I don't recall thinking biscuits came in any other form than large, crumbly, fluffy, and surprisingly flavorful. For as long as I can remember THESE were biscuits. In my family you might buy your BBQ from a local rib place, or pick up some KFC on lazy days, but biscuits were never canned and they were never purchased. Biscuits were MADE. And they were made our way - the Delta way.
Cathead biscuits aren't your everyday, petite and flaky, balls of dough. Cathead biscuits get their name simply enough: they're supposed to be the size of a cat's head. We're talking about BIG biscuits, y'all. Cathead biscuits aren't made delicately either. If you want to make a traditional cathead, you need lard and buttermilk and lots of it. And you bake them in a greased up cast iron skillet too. When they come out they're huge, and bumpy, and beautiful. You gently pry one out of the skillet, and you plunk it down on your plate, and you thank GOD you're being given the opportunity to devour something so sinful and delicious.
My great grandmother was the queen of the cathead. When she was raising my grandmother, and battling an abusive husband, she was also running her own restaurant, serving up cathead biscuits and sweet tea to the beat down and hungry in Cullman, Alabama. When she died, her funeral was held across the street from where her restaurant used to be. I think Sylvia wouldn't have had it any other way.
She passed this down to my grandmother, who passed it over to my grandfather. Papaw tightened her recipe and added his own flair to it. It wasn't a family reunion if he wasn't standing in the kitchen, whipping up some catheads, and fried eggs, and fried ham. He'd be drinking a cup of coffee as he worked tirelessly over the stove and oven, taking breaks just long enough to step outside and take a long draw off a Marlboro cigarette, before coming back in and completely his task.
Papaw passed away in 2005, a victim of a reckless driver and an accident that left him in a coma for a week before taking him home. I was just 19 and I think that was the moment I realized life is too, too short. The biscuits didn't die with Papaw though. My mother continued the tradition, and further tinkered with the recipe, until passing it on to me this year.
For the first time, a few months ago, my own daughter stood over the table cutting the shortening into the flour, and adding the buttermilk, and rolling the biscuits in her floured hands before dropping them into the skillet. A tear came to my eye and I remembered Sylvia's wrinkled fingers kneading the biscuits and drinking sweet tea. I remembered Papaw's beautiful baritone as he sang Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" to my grandmother while they hurried over breakfast for their four adult children, and their 12 grandchildren. And I remember helping my own mother make these biscuits, as just a child barely able to reach the dials on the oven.
I remembered all these things, and I smiled at my daughter, and I was so glad I was given the chance to be a Mom and pass our tradition down to her. Life isn't perfect, and it is too short, but it's a disasterous kind of beautiful that can't be denied, and shouldn't be missed.
So, here's to you, kind internet strangers, and your families, and your traditions. This is our Cathead Biscuit recipe. I hope it brings you the same joy it has brought my family for many, many years.
You will need:
2 cups of self-rising flour
1 cup of buttermilk
1 large dallop of lard or shortening (we use Crisco in our recipe)
1 large dallop of sour cream (you read that right)
1 medium cast iron skillet, pre-seasoned (or a medium sized casserole dish BUT IT'S NOT THE SAME)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
1. Pour your flour into a large mixing bowl, pushing it to the sides and leaving an indention in the center for the lard.
2. Add your lard or shortening to the flour by placing it in the center and working the shortening into the flour with either your hands, or a pastry blender. (We use a pastry blender.)
3. Once thoroughly mixed, create an indention in your mixture again, and this time add your 1 cup of buttermilk and your dallop of sour cream. Use a large, wooden spoon and blend the buttermilk and sour cream into the flour/shortening mix. You'll need to work it with some strength, as the blend will thicken very quickly. When ready it will look like a large, sticky ball all clumped together in the center.
5. Lay out wax paper and pour about a cup of flour over the paper. Grab your medium cast iron skillet and use shortening/lard to grease the edges and bottom. You'll want a thick layer of grease so don't pussyfoot around it. Just go for it and make it thick. Set this aside when finished.
6. Place your hands in the flour on the wax paper and create a layer of flour on your hands. Expect to get flour on your apron. Reach into the bowl and pull of a BIG chunk of batter. Roll it loosely in your hands until it is completely covered, but don't overdo it. Ideally you want your chunk to look bumpy and ugly. No smooth biscuits here, please.
7. Plop that sucker down against the side of your skillet, press with three fingers to make a slight indention. Move on to the next one.
8. Keep doing this until you're out of batter, or out of room in your skillet. Refrigerate any leftovers.
9. Place in your oven (which you should have set for 400 degrees), and set timer for 20 minutes. Now, this is a rough estimate. Truthfully, you'll need to just keep an eye on them. Take them out when they look a very light brown on top, and they've risen considerably. You want these biscuits to stay light. They can get really heavy if baked too long.
10. Take out of oven, pop them out, slather them with local honey, or preserves, and go to town. Beware though, you'll probably only be able to handle one. (If you did it right and made them big.)
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