Photo by John F. Russell
Chris McKenzie, general manager and executive chef at Big House Burgers and Lil’ House, prepares biscuits at Lil' House.
Mae Mae’s Buttermilk Biscuits
1 ½ C all-purpose flour
3 C cake flour
1 ½ T baking powder
1 ¼ T salt
2 T sugar
6 oz. butter, cold and chopped
12 oz. buttermilk
2 t yeast
3 oz. water, 95-100 degrees
Pinch of sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit
Place yeast, sugar and water in a bowl or cup to hydrate the yeast until it foams
Scald milk in saucepan until the edges begin to bubble, then place in an ice bath to cool
Combine remaining dry ingredients into a mixing bowl
Use hands to rub chopped butter into the dry flour mixture. Continue to rub until butter is pea-sized.
Fold in wet ingredients using hands until just mixed. Do not over mix. Dough should feel like supple leather when ready.
Spread into greased baking dish, and score dough into 3-inch squares
Proof for 45 minutes or until dough doubles in size
Bake at 400 degrees F until golden brown (about 25 minutes)
Steamboat Springs Chris McKenzie has been a chef at a five-star French restaurant and an elite hotel, but his biggest culinary challenge may have come in the form of a biscuit.
“Sometimes the things that seem the easiest to make are the hardest to execute perfectly,” McKenzie says.
McKenzie and his team at Lil’ House Country Biscuits and Coffee went through nearly three dozen variations of homemade biscuit recipes until they finally got it right — and just in time for the west Steamboat Springs breakfast and lunch spot’s grand opening in February.
So why was it so hard to perfect a seemingly straightforward baked good?
For starters, altitude always wreaks havoc with baking recipes. As any Routt County baker knows, it takes patience and practice to find the right balance of dry ingredients, liquid ingredients and leaveners like baking powder and yeast.
Biscuits intended to be the buns for breakfast and lunch sandwiches pose the added challenge of needing to be flaky and airy enough for “good mouth feel,” as McKenzie puts it, while also having enough structure to hold together a sandwich.
So McKenzie combines all-purpose flour to provide the structure, and cake flour to make the biscuits soft. Live yeast creates a strong air-cell structure within McKenzie’s biscuits — the difference between a fluffy, light product and a dense one. Plus, “yeast gives you that homemade country taste,” he says.
When making biscuits, the preparation methods are as important as the proper mix of ingredients. For example, McKenzie rubs cold cubes of butter into the flour mixture, which creates flavorful pockets of butter within the finished product. Next, scalding the buttermilk kills the enzyme that would in turn kill the yeast. And finally, McKenzie reminds home cooks to not over handle the dough.
“The secret to a flaky biscuit is to handle it as little as possible,” he warns.
Lil’ House keeps its biscuits square, which means less labor in the kitchen and no waste. Like owner Rex Brice’s three other Steamboat Springs restaurants, Lil’ House is gold-certified through the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association’s Sustainable Business Program.
The popular eatery also makes all its own sauces, soups, gravies, jellies and dressings. Even the chorizo sausage is made special for Lil’ House by Sweetwood Cattle Co. just a few miles north on Routt County Road 129.
That commitment to quality and freshness is what helped lure McKenzie to accept the position as general manager and executive chef at Big House Burgers and the adjacent Lil’ House. Brice owns and operates both restaurants, as well as Mazzola’s Majestic Italian Diner and Rex’s American Grill & Bar.
But McKenzie’s biggest move came years earlier, when he left his job at a venture capital firm in Dallas after realizing he needed to be part of something positive. Culinary arts was a logical choice.
“I just thought about all that positive energy that comes from food,” McKenzie says.
Now, the Indiana-born and Texas-raised chef finds satisfaction in the challenge of surpassing diners’ expectations of foods they already know well — like hamburgers or biscuit sandwiches.
“Everyone has an idea of what the perfect hamburger tastes like,” he says, “and it’s hard to meet that.”
If his dedication to uncovering the perfect biscuit recipe is any indication, McKenzie should have little problem wowing west Steamboat diners.