We're asking chefs, cookbook authors, and restaurateurs for the recipes that've defined their careers or their food philosophies. Today, George Weld tells the personal history behind his restaurant Egg's country ham biscuit.
Once or twice a summer, my mother would announce that she was off to steal figs. She’d head out the door barefoot with a plastic colander or a paper bag in hand, leaving us to play with the hermit crabs we’d kidnapped from the North Carolina beach. I never understood why she was so cavalier about risking her otherwise well-guarded virtue for the sake of a fruit I couldn’t even stand to eat.
But years later when I was putting together the pieces of what would become Egg’s country ham biscuit, and I was looking for something darkly sweet to balance the sharp funk of country ham and aged cheddar, my memories of my mother’s raids on the Sprunts’ and Noells’ fig bushes came rushing back to me in a kind of inverted Proustian revelation. I’d hated the figs then, but now… figs would be perfect.
The sandwich was already densely layered with nostalgia—overdetermined, if that can be said of a sandwich. The biscuits aimed at a flavor I hadn’t tasted in decades but that felt as present to me as today’s lunch. I had a flavor in mind I’d tasted in my Grandmother’s kitchen, the taste of a scrap of dough that had fallen to me to play with, and which I worked and worked and ate proudly when it came out of the oven later, hard as zwieback but tasting of toasted flour, salt, and butter in a way that haunted me into adulthood.
Country ham was the flavor of childhood church potlucks, where my impossibly timid palate steered me past everything but fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and the ham—in slices, wedged into Parker House rolls, cut up and skewered with toothpicks. The chicken and macaroni and cheese I would eat sitting down, as I was supposed to do. But even after we'd been excused to go chase fireflies in the church yard or we’d snuck into the basement to tell ghost stories or practice card tricks, I'd keep running back to the parish hall to stuff country ham rolls in my mouth.
Grafton cheddar was the one gratuitous layer in my sandwich, added only because I loved the flavor of it. Like the ham, it had been developing flavors for many months in a dark room somewhere far from the city and, also like the ham, its flavors unfolded over time in your mouth as you ate it. It seemed a natural pairing. But eaten with the ham, it made for an exhaustingly salty meal.
And that’s where the fig came in. It softened the sandwich’s edges, saving the sandwich from itself—a fitting role for a mother to play in a recipe.
For the jam:
- 1 pound dried figs
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
- 1 1/2 teaspoons white sugar
For the biscuits and assembly:
- 3 1/4 cups (1 pound) pastry flour
- 2 cups (10 ounces) bleached all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 6 ounces cold butter, cut into small pieces
- 2 1/2 cups sour milk (add 2 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar 2 3/8 cups milk)
- 12 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces, plus 2 tablespoons (divided)
- 8 ounces country ham (prepared according to the producer's instructions); see headnote for substitutes
- Fig jam (recipe above)
- 1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
If you had to choose one nostalgia-inducing sandwich, which would it be? Tell us in the comments below!