In January of last year, Popeyes opened its first location in Britain and had hundreds of customers wait in line for hours at a food court inside an East London shopping mall in East London to get a taste of American fried chicken.
Though the opening weekend was a hit, there was one menu item that caused confusion: the buttermilk biscuit. “It looks like a scone, but it doesn’t taste like one,” customer Victoria Ubochi told The New York Times.
The confusion for Ubochi and other first-time customers was because biscuit means cookies in British English, not the salty, flaky creation Popeyes founder Al Copeland developed a recipe for and put on the menu of the chain he founded in New Orleans in 1972 after failing with another restaurant, Chicken on the Run, the year before.
Though Copeland, a tenth-grade dropout who always said he was too poor to afford an apostrophe for his restaurant’s name, passed away in 2008, his Creole- and Cajun-inspired recipes live on at more than 3,400 Popeyes locations worldwide, as well as in Secrets of a Tastemaker: Al Copeland The Cookbook.
Being released in September to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Copeland’s chicken empire, the book contains more than 100 recipes, some of which are close to, but not exact replicas of, the ones that are used at Popeyes. Among them, alongside instructions on how to make family favorites like Ricochet Catfish and Fettuccine Lamborghini, is the biscuit recipe Copeland cooked up in the late ‘70s after realizing he could differentiate Popeyes from its chicken competitors by offering something other than a dinner roll as a standard side.
“I actually thought he was kind of crazy when he first did it because he wanted to showcase it,” Copeland’s son Al Jr. tells InsideHook. “He wanted the biscuit to be a hero product just like the fried chicken. It ended up being a genius move because it increased sales by 25% across the board. I never would have believed a biscuit would’ve been able to do that, but it did. The whole brand changed and it became Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken and Biscuits.”
Speaking of names, how did Copeland, who would have all of his managers and crew members attend a nine-hour biscuit college to obtain a certification in baking Popeyes’s signature side, come up with the name for his chicken chain?
“He was on a double date at the movies with my mom seeing The French Connection with Popeye Doyle as the badass main character,” Al Jr, who began working at Popeyes at the age of 14 as a morning biscuit baker, says. “He says, ‘What do you think about calling it Popeyes?’ My mom said, ‘That’s the craziest thing I ever heard of. Popeye eats spinach, not chicken.’ He thought about it and said, “I mean, the chicken could be like pop eyes. It pops your eyes. It’s spicy. That’s gonna be the name.’ When he did something, he did it very boldly.”
No risk it, no biscuit. Here’s Copeland’s recipe from Secrets of a Tastemaker.
Al Copeland’s Buttermilk Biscuits (makes 10)
Note: It is imperative that all of the ingredients, including the dry mix, are well chilled. The result is a tight dough and a loftier finished biscuit. The goal is for the cold ingredients to hit the super hot oven resulting in a rapid billow of the dough, which then remains stable as the biscuits brown. When the vast disparity between the temperature of the dough and the hot oven is not present, the billow either does not happen or it is not stable. The result is flat biscuits. Who wants that?
- 2.5 cups Swans Down Cake Flour
- 2 tsp. granulated sugar
- 1.5 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening, frozen
- 1.5 cups chilled buttermilk
- 4 tbsp. salted butter (2 softened and 2 melted)
- Biscuit mix is available to purchase in select Copeland’s of New Orleans locations and online.
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a bowl. Using a box grater, coarsely grate the frozen shortening directly into the flour and gently fold it in with a spoon.
- Make a well in the center of this mixture and pour in the buttermilk. Gently stir the buttermilk into the flour just until the dough comes together. It will still be a little wet and sticky. Cover the bowl and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes, but for no longer than three hours.
- Brush a large rimmed baking sheet with some of the melted butter, then refrigerate the pan to firm the butter.
- Using a large spoon, scoop the dough into 10 mounds on the baking sheet, spacing the mounds at least one inch apart. Lightly dollop the softened butter on top of each mound.
- Bake the biscuits until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and brush the tops of the biscuits with the remaining melted butter.
- Place the biscuits in a basket and cover with a tea towel to keep warm until serving.
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