If classic Southern buttermilk biscuits are country music, cathead biscuits are the blues. Not Hank Williams, but Howlin’ Wolf. Not Sunday go-to-meeting food, but the manna of hardworking folks using whatever they can lay their hands on to fill the belly.
Cathead biscuits are a feature of the Mississippi Delta. The name comes, apparently, from the size of these biscuits – the size of a cat’s head – and that they are often misshapen and rough. You’ll find them in soul food joints and meat-and-three restaurants, places where the waitress calls you hon’, and you’re glad you’re can’t see into the kitchen. The places you are drawn to by the smell of frying chicken, and leave saturated with that smell yourself. Catheads are not precious, but big and raggedy. Not passed in a napkin-lined basket, but dropped on the table on a big plate. Maybe served with rich, creamy, sausage-flecked gravy. A meal for a champion eater. Or maybe they come with eggs fried in bacon grease, the crispy strips of smoky bacon and a side of grits. Or later in the day with fried chicken, greens and field peas.
The recipe for these is different from my classic buttermilk biscuits only in the use of lard, and the method is the same. All lard, and whole buttermilk if you please. This makes them rich and flaky and full of flavor. Lard is really the classic fat in biscuits, but shortening and butter have largely replaced it. But you’ve got to eat a real lard biscuit at least once. You may never go back again. I luckily find fantastic delicious lard from a local pork farmer and suggest you be on the lookout locally as well, but it is readily available in the grocery baking aisle. Check out my biscuit primer for some detailed advice on making biscuits.
Makes about 12 biscuits
4 cups flour all-purpose soft wheat flour (I use White Lily)
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup cold lard
1 to 1-1/2 cups cold well-shaken buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Line a baking pan (about 13-x-9 inches with 1-inch sides) with parchment paper or grease it well with shortening.
Measure out the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl that gives you lots of room to work. Mix gently with a fork to combine and aerate the flour.
Cut the lard into pieces and sprinkle over the top of the flour mixture. Use the fork to toss the cubes lightly in the flour to coat. Then dip your clean fingers into some flour and mix everything together, squishing and rubbing the mixture together to combine the fats and the flour. Don’t spend too long doing this, gentle handling is the key to a tender biscuit. It’s okay if there are some visible bits of lard left. When you pinch a bit of flour between your fingers, from anywhere in the bowl, it should stick together.
Measure out the shaken buttermilk, then pour about 3/4 cup of it over the mixture. Use the fork to fold the buttermilk into the dough, carefully incorporating the liquid. Keep adding the buttermilk a bit at a time until you have a cohesive dough. You may not need all the buttermilk. Again, you don’t want to work the dough too much, but don’t leave much loose, dry flour in the bottom of the bowl. You can use your hands to get that last bit of dry flour into the dough.
Lightly flour a work surface. You do want to use a light hand to flour the surface, because too much will leave an unpleasant floury coating on the biscuits. Sprinkling flour through a wire sieve is a great way to do this.
Turn the dough out onto the surface, and turn it over on itself once or twice to bring the dough together. I do not say knead, because you don’t want to work the dough that hard. Press the dough into a rectangle about 1/2 inch thick. Just press it out lightly with your hands to an even thickness.
Cut the biscuits with a large round cutter or the ring of a quart mason jar, always cutting as close to the edge of the dough and as close together as possible to get as many biscuits as possible. Don’t be too precious about this, these babies are meant to be rough-and-ready. Just press the cutter down and pull back up; don’t twist or the sides won’t rise up as nice. Gently pull the dough scraps together, pat out and cut a few more biscuits.
Place the biscuits very close together on the prepared pan, just touching each other. This helps them rise while cooking. Brush the tops with a little buttermilk. What’s clinging to the sides of the measuring cup should be enough.
Bake the biscuits in the hot oven for 8 or 9 minutes. Watch the biscuits carefully so they do not over-brown.
Eat your biscuits now. But if you have a few leftovers, wrap them in foil and reheat them gently.
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