I grew up in Alabama, born and bred on the best biscuits the world has ever had to offer—magnified to the extreme with a layer of hot, bubbling government cheese on top.
I used to watch my grandmother every morning making biscuits. Unfortunately, I was not always paying attention to technique. Most of the time, I just sat there at the yellow Formica table, salivating like an old yeller dog, staring at that yellow cheese.
I stared at the biscuit dough, too. I loved dough. It was almost as good as cheese! I was always waiting for a bit of raw dough to fall from my grandmother’s forearms and hands onto the cutting board.
I would snap it up and savor it like some sort of dessert—if you can imagine a dessert reincarnated as a sour, clammy dough ball with a dusting of flour that would gum up your teeth up and induce choking. I loved biscuit dough so much, when grandma recycled her flour with the sifter, I sat and waited for the metal ballerina arms inside the cup to flip out the last morsels of raw material for me to snack on.
The cheese and the dough went together.
Part of the family biscuit tradition was toasting the biscuits with government cheese. Don’t ask me how or why we landed government cheese. It was a precious commodity, meant for the masses but prized by the elite. Neither of which we were.
I have vague recollections of standing in line somewhere waiting for an enormous deli loaf of what, to me, was the best cheese in the world. It had the meltability of American cheese, but a flavor that leaned more towards tangy English Cheddar. It was so good that sometimes I would eat it straight out of the freezer. Before dawn, I hacked away at it with a knife while my grandmother tooled around.
She set the cheese loaf out to warm every morning for the biscuits, but I couldn’t wait. I sat there eating frozen cheese and listening to the courthouse bells toll and trains whistle. Icy chunks of fake orange scattered across the table.
People talk about cheeses that are ”good for melting.” Well, you don’t know melting cheese until you have eaten actual frozen cheese! You have to sit and literally let it melt in your mouth like a Popsicle.
“You’re just like your granddaddy,” grandma said. “He loved cheese.” No wonder he married her.
Fast forward 20 years or so, I decided to try my hand at cheese biscuits in New Jersey. I called my mother and my sister in Alabama for the biscuit recipe. I have since been sworn to secrecy about the biscuit methods, but even with the recipe for The Perfect Biscuit in my hand, the recipe is not what matters in the long run.
I followed the instructions the best I could, but I couldn’t get exactly the ingredients I wanted. I got some advice from home—most importantly, the cutting of the biscuit is key.
Don’t twist the glass, and if possible, don’t use a glass at all because it pinches the edges of the biscuit. Don’t knead the dough too much. Pat it. Don’t use too much flour. Place the biscuits close together on the pan.
Perhaps I can eventually master the biscuit part, but where to find the cheese? For two decades now, I have been searching for the equivalent of government cheese. I work in kosher cheese and I hear some of it is the closest thing to old school commodity. I bought two of the best known varieties—Miller’s (OU-D cholov stam) and Haolam (KAJ cholov yisroel),
in spite of their mildness and spongy texture, neither tasted like my beloved government cheese. Ironically, some government cheese was produced in a kosher format, but none is to be found on the kosher market nowadays.
My biscuits didn’t come out so great. They needed more Crisco and/or leavening. As soon as I tasted the dough, I could feel that the sourness was not there like in grandma’s. But all was not lost. The entire experience of twirling the sifter, scooping out the Crisco “the size of an egg,” stirring the fat ball into the “bowl” of flour, smelling the biscuits baking, and watching the fluorescent cheese melt was enough to entertain me for an afternoon.
Best of all was chatting with my family on the phone about cheese and biscuits, and thinking about old times in the Alabama kitchen.
I don’t mean to write a clichéd “learned cooking at my mother’s side” story, but the truth is, food unites us all. You can’t escape that fact or dismiss it.
The Cheese Mistress