Per traditional wintertime lyrics, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. A lifelong yuletide fan…nay, fanatic…I am happier than Buddy the Elf high on candy spaghetti that the holiday season is upon us. I love the fact that, for a few weeks people have plenty of reasons to get together with family and friends, allow for extra merriment and generally enjoy life to a greater degree. Of course, there’s also presents. As a youngster, I loved getting gifts, but the older I got, the more that act of giving them took precedence for me. So, come December I like to use this column to share a recipe as my gift to those of you who are kind enough to read what I write. You definitely deserve something for doing that!
This year, I’m stuffing that mantle-secured stocking (or oven mitt) with one of my favorite recipes: cheese biscuits. It took me several years to refine my recipe and technique, but I’m proud to say that I now rival a Southern grandmother when it comes to baking these babies up. The key is to pay attention to little things along the way. Let’s tackle some of those, shall we?
The first thing anyone will tell you when talking about how to make fluffy biscuits is to employ a soft touch. It’s true that overworking dough compresses everything and can result in baked goods fit for double duty as doorstops, but there is a point where you really want to get in there and take out your aggressions: the dry-ingredient stage. Everything you do here sets up all that your biscuits will become.
Start by sifting your ingredients. You don’t want clumps of baking soda or any odd solids making their way into the dough. At that point, you can add cheese. When grating it, use the grater with the smallest holes so you get the finest grate. This will help you to most easily and evenly blend the cheese into the dough. You’ll tackle that as soon as you add in your cubed, cold butter. Don’t overlook that second adjective. You want your butter to be as cold as possible. For one thing, it will help you to cut it into cubes. Secondly, it will help it hold up as you use your hands to grind all the ingredients together into a coarse mixture where the butter is flaked into pieces that look like snow-dusted Rice Krispies.
Now it’s time to add your milk. Many swear by buttermilk, and I love using it, but I find that it can overshadow the flavor of the cheese or, if you’re using a tangy cheese, take things too far in the acidic direction. Regardless of what you choose, the rules are the same. Pour it in and then, using one hand (to keep the other dry and clean), use the least amount of force to mix everything into a single, semi-loose mass that stays together just enough so you can transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface. Once there, you’ll keep on your kid gloves and mold it into an inch-thick rectangle that you’ll gingerly wrap in plastic and refrigerate for half an hour. If you don’t refrigerate it, the butter in the dough will melt too fast in the oven, ruining everything.
Everybody likes their biscuits golden-brown. The best way to achieve this is by brushing the tops of them with melted butter before placing them in the oven. I’m a proponent of this, but certain cheeses (such as Cheddar) will brown on their own, eliminating the need for this step. Cheese also imparts different levels of salinity based on the type you’re using. If you’re using a lower-sodium variety, feel free to sprinkle a little fleur de sel (sea salt) atop the biscuits before baking them.
Going back to the fromage, I prefer to incorporate different cheeses depending on what I’m serving my biscuits with. For breakfast, I like Cheddar, the sharper the better. For chili or stew, I like to use Asiago cheese. But when I’m indulging on the biscuits all by their lonesome, I go for the strongest, funkiest blue cheese I can find. Stilton works well, as do American versions like Maytag and Point Reyes. Spanish Cabrales is my favorite, but very hard to find. Just avoid harder, crumblier blue cheese, as creamier varieties are better suited for this application. Any blue cheese makes these biscuits a perfect match for the boozy, caramel character of rich barley wines. If ever there were a season for such boozy behemoths, winter is it.
I also enjoy adding some fresh rosemary sometimes. It really perks things up and, bonus, ups the biscuits’ compatibility with IPAs, other hoppy beers, and American (i.e., hoppier) takes on strong ales and barley wines. But it’s not necessary and you needn’t be relegated to that single herb. Oregano, thyme, basil, dill or tarragon all work well depending on what you’ll enjoy alongside the biscuits.
Long story short, follow the rules…then do whatever you want. What I’m providing are the basics; what works for me. But like any recipe, this exists for you to adjust so that you will be happy with the end results. That’s what this joyous season is all about: happiness. And I hope this provides you and yours a little bit of that. Happy holidays!
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Yield: 16 biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus ¼ cup
1 Tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp white pepper
½ cup blue cheese crumbles (or finely grated cheese of your choosing)
½ Tbsp rosemary, finely chopped (optional)
1½ cup unsalted butter, cubed and kept cold
1 cup milk (or buttermilk)
unsalted butter, melted (optional)
fleur de sel (optional)
Evenly sprinkle ¼ cup of the flour onto a cutting board or Silpat. In a mixing bowl, sift together the remaining flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Add the cheese, rosemary and cubed butter, and use your fingers to mash the ingredients together until a coarse mixture is formed. The butter should resemble small granules of rice. Add the milk and gently fold the mixture together just enough so that it can be turned out onto the floured surface. As gingerly as possible, form the dough into an inch-thick rectangle. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, unwrap and place on a flat surface. Use a 2-inch round biscuit-cutter to cut out as many rounds of dough as possible from the rectangle. As gently as possible, form the remaining dough into a square and cut out as many rounds as possible. Place the remaining dough into the biscuit-cutter to form it into a biscuit shape. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and sprinkle with fleur de sel. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden-browned. Remove from oven and serve immediately.