Cafe Carolina adds Sweet Potatoes to a Southern classic

The secret ingredients—and tried-and-true process—that go into making some of Raleigh’s favorite biscuits.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Taylor McDonald

“We don’t roll and cut, we scoop!” says Ron Hines. He’s the owner of Cafe Carolina & Bakery, and as he says this, he seamlessly mixes biscuit dough by hand on a Wednesday morning, just as he and the other handful of bakers do seven days a week, sometimes twice a day. 

This isn’t just any biscuit dough. It’s the dough for the famously soft, melt-in-your mouth-sweet potato biscuits that generations of Raleigh residents have come to love.

A bestseller on the restaurant’s light menu of pastries, soups, salads and sandwiches, the sweet potato biscuit has been on the menu since the cafe opened more than 20 years ago. It’s a tribute to the state of North Cackalacky and its official vegetable, the sweet, nutritious, orange root spud. As Hines says, “it’s a classic but unique item that you don’t see at too many places.”

Hines likes to showcase North Carolina ingredients whenever possible on the menu, using local poultry for turkey sandwiches and seasonal produce in salads. But especially, sweet potatoes. High in vitamins, minerals and fiber, but low in fat, sweet potatoes are known for their health benefits. They’re inexpensive and offer endless cooking ideas: sweet potato fries, sweet potato casserole, baked, mashed. 

Many of the sweet potatoes found in kitchens all over the country come from right here in N.C. According to the North Carolina Sweet Potato Association, our state has been the top sweet potato producer in the United States since 1971. In 2016, the state harvested upwards of 95,000 acres worth of sweet potatoes, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. 

Pre-COVID-19, every day an average of 150 sweet potato biscuits went home with happy cafe-goers. Nowadays it’s more like 80 to 100.

These biscuits can be enjoyed at any meal: as part of a light breakfast with coffee and fresh fruit, filled with thinly sliced Virginia pit ham and cheddar cheese as a sandwich for lunch (at right), or alongside a hearty bowl of cream of broccoli soup for dinner. “We wanted a recipe that could go either way—salty or sweet, morning or evening,” says Hines. 

The baking process starts at 6 a.m. every day and takes about 30 minutes from start to finish. In the early days, bakers would roast the sweet potatoes, peel them, then puree them the night before. But Hines wanted more consistent and reliable results, which are hard to guarantee when you’re dealing with bags full of sweet potatoes in various sizes and varieties, so he started experimenting. 

It took a while. For years they worked on different recipes before they landed on a winning recipe that’s deceptively simple. In fact, there are only three ingredients: old-fashioned Bisquick, canned sweet potatoes and brown sugar. It’s how you put them together that makes them so good, says Hines. He uses only Grade-A North Carolina-packed sweet potatoes and starts with scouring the biscuit mix for clumps before putting it all together (lest they interfere with the uniform fluffy texture). The dough is always mixed and kneaded by hand, fresh each morning, and it’s scooped onto the baking sheet, rather than rolled and cut, so as not to overwork the dough. “Nothing too complicated,” says Hines. “But there’s a little science to it.” Little bits of wisdom, tried-and-true-techniques and simple ingredients—that’s Southern cooking for you.

Get the recipe for Cafe Carolina’s famous Sweet Potato Biscuits here.