would do—it was about what Paula Deen would do. And Paula would opt for supermarket ease packed in plenty of sweet syrup.
The ingredients came together into a pile of dry crumbs. I had to abandon my spoon and dive in with my fingers in order to make it look like something resembling dough, and not a topping for apple crisp. Once I had a cohesive mass, I turned the mixture out onto a floured work surface and kneaded it a few times. Then I shaped it into 15 balls that were roughly two tablespoons each in size.
Into the oven they went for fifteen minutes. They emerged, if not golden and brown, than at least orange and speckled. The bottoms were nicely toasted and the tops were flaky and cracked. They looked appealing enough, but less like biscuits and more like miniature scones. I broke one in half and took a bite.
The taste was overwhelmingly sugary, almost like a cake with crust. Despite their color, I could discern no trace of earthy sweet potato flavor. Additionally, the biscuits were quite small--only about three inches in diameter. If you were (like I was) inspired by Molly Wizenberg's recent Bon Appetit article, and wanted to split open a biscuit and fill it with ham and mustard, this would not be the one you want.
I have no doubt the biscuits would have been notably better if I had opted for freshly mashed sweet potato instead of canned, but that's not what the directions called for, and when you're testing mixes it's important to play by the rules.
Give Paula Deen's a go if you're curious. But next Thursday, I'm sticking this tried-and-true recipe for homemade sweet potato biscuits from the pages of Martha Hall Foose's Screen Doors and Sweet Tea.
About the author: Lucy Baker is a freelance food writer and the author of the forthcoming cookbook, The Boozy Baker: 75 Recipes for Spirited Sweets.