On Buttermilk, with Phoebe Lawless, Scratch Bakery


Phoebe Lawless is the pie maven behind the award-winning Scratch Bakery, a beloved neighborhood spot in Durham. Crowds flock near and far for their signature doughnut muffins and their Buttermilk Sugar Pie. The Ohio native got her start as a pastry assistant alongside James Beard Award-winner Karen Barker, at the legendary Magnolia Grill in Durham. Eventually she became head pastry chef. Knowledge and inspiration in hand, she went on to sell pies at the Carrboro Farmers' Market, where she developed a devoted following. After outgrowing her home kitchen, she opened Scratch in 2010. Owning up to its name, everything you see at Scratch is homemade, from each condiment down to the rice flour, used for Philpy (a Lowcountry rice bread, similar to cornbread). Since opening, the bakery has evolved into a restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch and featuring homemade breads. Scratch boasts an array of sweet and savory pies, empanadas, and other fresh goodies, an impressive coffee program, and a brunch menu that will make you weak in the knees.  A stickler for cooking seasonally and locally, Phoebe endeavors to preserve food traditions, and she values local ingredients, especially those native to the South. Though her style is mostly Southern-influenced, she draws inspiration from around the world, and you're likely to see things like bánh mì, charred eggplant fatouche, carnitas, and gumbo on the menu. Phoebe's pies have earned her recognition and praise in The New York Times, Bon Appetit Magazine, Garden and Gun, Southern Living, and from the James Beard Foundation, among others. She now sells at the Durham Farmers' Market, and loyal fans still queue up every Saturday morning for doughnut muffins and of course, pie.  

What is the concept and story behind Scratch? 
Scratch has changed quite a bit since I first started baking out of my house five years ago! The original idea was to sell pie at the farmer's market. That morphed into a pie subscription program. That was when my husband began his protest over living in what was becoming a full-scale bake shop in our home. When we discovered the space on Orange Street in 2009, it seemed like the right time to make the jump to a brick and mortar. And though the fare we serve now has changed considerably since first opening our doors three years ago, I still stand by our commitment to tasty, handcrafted food. 

You are known for a lot of things, among them pies. Do you have a particular philosophy on pie and its place in the American sweets cannon? 
Pie is very simple at its core: filled dough. I don't want to diminish the craft, because it does require skill and an attention to detail, but most of all, it's practice. As a culture we don't bake nearly as much as our mothers and grandmothers did, and those rituals of biscuits or quick breads or pies that graced tables daily have become relegated to special events or holidays. I do feel though that with folks becoming more conscious of how they source their food and an appreciation of local producers, pie baking follows as a great medium for showcasing high-quality ingredients. 

What role does Buttermilk play in your baking? 
Buttermilk is front and center at Scratch. Most of our cakes, donuts, and batters use it when dairy is needed in a recipe. The staff favorite pie is nothing but buttermilk, vanilla bean, and sugar.  

Are you familiar with churned buttermilk and if so, what do you think sets it apart? 
If you are talking about the by-product of small-scale or DIY butter making rather than the commercial low-fat version found in most grocery stores...yes, there is a huge difference. The 'milk' that is left behind when you agitate cream has no culture or sour flavor, natural or otherwise. Real buttermilk, or cultured butter, was made when refrigeration wasn't readily available, and the cream had been left to sit or stored in containers that held a previous batch, resulting in a pleasant and mild, sour taste. Its uses pre-20th century were for silage and valuable calories for the poor. Most commercially-cultured buttermilk is made from skim milk and has an extremely sour, pungent flavor. I would much prefer to drink a glass of real buttermilk.  

I know the period leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas is your busiest time at the bakery. Do you have any new creations coming into the mix this year? 
We have found that most folks are pretty traditional in their holiday sweets, so we are keeping the majority of our menu the same. This was a great year for muscadines, so we have put up a few gallons to make appearances in the coming months. We are also very proud of our native fruit cake that uses only local/regionally sourced fruits. This year it will have persimmons, heirloom apples, plums, chestnuts, and organic Florida citrus. And Hanukkah does fall in the same week as Thanksgiving, which means we'll offer some of our spins on traditional Jewish baking.  

Buttermilk is an ingredient that can get lost in the final product. Can you think of any sweet or savory dishes that really allow buttermilk to shine? 
We use it as much as we can as a featured component of a dish: In early summer we offer a bowl of toasted cornbread with fresh berries, buttermilk, and sorghum. We suggest you have it with our granola instead of milk. We have a drink special that pairs it beautifully with honeysuckle and is carbonated. We've used it to replace Mexican crema in salsas to cut the richness of carnitas. It's a wonderful base for cold soups in summer when blended with beets, or cucumbers, or super-ripe tomatoes. We make iced-fruit milks that incorporate a touch of buttermilk to add complexity.  

Buttermilk seems to be making a comeback in professional kitchens. Why do you think that is? 
Southern food is pretty hot these days, and buttermilk has always been a staple. It's also easy to replace ingredients like yogurt, sour cream, even some vinegars with buttermilk and get a different flavor profile altogether.  

What is it about Southern food that makes it hot right now? 
I think Southern food is hot for a few reasons. For one, I think Southern food is very approachable. It’s food that people feel comfortable producing at home. It’s something they have some frame of reference for, maybe not the specific ingredients like buttermilk, or grits or collards that are more regionally-based, but the other things like pot pies or fried chicken –everyone has some sort of experience with them. And people don’t feel so intimidated making those dishes for themselves. Another reason Southern food is hot has to do with the current economy. The raw ingredients are pretty humble and generally, not pricey. Meat is used more as a component, to add flavoring, rather than as the star in Southern cooking.  Moving towards Southern food is also a natural extension of the farm-to-table movement, an appreciation of agrarian-based cuisines and foodways, that’s been growing for the last 10 years.  

What brought you to the Triangle region of North Carolina? 
I grew up mainly in the mountains of North Carolina, in Appalachia. I came here for school and then cooked in various places around the state and really liked this area a lot. The food in the Western part of the state is pretty different. It’s also agrarian-based, farm-to-table, but the growing season is shorter. There is a larger preserving tradition there because of the shorter season, and because it’s more remote, there is not the kind of access that we have here in the Triangle. Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill is a pretty liberal bubble. Even though we are Central North Carolina, it’s hard to get a good plate of BBQ in this town. We do benefit from having the Northeastern, West Coast transplants and their food sensibilities, as well as their enthusiasm. We also have this class of cooks that are coming up and settling here because it is affordable. You can cook here and live here, a rarity for a city that has a thriving food scene. You can’t do that so much in DC or New York or San Francisco.  

Do you have a childhood memory or Aha! moment associated with buttermilk? 
As a little girl, I used to spend weekends with my Aunt Betty at a family cottage on Lake Erie. Every morning she would serve me a glass of buttermilk in an amber, Depression-era honeycomb tumbler. I never questioned or complained; it was her version of a morning constitutional.