The story behind these angelic Alabama cookies

As he was planning the menu for his contemporary Southern restaurant Helen, Alabama chef Rob McDaniel wanted to include a signature biscuit that would become one of the house specialties.

He remembered the light, airy angel biscuits that his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, the restaurant’s inspiration, used to make in her kitchen in Oneonta.

But his grandmother died a few years ago, and McDaniel didn’t have his recipe.

So, he poked around the internet and found a recipe from Southern Living recipe tester and developer Pam Lolley, whom McDaniel had gotten to know at various cooking events around Birmingham.

“It just so happens I had met Pam already,” McDaniel recalls. “I looked up ‘angel biscuit recipe,’ and lo and behold, there was Pam Lolley’s name underneath it.

“I like to tell that story because I like to give people credit when they’re due that credit, and she definitely is,” McDaniel adds. “I mean, the base of this recipe came from that recipe that she had done for Southern Living.”

At Helen, those warm angel biscuits, which are served with whipped cane syrup butter, are the opening act for such main attractions as an oak-fired prime bone-in ribeye, a smoked Joyce Farms half-chicken and red snapper a la plancha.

And they have been a menu favorite since McDaniel and his wife, Emily, opened their restaurant in a 1920s-era shotgun building in downtown Birmingham in August 2020.

“The biscuit is probably one of the most iconic things we have going for us from a food standpoint,” McDaniel says. “They’ve always been one of those things that people love.

“I’ve seen people get an order for an appetizer, one with dinner, and then another one for dessert. And then sometimes, one to go.”

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Emily and Rob McDaniel opened Helen in a century-old shotgun building on Second Avenue North in downtown Birmingham. The restaurant is named in honor of Rob’s maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, and was named one of the best new restaurants in America by Esquire magazine.(Photo by Cary Norton; used with permission of Sprouthouse Agency)

Like little angel wings

An Auburn University graduate who attended culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute, McDaniel was the executive chef at SpringHouse near Lake Martin for 10 years before opening Helen.

For five straight years, from 2013 to 2017, McDaniel was a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the South, and in 2014, Southern Living named SpringHouse one of the “100 Best Restaurants in the South.”

It was at SpringHouse where McDaniel mastered his biscuit game, starting with the basic buttermilk biscuit.

“I needed to know how to make a pan of biscuits without looking at a recipe – that and cornbread,” he says. “As a Southern chef, I need to be able to do that with my eyes closed. So, I tackled biscuits first. It got to a point where I was making biscuits every day at SpringHouse.

“Once I got my buttermilk biscuit down, I started playing with these (angel) biscuits.”

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Angel biscuits use three leavening agents — baking soda, baking powder and yeast — to give them their lift, and when the biscuits are split open, some say they resemble little angel wings.

“(It’s) very similar to a yeast roll,” McDaniel says. “Some people have even said you’ve managed to make a biscuit out of a Parker House roll recipe.”

The inspiration for the recipe

The ancestry of the angel biscuit, though, is the subject of a friendly debate between two old, distinguished Southern flour brands, cookbook author Belinda writes in her 2013 book “Biscuits.”

“Emory Thompson told me that he invented the recipe while working for White Lily because the yeast and baking powder made the biscuits failure-proof,” Ellis writes. “Then I met Linda Carman, who told me that someone at Martha White claimed to be the inventor.

“As with many recipes, there are many claims and many names. But when you get a hankering for a roll that’s easy to make, you won’t care who invented them.”

Lolley, whose recipe was first published in Southern Living about 15 years ago, says she was introduced to angel biscuits by her husband’s grandmother, Eleanor Wheless, who used to make them on her summer visits with the Lolleys.

“She was the inspiration,” Lolley says. “I’d never had angel biscuits until then, and once you’ve had one, it’s like, ‘holy cow.’”

Lolley, though, had to figure out the recipe on her own.

“She was a fabulous cook, but just like cooks of that generation, she didn’t write anything down,” Lolley says of her husband’s grandmother. “I would watch her make ’em, and she measured nothing.”

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Lolley tweaked a few things, adding butter to the shortening and substituting buttermilk for whole milk and lemon juice. Then she came up with the right mix of flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and yeast to give the biscuits their pillowy texture and elegant rise.

“I make mine anywhere from three-quarters (of an inch) to an inch thick,” Lolley says. “The thicker they are, the higher they are going to rise. And if you nestle them up together in a pan or baking sheet, they rise even higher.”

Lolley later developed an angel biscuit recipe that uses cornmeal and another made with Parmesan cheese, rosemary and thyme.

Angel cookies at Helen restaurant in Birmingham, Ala.

Executive chef Rob McDaniel prepares a pan of angel biscuits at his restaurant Helen.(Bob Carlton/bcarlton@al.com)

Angel cookie ice cream, too

At Helen, the staff prepares six to eight batches of biscuit dough the night before; wraps the dough in plastic and refrigerates it overnight; and then gently kneads, rolls, folds and cuts the dough the next morning.

The biscuits are aligned side by side in neat, little rows and baked in quarter-sheet pans, 35 biscuits to a pan.

Served warm out of the oven, the biscuits come four to an order, and on a typical day, the restaurant serves about 80 orders between lunch and dinner, outselling all the other appetizers combined.

The accompanying whipped Steen’s Pure Cane Syrup butter and Maldon Sea Salt take Helen’s angel biscuits to blissful heights.

“I grew up eating biscuits with whipped butter and Golden Eagle syrup,” McDaniel says. “Well, I love Golden Eagle syrup, but over time, my palate got a little more refined, and I really began to love cane syrup.

“When we opened, I was like, let’s do cane syrup on the biscuits,” he adds. “Then we started whipping it into the butter, which made a huge difference. I mean, they’re like (addictive).”

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The biscuits have become so popular that one of the chefs at Helen, Mario Reyes, has even come up with an angel biscuit ice cream for dessert.

“It’s basically a sweet milk ice cream base, and we fold in the leftover angel biscuits,” McDaniel says. “Then we put cane syrup and Maldon Salt on top of it, just like we do the biscuits. And it’s delicious, as well.”

Angel biscuit ice cream at Helen in Birmingham, Ala.

The angel biscuit ice cream drizzled with pure cane syrup and dusted with sea salt is a favorite dessert at Helen.(Bob Carlton/bcarlton@al.com)

Credit where credit is due

On a visit to Helen to celebrate her birthday this past summer, Lolley, of course, had to try the angel biscuits.

McDaniel, she reports, has perfected her recipe.

“They were fabulous,” she says. “He nailed it.”

McDaniel, Lolley adds, has always been great about acknowledging her role in developing the recipe.

“If anybody ever asks where the recipe came from or anything like that, he always gives me credit,” she says.

RELATED: Esquire magazine names Helen one of America’s best new restaurants

As a Southern chef who takes great pride in his roots, McDaniel says it’s kind of fitting that his angel biscuit recipe came not from either one of his grandmothers’ hand-written note cards but from the pages of their favorite magazine instead.

“Southern Living sat on our coffee table as a child,” he says. “It sat on both of my grandmothers’ coffee tables, and those magazines were used as cooking references.

“I mean, there were a lot of nights that we had dinner that came straight out of Southern Living.”

Just like those heavenly angel biscuits.

Helen is at 2013 Second Ave. North in Birmingham. The phone is 205-438-7000. Lunch hours are 11 am to 1 pm Tuesdays through Fridays; dinner hours are 5 to 9 pm Tuesdays through Thursdays and 5 to 10 pm Fridays and Saturdays. For more information, go here.

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