Wrap your hand around a cheese biscuit

Love a hot biscuit? Wrap your hand around these local wonders

aweigl@newsobserver.comNovember 6, 2012 

  • Where to eat cheese biscuits? Food writer Andrea Weigl can vouch for the cheese biscuits at Abrams restaurant in Tarboro and the Sunoco Gas Station on Pitt Street in Grimesland. (The “Welcome to Grimesland” sign is next to the gas station.) Abrams also has locations in Pinetops, Scotland Neck, Greenville and soon-to-be in Ahoskie. For more information, go to abramsweb.com. Several folks interviewed claim the Wilco Hess (also known as Trade Mart) at 210 W. 10th St. in Greenville serves excellent cheese biscuits. They stop serving cheese biscuits at 10 a.m. There’s a long discussion on the Chowhound website about the best places to get cheese biscuits from Wilson to Washington, N.C.: goo.gl/M74Pz. Tell us where you like to eat cheese biscuits at blogs.newsobserver.com/Mouthful.
  • What is hoop cheese? Hoop cheese is a high-moisture cheese made from curds that is salted and “hooped,” or placed into a round mold. The cheese is not aged due to its high moisture content. Hoop cheese typically has starter culture, so it will get pretty sour unless a sufficient amount of salt is added or enough moisture pressed out. N.C. State University food science professor MaryAnne Drake describes it as an American queso fresco but more sour. Hoop cheese can be purchased at local Whole Foods stores or online at Ashe County Cheese ( ashecountycheese.com) at $6.50 a pound.
  • Cheese Biscuits This produces a tender biscuit oozing with cheese, not the flaky roll-like biscuit served at Abrams, but it is still delicious. You may have extra dough and can bake a batch of small biscuits for later if desired. Adapted from Gerald Abrams’ instructions and a recipe that appeared in “Old Carolina Tobacco Country Cookbook: From the Great Depression to World War II,” by Arlene Crisp Aaseby (1985). 2 cups self-rising flour, and more for dusting 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon powdered sugar 1/2 cup vegetable shortening or lard 3/4 cup buttermilk 3 cups shredded hoop cheese or sharp cheddar cheese 4 tablespoons melted butter SIFT flour, baking soda and powdered sugar into a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center for shortening. Mix flour and shortening together with your fingers or a pastry cutter, until crumbs are size of peas. Add half the buttermilk. Mix well. Add rest of buttermilk and mix well. Keep working the flour and knead it a little to make a dough that comes together. Spread out onto lightly floured counter to between 1/2-inch and 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out 2-inch circles. DUST shredded cheese lightly with flour. Take a handful and form a 1 1/2-inch ball. Wrap dough circles around the cheese ball, sealing the edges with extra patches of dough if needed. Place sealed edge down on a rimmed cookie sheet. Place biscuits about 1/4 inch apart. Brush outside with melted butter. Bake in a 450 degree oven for about 20 to 25 minutes until nicely brown and cheese is melted. Brush again with melted butter when removed from oven. Serve hot. Yield: 6 cheese biscuits

The best way to explain an Eastern North Carolina cheese biscuit is first to explain what it is not.

It is not a biscuit with shredded cheese worked into the dough, like those served at Red Lobster. It is not a biscuit cut in half and glued together with a slice of melted cheese, like the Cheddar Bo served at Bojangles’, mainly east of Interstate 95 in North Carolina and southeastern Virginia.

You have to eat one before you can wrap your mind around what it is: a biscuit with a hunk of hoop cheese baked in the center.

The crisp outer shell of the biscuits at Abrams restaurant in Tarboro is more remniscent of dinner rolls than tender breakfast biscuits. While the greasy cheese filling turns some folks off, it leaves fans plotting how to get their next fix.

Whenever Melissa Pitt of Tarboro is near Abrams, she says, “I have to come by here.” Sitting in the drive-thru line, she explains why: “The cheese – I don’t know – it’s unbelievable.”

For a four-star cheese biscuit encounter, you have to live east of I-95 or make the early morning drive to Tarboro, Wilson or Grimesland. You want to go to a mom and pop restaurant like Abrams or Peaden’s Grill in Greenville or gas station grills for a fresh batch. Cheese biscuits are ethereal things. Leftover biscuits wrapped in foil and left under the warming lights do not compare to the flaky, gooey delight of one fresh from the oven.

“The thing with hoop cheese – once it does cool down, it becomes tough,” explains Wendy Brady, manager at Abrams.

Owner Gerald Abrams claims to have been the first to take the cheese biscuit out of the home kitchen and onto the restaurant buffet. His to-go containers proudly proclaim “Home of the Original Cheese Biscuit.”

Here’s how the cheese biscuits ended up on Abrams’ menu: He opened his first restaurant in Tarboro in 1974. One Friday in 1978, Abrams added his mother’s cheese biscuits to the breakfast offerings. Word spread fast. “The following Saturday, we couldn’t keep up,” he says. He now sells them at four other locations and plans to put them on the menu when he opens a sixth in Ahoskie by year’s end.

Baker Chaquanta Poole starts at 4:30 a.m. to have biscuits ready to go when the Tarboro restaurant opens at 6. By 7 a.m., about 100 cheese biscuits will have gone out the door. On the busiest days – Saturdays and the first of the month – they will sell 700 biscuits, each for $1.99. Brady says customers will wait 20 minutes without complaint for a fresh cheese biscuit.

At least one competitor takes issue with Abrams’ claim to have been the first to sell them.

“That’s a bunch of bull,” says Linda Brewer, owner of Flo’s Kitchen in Wilson. She opened the restaurant with her mother, Florence Williams, in the late 1980s. Brewer says her mom made cheese biscuits at other country cooking restaurants around Wilson as far back as the late 1970s.

No matter which restaurant served them first, everyone agrees that they migrated from the home kitchen.

“I think all grandmas made them,” Brady says. “My grandma made them.”

They seem to be peculiar to a corridor in Eastern North Carolina, east of I-95 and between highways 64 and 264 in towns like Washington, Leggett and Rocky Mount. Several Southern cookbook authors and food historians, including Nathalie Dupree, who wrote a cookbook devoted to Southern biscuits last year, have never heard of them.

A visit to the Tarboro public library turned up just two cheese-biscuit recipes in community cookbooks, including one from “Cille’s Table: Selected Recipes of Lucille Joyner Sexton,” published in 1999. That book was compiled by Ellen Weiner of Greensboro, who wanted to get her mother’s recipes into print. Weiner, who grew up in Tarboro, recalls eating the biscuits since at least 1960.

“All through my childhood, mother made those biscuits,” Weiner says.

Similar memories could be heard on a recent morning among Abrams’ customers. Christine Crisp, Norma Armstrong, Dot Dawson and Jacquie Rhodes meet every Thursday for breakfast and the free coffee the restaurant offers senior citizens.

“This morning, it is absolutely delicious,” says Crisp, who remembers her mom making the biscuits but prefers Abrams’. “I like a good brown biscuit.”

At least in Tarboro, the women agree, there’s only one place to go for a cheese biscuit.

“You say Abrams,” Armstrong says, “and you think cheese biscuit.”

To see a printable version of the recipe, click on the name below:

Cheese Biscuits

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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