“There are fewer things in life more symbolic of love and family than a basket of homemade biscuits.”

Those wise words are courtesy of Chef Emily Cook, one of the chef instructors at Chicago’s Community Kitchens. On a recent Friday afternoon, Cook and her student Leticia Brown fired up the oven, immersed their hands in floury goodness and showed us how to make sweet potato biscuits.

The end result? Soft, buttery biscuits with a bit of sweetened flavor and vibrant color that would make an exquisite addition to any holiday meal. To learn how to make them, watch the video and read the recipe at the bottom of the page.

In her own words, Brown’s experience with Chicago’s Community Kitchens has been nothing short of life changing. Provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the 14-week culinary job training program provides people who need a boost into the workforce with the skills and confidence they need to succeed. Graduates often land jobs with some of the top restaurants in Chicago, as well as catering and foodservice companies.

“It gave me hope, hope for something else,” said Brown, 41. “It helped me get over myself. It guided me. Now I’m not afraid to do anything.”

Until recent weeks, Brown was living at Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter on the city’s Near West Side, after leaving what she described as an abusive relationship. She’s since moved into her own apartment, thanks in part to the counseling she received as part of Chicago’s Community Kitchens.

And on Dec. 17, Brown began an internship at Sopraffina Marketcaffe in the Aon Center in Chicago’s Loop – a thrilling next step in what she hopes is a long career in the kitchen.

She’s drawn inspiration from the French culinary “mise en place,” which she’s applied to all aspects of her life.

“It’s ‘everything in its place,’ that’s really what it means,” Brown said. “I put it in my life. It teaches you to just be prepared in life. And when things go wrong, you gotta get up and do something about it.”

The hardest part, Brown said:  Believing that she, at age 41, could complete this program and dramatically improve her own life. But the motivation from the chef instructors and staff of Chicago’s Community Kitchens has emboldened her.

“Here I come, world,” Brown said with a grin. “Here I come.”

Leticia Brown poses in the CCK Kitchen.

Here’s Chef Emily’s recipe for her sweet potato biscuits:

SWEET POTATO BISCUITS

Makes about 12 large biscuits. 

These biscuits are buttery, soft, and a beautiful bright orange color with the addition of sweet potatoes.  They’re fantastic on their own with some honey or blackberry jam, or covered in a hearty country gravy for a decadent holiday brunch. To make life easier, I make the sweet potato puree a day ahead and freeze the butter overnight.

5 cups All-purpose flour (plus more for “bench flour”)
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ cup whole milk
1 ¾ cup sweet potato puree (see below)
½ pound butter, frozen (plus more butter for brushing on top)

  1. To make the sweet potato puree, roast one sweet potato (approximately 8 to 10 ounces) in a 350-degree oven until the flesh is completely tender, about 30 to 45 minutes. You can test this by inserting a knife into the thickest part of the potato and it should go in without any resistance. Allow to cool, then peel the skins off. Puree the sweet potato in a food processor until “baby-food-like”. Allow to cool completely. (Note: Be sure to measure out the puree — you may not need it all.  The remainder can be frozen for another batch.)
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together all of the dry ingredients.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk and the sweet potato until smooth. Set aside.
  4. Using a box grater, grate the frozen butter on top of the dry ingredients and gently toss together with your hands until the butter is coated.
  5. Add the milk and potato mixture to the dry ingredients and lightly mix by hand, just until it comes together in a shaggy mass (it will be messy!).
  6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead/press together. It will not be smooth.  Roll to about ¾ inch thick and cut to desired shape.  (I cut squares so there is no waste.)  Place biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet with the biscuits touching each other.
  7. Chill the biscuits in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, melt about half of a stick of butter. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter. Bake at 400 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes until golden; check center of sheet tray to make sure they are not doughy at all.

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