Is there anything more southern than a good, homemade biscuit? Okay, there’s lots of things that are quintessentially “southern.” But it’s hard to think of traditional southern food without thinking of biscuits. Fried chicken and biscuits. Chicken on a biscuit. Sausage gravy and biscuits. In Virginia, it’s country ham and biscuits.
It was that last one that I encountered recently on a visit to Virginia. We went to James Madison’s Montpelier (blog post on the house coming later) and had lunch in their little cafe. I couldn’t possibly resist the menu item biscuit with country ham and fig jam. And holy crow was it good! The biscuit was actually a cheddar and chive biscuit, and had just the right amount of salty ham and sweet jam. It stayed with me all afternoon, and I realized I kept bringing it up in conversation. My husband finally got annoyed with me and sent me off to the cafe before it closed to see if this biscuit was actually as homemade as it tasted, and to try and wiggle some bits and pieces of a recipe out of the staff.
I got so lucky. The lady who greeted me was the owner of the catering company that ran the cafe, and she was more than happy to chat with me. They make the biscuits every morning from scratch and by hand, and gave me her secret for a good biscuit: shredded cold butter. She also let me know that the ham was not actually country ham, but sugar cured ham (country ham is smoked and very salty, while sugar cured ham is cured in a savory sugar mix, making it sweeter) and the fig jam was actually bacon fig jam – for which she told me her process, and I will be attempting to recreate when I can get my hands on some nice, fresh figs.
I think at this point my mother-in-law, who we were visiting with, was getting so tired of hearing me rave about this sandwich, that the next morning she suggested for breakfast we go into the kitchen and bake a batch of biscuits. Game on!
Not having any of my cookbooks with me, and of course wanting an “old” biscuit recipe, I hit the internet and was excited to find a Fanny Farmer recipe. Once I found it, my MIL got out her food processor and shredded the butter. She didn’t have any other grater, and it was the fastest way to grate the butter and get it cold again so it didn’t soften too much. Once she was done, I quick tucked the bowl into the freezer while she mixed the dry ingredients. Then I took over.
I retrieved the butter from the freezer, and began to work in it little by little by hand until I had the texture of cornmeal. Lastly came the milk. A slight deviation was made here, as all my MIL had on hand was soy milk. I’m curious as to how the fat content difference between the two may have changed the final texture slightly, but if you hadn’t told me it was soy instead of whole, I never would have known.
Then came my additions. I added shredded cheddar cheese, guessing by looks how much I needed. We had doubled the batch, so I would guess I added about 3/4 to 1 cups worth. While I was mixing, MIL had gone outside and cut fresh chives from her garden. A quick chop and in they went. I also had a sudden impulse to add some freshly grated pepper to the dough. I was thinking a slightly more savory biscuit, with the salty cheese and a sharp bite here and there of pepper would be so good.
A couple final stirs to make sure everything was combined but not overworked and the dough got dropped in 1/4 cup amounts onto baking sheets lined with parchment. An extra sprinkle of cheddar on top for some color, and into the oven. When the tops were just browned, they came out. Beautiful. We had them for breakfast with butter and some homemade jams, including some extra fig jam that the caterer had gifted me the day before. I left half of my biscuit without jam to dip into my over easy egg. Add coffee, and this was a superb Sunday breakfast.
The only thing I would change is that I would use a much coarser grind of pepper. I didn’t want to overdo it and ended up not tasting any of the pepper. Plus I’d like to try it again sometime with whole milk, or even buttermilk to see how that changes the flavor and texture.