Generally speaking, I have a fear of baking. Call it performance anxiety; I do have a cadre of gorgeous goddesses of pastry that often supply me with delicate shortbreads, rich cakes and other confections to last me three lives. They make the goods, I happily eat them. I'm like those feeder fish that hang out with the sharks. "Don't mind me," I say, my mouth full of Valrhona chocolate brownies. "I'm just along for this delicious ride. [munch munch munch] Are those almond croissants?"
Like any self-centered person, I tend to avoid things that make me look bad. Hence, the baking fear. The last batch of brownies I made were absolute poo. But biscuits and I have always had a way with each other. Biscuits understand my impatience and temperamental nature. They are the easy-going yin to my anxiety-drenched yang. Biscuits don't ask me to leave them alone for an hour or three to do it's thing because it's ready now. Put me in the oven, damn it. Let's get this show on the road.
Feta biscuits are at once simple and intriguing for the fact that you not only get to sink your teeth into the butter-based dough, but also taste the sharp white cheese.
Technically speaking, one (especially me) isn't supposed to stray too much from a recipe. But after making two batches of the feta (I was that excited), I was compelled as though I had had three shots of whiskey. Emboldened with golden success, I opted to carve my own path. This path happened to be lined with fresh dill. The week I was the biscuit-researcher I had a full bunch I got for $2 at the Farmers' Market. The scent was softer than other dill I had encountered. The fronds, as delicate as feathers. Maybe it was Ranui Garden's soil. Maybe it was that I had simply lucked out. But that intuitive voice (the same on that told me to buy the blouse I didn't need) told me Feta. Dill. Duh.
These days, feta is as ubiquitous as overpriced blocks of Gruyère with many degrees of quality. I'm pretty laid back with what you use, but this is going to be one of the rare instances where I implore you to use GOOD FETA. Not decent. Not dried out. GOOD FETA. What makes it good? First, it helps if you can score the real stuff -- Greek Feta. Middle Eastern markets tend to have some variety. Obviously, do do Greek markets. Specialty markets that bother to get good feta are worth the money in my book.
Dodoni is a good brand I can get my hands on. Exceptionally creamy without wimping out on flavor. It isn't funk. It's just character. A bit of sharp. A bit of sass. Unapologetically sitting thick in its brine. It is a peasant's cheese made from sheep's and cow's milk that's as noble as any heady alpine wedge. These peasants had better taste than the cheesemonger at most markets I've been to. The point is, it's a simple, to the point cheese. Simplicity is its beauty and virtue. And everything about this recipe honors this ancient tradition.
To my British friends, the name is a bit of a misnomer. I suppose these would be equal to savory scones. However you refer to these, the technique is more or less the same. Cold ingredients work well. But there's no need to get the butter ice cold. If you do, you end up with a dry dough that isn't as fluffy as one that's scary with its stickiness. The less you do to it, the better off you and the biscuit will be. For summertime, I suggest baking these in the morning or at night when temperatures are more forgiving. They require only 20 minutes of oven heat. They're gorgeous served alongside tomato soups, hot and cold, corn chowder and salads.
2 cups all-purpose flour * 3 teaspoons baking powder * 1 teaspoon kosher salt * 1 teaspoon sugar * 1/4 cup finely chopped dill (parsley, oregano and marjoram are also good) * 1 1/2 tightly packed cups of crumbled feta (obviously it won't be crumbled when you pack it in, but you get my point) * 6 tablespoons cold butter * 3/4 buttermilk OR milk * 1 egg yolk beaten with a bit of water
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In the summer, I work with a food processor to make the dough. If you have cold hands or it's winter, you can opt for the pastry cutter.
Into the food processor bowl add the dry ingredients and pulse to combine them. Add the dill, feta and butter to the bowl. Drizzle in the buttermilk or milk while pulsing the food processor. The point is to avoid overworking the dough. The dry mix will go from powdery, to cornmeal-y and eventually to the point where it gathers into a ball. Err on the side of wetness with this dough. If it looks dry, add a bit more moisture.
Onto a floured surface (clean counter, marble slab, or any flat plane covered with parchment paper), dump out the dough. Sprinkle the top of the dough with more flour and gently press down with the palms of your hands into about a 1 inch thickness. Do this quickly since hands give off heat. Of course there's the rolling pin for the proficient.
Using a biscuit cutter, or, in my case, a shot glass with a 1 1/2-inch diameter (see photo above), cut out biscuits and place each onto a baking sheet lined with foil. I like to have the edges touching so that as they bake, they puff into siamese siblings that have to be gently pulled apart by your own two hands or with someone else. You should be able to get at least one dozen biscuits from the dough. If you're resourceful like me, compulsively re-mending the straggling bits of dough onto it itself or were crafty to enough to roll it out into a rectangle, you might get as many as 16. Those stragglers, by the way, are good baked. Simply put them together (no need to knead them together) like a puzzle on the same baking sheet and bake with the actual batch. Cook's treat, I call it. Good cocktail crackers, too.
Brush the tops of the cut dough with the egg yolk beaten with water (the egg wash). Place into the oven and bake fro 15 to 20 minutes or until golden blonde. Serve warm, room temperature or even from the freezer after a 10 minutes reheat in a 350 degree oven. I like to make a dozen, serving six and saving six for some other time when I can't trump my laziness.