A good chef knows his regular customers’ tastes by heart. He has a mental list of hundreds of dishes that are likes and dislikes, and he knows what makes these special diners happy through trial and error over many years of cooking for them. Seeing as my wife, Fiona, happens to be my only regular customer these days, my task has been simplified. More often than not, I just cook for the two of us now. And I know of few things that make her happier than a well-made cheese biscuit.
I can see why she likes them. As rich comfort foods go, biscuits are hard to beat. They have a buttery outer crust and soft, tender layers inside. They can be flavored with most anything, but she is right: The cheesy variety is best.
Biscuits are made with baking powder, a mix of cream of tartar, cornstarch, and baking soda that works well as a fast, convenient alternative to yeast. Thought to have originated during the Civil War, when time and cooks were hard to come by, this all-American method of fast breadmaking spawned a whole new category: “quick breads.”
It takes a light hand to make a light biscuit, and as with most baked things, technique is important to get great results. Butter is the standard-issue biscuit fat, but you can also use bacon or chicken fat, lard, or vegetable shortening, depending how you want to flavor your dough. Whichever fat you choose, make sure it is very cold. This helps make the finished biscuit light and flaky. I often freeze my butter before cutting it into the flour mixture.
Instead of using the standard buttermilk or sour cream, I like to add two different goat cheeses for tang. Heavy cream replaces the soured milk. The cheese must be relatively dry, because too much moisture will make it heavy. A combination of goat feta and Bucheron works wonderfully here. With each bite you will see little chunks of goat cheese and get a mild, acidic flavor. Add all the heavy cream at once and mix just until it all comes together, forming a slightly tacky dough. If the dough is too dry, the biscuits will be, too. Too wet, and they will be flat and heavy.
You can practically taste hot, baking biscuits before you put them in your mouth; the aroma drives you nuts. What to serve them with is up to you. Chicken and biscuits are an American favorite, but how about trying them with creamy lobster sauce? Or perhaps hot and buttered, to go with slowly braised winter pot roast? I think my favorite might well be with a lightly scrambled egg and a sprinkle of fresh chives, but that’s just me. Being an impatient purist, my VIP customer/wife eats them hot, right out of the oven, with nothing but a napkin as an accompaniment. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her sit down to eat one.