An Ersatz Buttermilk Biscuits Recipe And Why I Love Cane Syrup


By Sarah Shermyen

Last weekend I went home for my short fall break with boyfriend in tow. Food is very important in my family—when I called my mother three months ago to tell her she would finally be meeting the handsome man from the pictures, her first questions were about the menu. The first meal consisted of our grass-fed sirloin steaks with fresh salad greens from the garden and roasted potatoes, followed by an ice-cream cake my mother had concocted. To say we were eating well is understatement.

But breakfast was the meal that brought out my nostalgic side, and one that I was happy to contribute to. I grew up in north-central Florida, far enough north to fall into the true sub-Mason-Dixon line South (as every Floridian knows, Florida is a backwards state in that it gets more southern the further north you go). With that upbringing has come an appreciation not only for collard greens and boiled peanuts, but for cane syrup, old ham, and biscuits.

Christmas morning, especially, has long been characterized by those three things. For clarification, when I say cane syrup, I am not talking of the clear liquid used in candy making made from boiling granulated sugar with water. True cane syrup is the sweeter cousin to molasses, red-brown in color, lacking the sulfur-y strong taste, and thicker than maple syrup, with a little something extra. Made from pressing cane sugar and boiling the juice in vats over fire, it’s something my family gets from a friend who still makes it the old fashioned way. The old ham is salt pork, called “Kentucky Caviar” and sent to us each December by my Great-Aunt Helen. And of course, there are biscuits.

For years, we’ve bought frozen Southern-style buttermilk biscuits (a very different beast from the flaky Pillsbury variety, and infinitely better). Usually Mary B’s or some other regional brand. But the weekend I visited, we were all out. My mother, drinking coffee and reading the paper still in her warm bathrobe, gallantly volunteered to drive to the local supermarket, Hitchcock’s, to pick up a package. Instead, I more gallantly still insisted that I would make a batch. I had made some once before with whole wheat pastry flour and buttermilk, and figured I could do it again. As my father got out the pork sausage that he had proudly raised (no old ham this morning, but an excellent substitute), and the eggs from the laying hens for scrambling with sweet peppers, I set to work. We had no whole-wheat pastry flour, nor buttermilk, but all-purpose is more traditional and that was in abundance and there was normal milk in the fridge. There were lemons, though, and so doing a bit of quick kitchen chemistry, I figured lemon juice with 2 percent might yield some ersatz buttermilk.

Now, I have a mild gluten sensitivity, but I will ignore it when it’s for a good cause. And if I may say so myself, the biscuits were worth the pain. I actually discovered my boyfriend’s particular attachment to biscuits because of these (he eating all the leftover ones over the course of the visit). Plus, because I have no use for buttermilk after using the one cup in a recipe, this is perfect for me (no buttermilk spoiling in my refrigerator). So below, biscuits with serving suggestions:

Ersatz Buttermilk Biscuits (tweaked from A Cozy Kitchen)

Yields about 8

Prep time 20 min, Cook time 10 min

  • 2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 2/3 tsp baking soda
  • 3 tsp demerara sugar (white will also work)
  • 1/2 tsp (a couple of dashes) salt
  • 8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted sweet cream butter (cold)
  • 1 c. milk (cold)
  • a squeeze or two of lemon

Preheat oven to 450 F. Place parchment paper on a cookie tray and flour a work space and rolling pin for later; also set out a glass and a knife for tracing and cutting biscuits (unless you have an actual biscuit cutter, in which case count me jealous). You will want to do this before plunging your hands into the dough, as it becomes rather difficult to operate ovens or cut parchment paper with sticky hands.

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Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Then, cut in butter. Be sure it is cold; the beauty of biscuits lies in the chunks of butter. (Here, because mixing cold butter into a dry mixture is annoying, I cut my stick of butter up first. In thirds length-wise, then on its side and in half length wise, then horizontal 1/8th inch cuts) Combine until almost a coarse meal; use your hands to combine and press the butter chunks into the flour mixture. Now, add lemon juice to the cup of milk, and add in increments, gently mixing the dough with hands, until it gets to a sticky, doughy consistency. Do not over handle and mix as it will make the biscuits tough. You may not use all of the milk. (I poured in the whole cup and had to add about a quarter cup of flour in to compensate. Which I suppose proves that biscuit making allows for a lot of error. Comforting, eh?). Now, place your roundish blob of dough on to your already floured workspace, and roll out to about 1” thickness. Using an upturned glass, press circles on to the dough, and then cut around the imprints using a sharp knife. Place the dough circles, soon to be lovely biscuits, on the parchment paper.

When you have rolled out the dough two or three times, take the scraps and toss them with brown sugar and cinnamon. After about three rollings, the dough will start to get a bit tough, so I like to take the scraps and smash some cinnamon sugar into them. It’s not the prettiest blob on the parchment paper, but it’s a damn good way to use the scraps (awfully tasty). Place the tray in the oven and let cook until browned; this should take about 10–12 minutes, but slightly more or less is normal depending on your oven. Remove biscuits from tray and serve promptly with cane syrup or honey or good jam (my personal favorites being sour cherry or homemade wild plum). The cinnamon sugar mess can be fought over and devoured however you see fit.

If biscuits are a bit too much for breakfast, they make an excellent base for strawberry short cake. If you are like me and find store-bought sponge too sweet, take a biscuit, cut it open, and layer it with cut-up strawberries and freshly whipped cream.

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About Sarah

sarah shermyenSarah Shermyen originally hails from the greatest university town in Florida, but now lives in New York where she is pursuing a BA in English at Barnard College. She doesn’t have the patience to get a proper degree and figures life as a transient busker isn’t such a very horrid future. She enjoys missing references to popular culture and quoting British sketch-comedy shows; at least her brother understands her. She used to be a model or something but then puberty happened or something and, lacking the hand-eye coordination to play sports, she now uses her height to reach the highest shelves for others. When not selflessly reaching cereal boxes for her roommate, she cooks the things her parents send her and tries to figure out a way to make the kolrabi in her weekly CSA palatable. Sometimes she sings things and sometimes she acts in things; she was a part of Columbia University’s Vagina Monologues cast in 2013. She has a long list of books to read and movies to see but right now she just wants to enjoy some Flannery O’Connor and a small glass of rye, maybe try to write poetry, okay? You can read those attempts at her inconsistently updated blog,

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View Comment (1)
  • Sarah,
    As an absentee Floridian myself, having been born in that greatest university town in Florida, I must agree with you that cane syrup is indeed the very best thing you can douse homemade buttermilk biscuits with!! My mouth is watering and my heart is homesick. Thank for for taking me home again.

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