I’ve been thinking a lot recently about comfort food. The term often gets invoked in various, and even competing, contexts – so what, exactly, do we mean by the term?
I think it has to mean more than simply ‘something that I like, and thus brings me comfort’. This ‘favorite food’ definition not only leaves the term void of any collective meaning but also fails to understand what it is about certain foods that bring us comfort.
I asked folks over on my Instagram to give their definitions of comfort food. For some, there is a connotation that the food is heavy, warming and fat-filled. It is comforting in a physical sense that it cuts across what we’re told about ‘healthy eating’ and focuses primarily on satisfaction and comfort. In this way, comfort food complicates the narrative about what is ‘healthy food’ by recognizing that desire, comfort, and mental health can be met through food; it adds to a more holistic understanding of healthy and healthy eating than what is often given in Western contexts.
Another common thread for people was that comfort foods were ones which carried memories and moments of family, place, and belonging that invoked feelings of comfort. This helps us understand food in a relational context; it’s not just nostalgia but a reminder of connections that matter to us and make us feel safe and comfortable. Food has the ability to transport us to spaces which feel safe.
One of the foods which closely reminds me of my mother’s cooking and of growing up in her house is soup. She had an array of simple, homey, and delicious soups that were often requested by our family and others. And she would often have fresh baked bread, buns or biscuits to go with the soup.
For me, these cheddar biscuits feel like comfort food and they meet the loose guidelines I’ve mentioned above. And, despite not growing up with ras el hanout as a spice blend that my mom used, it also feels comforting. It has familiar spices in it like cinnamon and allspice, and when the spices are warmed in the oven while these biscuits bake, all the wonders and comforts of childhood are activated.
And, then you slice through the edges of the biscuit that are crispy from the baked cheddar, into the crumbly, warm center. You slather it with butter, hopefully enjoy it with a bowl of soup, and no matter what else is happening, in that moment, everything is warm, and cozy, and good. That’s the power of comfort food.
Ras El Hanout and Cheddar Buttermilk Biscuits
The original biscuit recipe that I use comes from my mother-in-law, I think. It's not the voluminous, layered version that's perfectly shaped in a circle (too much work!) but the deliciously simply and rusticly misshapen mounds of biscuity delight. They're simple to make, quick to bake in the over, and can be done while the soup warms up. Perfect for a weeknight dinner or lunch!
- 2 cups flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon ras el hanout
- 1/4 cup butter, cold
- 1 egg
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
Cut in the butter (if you don't have a pastry cutter, cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes and crumble into the flour mixture with your hands).
Mix together buttermilk and egg in a small bowl.
Combine wet ingredients with the dry ingredients, then mix in the grated cheddar cheese.
Place on a greased baking sheet. The dough will be sticky and you can loosely shape it into ten mounds.
Bake at 350° for 18 mins.
I rarely have buttermilk on hand so there are two easy workarounds if you find yourself in the same situation. One, you can add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to 1 cup of milk, stir, and give it a couple minutes to sit - the lemon juice will curdle the milk similar to buttermilk. I also now keep powdered buttermilk on hand to make small amounts I might need for baking - you can find it on Amazon or in local stores.