The story behind these heavenly cookies from Alabama

When planning the menu for his contemporary Southern restaurant, Helen, Alabama chef Rob McDaniel wanted to add a signature cookie that would become one of the house specialties.

He recalled the light, fluffy angel biscuits that his maternal grandmother, Helen Frutiger, the inspiration for the restaurant, used to make in her kitchen in Oneonta.

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

So he scoured the internet and found a recipe from Southern Living recipe tester and developer Pam Lolley, who McDaniel had met at various cooking events in Birmingham.

“I had already met Pam by accident,” McDaniel recalls. “I looked up ‘Angel Biscuit Recipe’ and lo and behold, there was Pam Lolley’s name under it.

“I like telling this story because I want to give people credit when they deserve credit, and it definitely is,” adds McDaniel. “I mean, the base of this recipe came from the recipe she made for Southern Living.”

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

And they’ve been a favorite on the menu since McDaniel and his wife Emily opened their restaurant in a 1920s shotgun building in downtown Birmingham in August 2020.

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

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

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Rob and Emily McDaniel at the Helen Restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama.

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 from the Sprouthouse Agency)

Like little angel wings

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

For five years, from 2013 to 2017, McDaniel was a semifinalist in the James Beard Award 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 that McDaniel mastered his cookie game, starting with the simple buttermilk cookie.

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

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

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

“(It’s) very similar to a yeast bun,” says McDaniel. “Some people have even said you managed to turn a Parker House roll recipe into a cookie.”

The inspiration for the recipe

However, the angel biscuit’s parentage is the subject of a friendly debate between two old, respected Southern flour brands, writes cookbook author Belinda Ellis in her 2013 book Biscuits.

“Emory Thompson told me he invented the recipe when he was working for White Lily because the yeast and baking powder made the cookies unbreakable,” writes Ellis. “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 craving for an easy-to-make bun, you don’t care who invented it.”

Lolley, whose recipe was first published in Southern Living about 15 years ago, says she was introduced to angel biscuits, which she made during her summer visits to the Lolleys, by her husband’s grandmother, Eleanor Wheless.

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

However, Lolley had to figure out the recipe himself.

“She was a fabulous cook, but like chefs of this generation, she didn’t write anything down,” says Lolley of her husband’s grandmother. “I watched her make them and she didn’t measure anything.”

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Lolley tweaked a few things, added butter to the shortening, and replaced whole milk and lemon juice with buttermilk. She then found the right mix of flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and yeast to give the cookies their pillowy texture and elegant rise.

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

Lolley later developed an angel cookie recipe that uses cornmeal and another with parmesan cheese, rosemary, and thyme.

Angel Cookies at Helen's Restaurant in Birmingham, Ala.

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

Angel cookie ice cream too

At Helen’s, the staff prepares six to eight batches of cookie dough the night before; wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate overnight; and gently kneads, rolls, folds and cuts the dough the next morning.

The cookies are aligned in small rows side by side and baked in quarter sheet pans, 35 cookies per pan.

The cookies are served warm from the oven and come four to an order, and on a typical day the restaurant serves around 80 orders between lunch and dinner, beating all other entrees 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 cookies with whipped butter and Golden Eagle syrup,” says McDaniel. “Well, I love Golden Eagle syrup, but over time my palate got a little more refined and I really started to love cane syrup.

“When we first opened, I thought, let’s put cane syrup on the cookies,” he adds. “Then we started buttering it up, which made a huge difference. I mean, they’re (addictive).”

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The cookies have become so popular that one of Helen’s chefs, Mario Reyes, even invented an angel cookie ice cream for dessert.

“It’s basically a sweet milk ice cream base, and we fold in the leftover angel biscuits,” says McDaniel. “Then we top it with cane syrup and Maldon Salt, just like we make the biscuits. And it’s delicious too.”

Angel's Biscuit at Helen's in Birmingham, Alabama.

Drizzled with pure cane syrup and dusted with sea salt, Engelkeks ice cream is a popular dessert at Helen.(Bob Carlton/bcarlton@al.com)

Credit where credit is due

On a visit to Helen’s to celebrate her birthday last summer, Lolley naturally had to try the angel cookies.

McDaniel, she reports, has perfected her recipe.

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

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

“If anyone asks where the recipe came from or something, they always give me credit,” she says.

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As a Southern chef who’s very proud of his roots, McDaniel says it’s kind of fitting that his recipe for angel cookies didn’t come from one of his grandmothers’ handwritten note cards, but from the pages of their favorite magazine.

“Southern Living sat on our coffee table as a kid,” he says. “It was on my grandmothers’ coffee tables, and those magazines served as cooking references.

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

Just like these heavenly angel cookies.

Helen is on Second Ave. North 2013 in Birmingham. The phone is 205-438-7000. The lunch break is Tuesday to Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.; Dinner is open from 5pm to 9pm Tuesday to Thursday and from 5pm to 10pm on Friday and Saturday. For more informations, go here

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