Better Butter Biscuits

Cheese BiscuitsOK, so I DID start this process by making butter out of fresh cream, but that’s not absolutely necessary.

[In case you are interested how that would work, I’ll quickly describe what I did. Pick up a bunch of fresh cream, innoculate with a little mesophilic culture (the “Flora Danica” mix seems to deliver the best flavor, in my tests, but you could even use a little organic cultured sour cream or creme fraiche because they use the same cultures), and let sit at around 80 °F for 24 hours, afterwhich it should have thickened slightly, but not solidified, and start to smell like sour cream. Shake/whip the cream *at room temperature* until it peaks, then breaks (this could take 15 to 30 minutes) forming bits of butter that start clumping together. Pour off and save separate liquid — this is your buttermilk. Wash the butter grains in cool water until the water stays clear, then knead into a large mass, set aside in the refrigerator.]

Now you’ve got two of the necessary ingredients for some great cheese biscuits. What’s nice about using true buttermilk (as apposed to the “cultured skim milk” that passes for “buttermilk” in the supermarket) is that the flavor and acidity are a little more complex. But supermarket “buttermilk” will work, as will any good yogurt, which will also deliver the acidity necessary for leavening, plus a different mix of flavors.

The “rest” period called for does work — the biscuits will be fluffier, but if you don’t have the time, the biscuits will still be plenty tender and taste fine. I also brush the tops of the raw biscuits with water and grind fresh black pepper on top for an additional zip — but that’s just my tastes.

These biscuits are good with any kind of cured pork: bacon (and a big tomato slice!), ham, or sausage. Pair with grits and eggs and strong coffee for a lazy weekend breakfast. They’re also good all by themselves; no butter needed.

Cheescuits
from “Hot ‘n’ Spicy Cheddar & Onion Biscuits”
King Arthur Flour’s newsletter The Baking Sheet, Jan-Feb 1998

makes about 16 biscuits

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cayanne powder OR ground dried chipotles OR both!
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 oz.) chilled butter, cut into pieces
1 to 2 tsp. hot sauce
1 1/4 cups buttermilk

Mix flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, ground pepper, and shredded cheese. Cut in butter pieces as you would when making a pie crust. Toss the mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs.

[In the original recipe they have you add 1/2 cup “golden baking onion or canned french-fried onions” — I suspect dehydrated onions would also work. I found that the recipe is better without this distraction, but you could try adding it to the flour mix above if you like. I also added the ground peppers to the recipe to add extra zip (the hot sauce gives it some zip, but a different kind). That is also optional.]

Add buttermilk and hot sauce and stir gently until the dough pulls together.

Transfer onto a lightly floured work surface and pat into a 3/4 inch thick square. Cut into 1 1/2 inch squares, and transfer to a lightly greased baking sheet.

If possible, set uncooked biscuits in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, while you preheat the oven. This solidifies the cheese and butter, and lets the baking powder develop gas for leavening which can result in a lighter and flakier biscuit, but it’s not necessary.

Bake at 450 °F until golden brown (15 to 18 minutes), remove from oven, and serve warm.

4 thoughts on “Better Butter Biscuits

  1. I was just wondering as I looked at yer recipe whether Maine (or New England for that matter) has its own native cheese. Yer recipe calls for cheddar cheese. [And I don’t personally consider Vermont cheddar to be native to Vermont. It’s an English-style cheese that’s made in Vermont make.] What if, in addition to making yer own butter, you invented a new cheese that is organically from Maine? Who knows? Maybe there are cheese cultures floating around in the Maine air that no one’s ever used before. Maybe there’s a combination of Maine pasture, Maine cows, Maine cultures, and Maine culture that could result in a completely (if even subtly) new Maine cheese. Has someone already found one?

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  2. See Formaggio Rustica Romano for a “Maine pasture/cow/milk/culture” example. Lots of folks who have access to fresh milk and are interested will make cottage cheese regularly. Otherwise they make a kind of “Bovre” spread-able cream cheese if they make any cheese at all. The very few who experiment with other styles will invariably try “cheddar” usually waxing the pressed curd, setting it in the back of their refrigerator, then throwing it out three months later after the wax cracks and leaks a pungeont pool of over-ripe and infected cheese to the bottom of their fridge.

    Cheddar comes from Somerset County in England, and was the perfect means by which a dairy farm could preserve their milk supply in a form that would be easiest to transport to London, where they could exchange it for much more money than the raw fluid would fetch locally. Dairy farmers who moved to the New World remembered this lesson, and when farming expanded far beyond the bounds of the largest colonial cities, they made cheddar from their surplus milk, and shipped it to Boston and New York whenever they could.

    Vermont turned to dairy as their primary agricultural effort only AFTER the early colonists slashed and burned their way across the virgin forests of the Green Mountains, then depleted the soils by growing successive crops of grain (for export). Once the soils had been tapped and could grow nothing more than grass, a few smart farmers turned to grazing herds, and that part of Vermont’s identity was born.

    Maine’s seacoast provided it’s primary identity from the beginning, and ocean trade with the rest of the country (and world) was the focus of most agriculture beyond subsistance (potatoes, beans, and grain for their work animals). Hay and ice were shipped to the Carribean islands, exchanged for molassas which was then very profitably turned into rum back home (Maine’s regional liquor is “Black Rum” which is clear rum mixed with A LOT of molassas). Apples were an excellent export crop until Prohibition. Potatoes were the designated crop for the flat-lands of Aroostook County. Blueberries turned into an industry in the 50’s and 60’s. Dairy before refrigeration was not a prominent industry, thus the lack of a regional specialty cheese. If Maine’s farmers had turned to dairy early on, it’s likely they would have mimiced the English and Dutch settlers of Vermont and upstate New York by making cheddar, too.

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  3. Right. Obviously, New England got its name for a reason (did you know there’s another one in Australia? I passed thru it on the way from Canberra to Brisbane during my circumnavigation — didn’t remind me much of home… sort of a cross between England and Florida). English immigrants made cheese in the English style, of course. But that was centuries ago. Does everything in America have to be based on something from somewhere else, even today? Of course not.

    So you know how to catch sourdough starter out of the air — is it possible to do the same for cheese culture? And if so, have you tried to catch any local Maine cultures? France has over 300 different kinds of cheese. In Asturias, a mountainous part of N. Spain, virtually every valley has its own, dating back to when there was very little contact between valleys. Couldn’t Maine have its own too?

    Just wondering.

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  4. See link for Formaggio Rustica Romano in above reply for my current work with “local Maine cultures.”

    Wild cultures — for bread, wine, cider, or cheese — are all around us and easy to capture. However, they are an unknown factor for flavor, acidity, and strength, so it’s risky to use them commercially before extensive testing. The cottage cheese I made from wild cultures was fabulous, and it took only about a week to make, but other cheeses take months to make, so there is a long period before it’s possible to truely understand the potential advantages and disadvantages of each captured strain. Obviously, in Europe generations — working before the age of freeze-dried pure cheese cultures — have done that testing for present day cheesemakers, but I bet you’d be surprised to learn how many of these artisanal cheesemakers actually use modern freeze-dried pure cultures…

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