Good Eatin Y'All

This past weekend, we made a long-planned pilgrimage to North Carolina to visit our newlywed friends and take in a show at Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill. The trip was a whirlwind 36 hours, filled with blue crabs, vinegar-tinged barbecue and heaping bowls of cheese grits.

There was a country song playing on the radio while we drove into town, something about 'honky-tonk badonkadonks' and I had to smile--- with food this good, I'd probably become a muse for some such lyrics if I stayed any longer. And I blame it all on the biscuits. Delicious, hot out of the oven, buttery biscuits.

My two favorite stops closed one day and opened another:
Late night, we followed the Chapel Hill college crowd and post-concert goers down the street to a hopping 24 hours diner of sorts known as Time Out.
Before diving headfirst into my late night meal, this is the last sight I can recall...a buffet of southern comfort, replete with barbecue, fried chicken, okra, mac 'n cheese and just about any other homestyle ingredient specially designed to soak up whatever moonshine you consumed earlier that evening.

For our group, it was various incarnations of the "four corner biscuit" that captured our favor. The biscuit, a huge square consisting of nothing but the fluffy, melt in your mouth insides of a biscuit could sandwich anything from fried chicken (sublime) to bacon, egg and oozing cheddar cheese (take that McDonalds!), to my choice- a simple drizzle of honey. The bite was perfectly soft, tinged with a sunny taste of orange and clover that took me back to my childhood days of a Golden Blossom-kissed biscuits at the breakfast table. A solid, decidedly Carolinian way to end the night.

The next day, after a slow start and a bit of laziness, the group gathered at an infamous Southern food spot at the end of the Chapel Hill drag, known for writer and cook Bill Smith's influence in shaping the national perception of 'shrimp and grits' in the 70's. What better way to celebrate our last few hours than a brunch at Crook's Corner, laden with grits, fried oysters and feathered eggs (lighter, creamier frittatas) ...and of course, plenty of biscuits on the side. The biscuits here were more of the traditional, round and thick variety, pre-sliced and ready to be slathered with the butter and strawberry preserves served alongside. The crunchy exterior provided a satisfying crumble while the fluffy inside was every bit the taste of buttery tradition.

Perhaps by no coincidence but the mere fact that I'm destined to bring a bit of the South home with me, my travel reading (Bon Appetit December issue) shared a treasured Baltimore family recipe for sweet potato biscuits from Molly Wizenberg. If there's anything we love in my kitchen more than buttery bread, it's buttery sweet potatoes. I can't wait to try this one out--- and maybe I'll blast a little of that honky-tonk song, just for good measure.

One 3/4 pound-red-skinned sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon (packed) dark brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of cayenne pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus 2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/3 cup chilled buttermilk

Cook sweet potato in medium saucepan of boiling water until tender, 8-10 minutes.
Drain, cool and mash.
Position rack in lower third of oven, preheat to 425 F.
Butter bottom and sides of 9 inch cake pan (with 1 1/2 inch high sides)
Whisk flour and next five ingredients in large bowl. Add cubed butter to flour mixture; toss to coat and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Whisk 3/4 cup mashed sweet potatoes and buttermilk in medium bowl. Add to flour mixture; toss with fork.
Gather mixture in bowl, kneading until dough comes together. Turn dough out onto floured work surface and pat into 1 inch think round. Cut using 1 1/2 inch think biscuit cutter, flouring after each cut.
Arrange biscuits side by side in prepared cake pan. Brush with melted butter.
Bake until puffed and golden on top and toothpick inserted into center biscuit comes out clean (about 22 minutes).
Cool for 10 minutes in pan, then turn biscuits out and gently pull them apart.

Cut crosswise and fill with whatever you wish. Wizenberg recommends salty cured ham and sweet-hot mustard. I recommend simply a dab of butter and a drizzle of honey, of course.

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