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From Gravy Biscuits to Mexican Wedding Cookies,Brenner’s Bakery Slathers on the Southern Style

By Jordan Wright

Every chef has his or her trade secrets…special ingredients, little known sources, on-line products, techniques, tools and tricks.

Here’s one of mine. I buy my biscuits at Brenner’s Bakery.

Country Ham Biscuit

Country Ham Biscuits

If you’re a Southerner, biscuits are an important part of your daily life. They sop up red eye gravy and the juice from beans and barbeque. They are de rigeur with fried eggs and sawmill gravy.

And ohmygod, you had better make an extra batch because they are morphed into yet another course…dessert. Slathered with butter and drizzled with Karo syrup, molasses or sorghum and eaten by the plateful. That’s real Southern style. But most of y’all already knew that.

There is no excuse, even for a transplant such as myself (in my case raised in Manhattan but with roots south of the Mason-Dixon line). Southerners are required to serve biscuits when they entertain their friends and relatives.

Though many of my clients regularly dine on truffles and fois gras, they know as sure as the stars shine above, that they will be serving ham biscuits at their next social event…and that means receptions, steeplechase races, hunt breakfasts and sit-down Sunday suppers. Southern hosts and hostesses do like to entertain. In some parts they still invite the mailman in for a cup and piece of cake in the mornings.

I am not the best baker by anyone’s standards. Oh, I can make lemon bars and brownies and once won first prize for my Three Berry Pie (I use Framboise liqueur, another secret!). Cobblers, bread pudding, tuiles, cookies, fudge, truffles, cupcakes, marzipan pigs and even crème brulee have all come from my kitchen over the years. But I have a fear of falling flat on my derriere when it comes to biscuits.

For a while I bought supermarket refrigerated rolls when I needed a breakfast biscuit. They’re pretty good in a pinch but there is an off taste that isn’t like the country biscuits that you can find at any roadhouse 50 miles outside the Beltway.

On travels through the Virginia countryside I’ve bought biscuit mixes made from stone ground flour from two hundred year old restored gristmills. I may still have some in the larder from Mabry Mill, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and Wade’s Mill in Raphine.

Months go by and I have stared down those flour-filled paper bags, with their cotton twine closures and evocative drawings of an old mill, and never once opened one up until finally the bugs would take up residence and I’d have to pitch it.

Photo by Roy Wright

Photo by Roy Wright

My mission was to pre-order my biscuits from Brenner’s for “ham biscuits” (the way they say it in the South it sounds like one word). It was for the upcoming Saturday’s steeplechase race “tailgate” in Middleburg. I wouldn’t have to cook a thing. I was on my way to my French Circle gathering that morning and checked out the cases to see if I could grab some last minute goodies.

Brenner’s Bakery has been in business in the Belle Haven Shopping Center for 56 years. Neighbors have raised kids and grandkids on their baked goods and when the family sold the shop three years ago everyone was praying that whosoever took it over wouldn’t dare to change a thing.

“D,” the new owner, gave me a tour. “D” emigrated from Korea and learned to bake alongside his mother and grandmother.

“Everyone in the family bakes, ” he said matter-of-factly. He came to the States to pursue a career in accounting at an American University, but found his true calling when he started working in a bakery in Texas where he learned traditional French baking techniques.

When he bought the bakery in Alexandria, the Brenner’s taught D all their recipes and made sure he knew how to bake the biscuits and cookies and pies and cakes in the same way that customers and their families had savored and celebrated with for so many years.

The Brenner’s style of baking is different from the classic French style D had mastered in Texas and he had to learn to make the Moon Pies and Elephant Ears, the Molasses, Peanut Butter and Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies…Ginger Snaps big as a baby’s hand, and Pecan Sandies, with a butter shortbread so tender it melts in your mouth.

He learned them all and tried new ideas and now there are dozens of offerings of baked goods. Cannolis, regular and mini, Napoleons, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Tiramisu, fresh Fruit Tarts, Breakfast Danish, Tea Loaves, Madeleines, and Peanut Brittle.

Photo by Roy Wright

Photo by Roy Wright

A dazzling variety of cookies too…Mexican Wedding Cookies with Pine Nuts, Flower Cookies with Pink Fondant and Blue Elephant Cookies, bright yellow Happy Faces and white-iced Baseball Cookies with red top-stitching; German Chocolate Cakes and Pecan Pies…Cherry and Apple Walnut too. Cakes topped with fresh raspberries and Wedding Cakes and Birthday Sheet Cakes where you can have your favorite photo transferred onto the cake. There’s an old-fashioned cake-for-one called a “Radio Cake”…chocolate cake with a chocolate glaze, fluffy whipped topping and a cherry. It does take you back.

The “Chocolate Drop”, is as classic a cookie as there is. So popular the Brenner’s could hardly keep it in the shop. To this day devoted customers have D ship them as far as California. One day an assistant baker thought he would change the recipe and try something new.

“Customers called me from all over,” D said. “They knew the cookie was not the same.” He finally caught on to the baker’s independent streak and straightened things out. They’re always in the case…just ask.

D bakes bread every morning…White Bread, 7-Grain, Corn Rye, Challah, Marbled Rye and Pumpernickel and Whole Wheat. Dinner Rolls and Hamburger and Hot Dog Rolls and, of course, the Butter Biscuits, the minis are the perfect finger-food size to hold a sliver of salty Virginia country ham. I like S. Wallace Edwards and Sons hams from Surry, VA.

When you go to Brenner’s you can sit down with a cup of espresso or cappuccino, or Italian syrup-flavored soda or cup of hot Stash tea and maybe a cookie or raspberry twist before starting on your trip home. But don’t mention it to anyone unless you bring back a box of D’s marvelous goodies to share.

Contact the writer at [email protected].

If You’re Going…
Brenner’s Bakery
1512 Belleview Boulevard
Alexandria, VA 22307
(703) 765-4688

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