As an expat blogger in Italy, I've fielded quite a few food related questions from culinarily curious non-Americans over the years. Most commonly explained: our tendency to enjoy things like bacon and eggs before midday; our version of pizza (pineapple, ham and all); the intricacies of Thanksgiving (sweet potato and marshmallow is a thing and it is delicious); and, relevant to today's post, the somewhat confusing American biscuit. After all, in British English -- the English most non-native English speakers learn -- the biscuit is what we Americans call a cookie. The American biscuit, however, is completely different from a cookie, buttery and impossibly flaky, made with buttermilk or cream and a good amount of baking powder. They can be sweet, where they're used in shortcake, or savory, served with soups and stews, smothered in gravy for breakfast in the South, or as a topping for a chicken pot-pie. Indeed, out of all American specialties, biscuits are the trickiest to explain, mostly because they're not really comparable to anything I've tried anywhere else. My explanation usually goes something like this: They're round, but not like a cookie -- kind of like a scone, but more tender and less crumbly -- they can be buttery, but not at all greasy, actually, they're very light; no, they're not a dessert, well, they can be, but not always...you get the idea. Whether I do this explanation in English or Italian, I still always come up a little short, and always arrive at the conclusion that an American biscuit is something that must be tried to really understand, which is where this recipe comes in.
Shortly after I'd written a blog post on cacio e pepe -- this one here -- I caught the cacio e pepe bug, that leftover hunk of Pecorino in my fridge presenting endless possibilities for recipes. The flavor combination of salty rich sheep's milk cheese and spicy pepper was great with tonnarelli, yes, but what about cauliflower done the cacio e pepe way, roasted and tossed with cheese and a hit of black pepper?! Or cacio e pepe mashed potato pancakes?! What about cacio e pepe muffins, bread, or rolls?! In the end, after much careful deliberation, the last of the Pecorino was added to biscuit dough along with a generous amount of black pepper -- and my oh my the results were splendid, a meeting of Rome and the American South. These biscuits are cheese-y and spicy and addictive, flaky and gloriously tall and proud, utterly perfect eaten warm out of the oven. They are a welcome addition at brunch -- serve these and you'll be everyone's hero -- delicious as a vehicle for a fried or scrambled egg, or a superb accompaniment to the aforementioned soup or stew. Bonus: they come together in a matter of minutes -- really, I've never encountered an easier biscuit recipe -- and if you can stir together ingredients in a bowl, you can make these.
Notes: You'll note that there is no butter in this recipe (many biscuit recipes will have you cutting in bits of butter, kind of like you do when you make a pastry crust). The heavy cream provides the richness and dairy factor you need, and is a lot quicker. I used a medium grate for the Pecorino cheese that goes into the biscuit dough, and a large grate for the Pecorino used to garnish the top of the biscuits. If you want your biscuits extra spicy, feel free to add more black pepper. I find that the bottoms of these can burn easily (or this could just be my shoddy oven in my not-so-fancy Roman apartment kitchen). If you see the bottoms are set by the rest of the biscuits still have a ways to go, put another baking sheet under the first one and move the oven rack up one. These are best eaten the day they're made.
Looking for more biscuit-y recipes? Check out this Cherry Tomato Cobbler, this Plum Cobbler with Cinnamon Biscuits, these Chocolate Strawberry Shortcakes, these Raspberry Blueberry Shortcakes, and these savory Tomato, Basil, and Goat Cheese Shortcakes.
CACIO E PEPE BISCUITS
2 cups (260 grams) flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 teaspoons (about 14.5 grams) baking powder
1 1/3 cups (145 grams) Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated
1/2 heaping teaspoon freshly ground black pepper plus a few grinds
1 1/2 cups (360 grams) + 2 tablespoons heavy cream if necessary
3 or so tablespoons of cream for the top of the biscuits
Extra black pepper and Pecorino for garnish
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add 1 1/2 cups cream, cheese, and the pepper. Use a large wooden spoon to mix the ingredients together until a dough just starts to form. If the dough seems a little dry, add 1 tablespoon of cream and then the second if it still seems dry (sometimes after the addition of the cheese I find this is necessary). Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface and knead just until the dough comes together, adding some more flour if the dough seems too wet. Pat the dough out to a 1/2 inch thickness, then using a 2-inch round cookie cutter (or an empty Nutella jar, which is what I use!) cut out 12 or so biscuits, gathering and re-rolling the scraps as necessary.
Brush the tops of the biscuits with the additional cream, sprinkle with extra cheese and pepper, and place on a lightly greased baking sheet -- you'll probably have to bake these in two batches. Bake the biscuits in a 400 degree oven for about 12-15 minutes, or until the biscuits are puffed, golden, and your kitchen smells great. Enjoy warm. Makes 12 or so biscuits, which are best eaten on the first day.