Recently I visited my family in Spokane, WA and while I was there, I especially wanted to pamper my mom. Being the kind and loving daughter that I am, I offered to make a scrumptious breakfast for her, and suggested gingerbread pancakes with poached pears (a recipe I’ve been itching to make for over a year now). She said it sounded good, but wanted to think about it for a couple days. A few days later, I asked her again, “So, Mom. What would you like for breakfast tomorrow? Gingerbread pancakes? Huh? Huh? You know you want it!” Mom just got this guilty expression on her face, looked up at me, and said, “How about biscuits and gravy? Please?”
Biscuits. And gravy. Please. No.
Backstory: When I about 13, my mom enrolled me in some community school summer cooking class. I remember it was one of those short classes – 10am to noon for two Saturdays in a row or something like that. I was excited for it because it was held at the local junior high, and I was entering junior high in just a few short months. I could scope everything out! Figure out the lay of the land! Know my way around the buildings and find my classrooms without having to stress out on the first day of school! Yesss!
I hadn’t really thought much about the cooking aspect, as cooking really didn’t interest me at that time, but I figured I might learn something.
The first day of class, we learned how to make biscuits. I don’t remember much about that class, other than the fact that I spent every bathroom break walking the dark hallways, trying to memorize the different wings of the building, peeking into quiet classrooms, and wondering which locker would be mine.
Somehow, despite my short attention span and lack of interest in the task at hand, I left with a plate of warm biscuits. Handmade by me. My attitude was entirely lackadaisical – “Eh. Biscuits. Neat. I guess?”
Mom picked me up at the school, I showed her the biscuits, she said something along the lines of, “Really? Biscuits? I've never been able to make good biscuits.” I scoffed at her (in typical pre-teen fashion) assuming she was just saying that in an effort to “connect” with me (as most parents of difficult, self-absorbed pre-teens do), and we headed for home.
Halfway there, I asked, “Hey. Can we stop by Dad’s office? Maybe he’ll want to try these.” We made a quick U-turn and within 10 minutes we were pulling up to the square, brown brick building Dad spent most of his time in during the week.
I pranced in, past his secretary and into the back where he sat at his large walnut desk, and presented him with my plate of biscuits. “Look what I made today, Dad!”, I shouted. He looked up at me and smiled, then looked down at my plate of biscuits. His eyes lit up. His nose twitched. Drool started to pool at the corners of his mouth. His hand shot out in utter greed as he grabbed a still-warm biscuit from the top of the pile.
“Mmm,” he said through a mouthful of dough, “Your mom never makes biscuits.”
I looked at Mom, surprised. She shrugged as if to say, “See? Told ya.”
“Oooh!” Dad exclaimed after the first bite, “I know what would be perfect with this!” And with that, he got up from his office chair, went into the break room next door, and rummaged around in the refrigerator. He came back carrying a jar of strawberry jam.
“Yes,” he said, as he smeared big red globs of seedy jam across the remaining biscuit half, “yesssss.”
Well, needless to say, I left the plate of biscuits there for him to devour. The next morning, dad asked me, “Say. Do you know how to make sausage gravy?”
“No, dad. I don’t really know how to make anything,” I said.
“Oh, that’s not true! You know how to make biscuits! And I bet those biscuits would be soooo good with some gravy to go with them!”
So, Mom found a gravy recipe and made the gravy that morning while I made the biscuits.
And that was the birth of what ended up being a long, long string of biscuit breakfasts. From that summer Sunday morning when I was 13, all the way up until I left home to go to college, I probably averaged making biscuits and gravy roughly 3 times a month. Saturday or Sunday mornings were Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy mornings, and it seemed like every stinkin’ weekend Dad would ask me to make them.
It got to the point where I hated, and I mean HATED, biscuits and gravy. I hated kneading the dough, frying the sausage. The smell of the meal made my stomach turn and the taste even more so. Moving away from home was liberating…not because I was leaving the nest, but because I had finally broken free of slaving over the oven and stove every weekend, making a meal that I couldn’t seem to escape. Yet even after I moved out on my own, Dad ask me to make biscuits and gravy every time I came home for holidays or visits. Usually I’d protest a bit, but eventually concede and venture into the kitchen in search of the pastry cutter, complaining under my breath.
I can’t quite recall the last time I made biscuits and gravy for Dad, though I’m pretty sure we both knew it would be the last. Dad had become paralyzed and used a motorized wheelchair at that point, and I had moved back home to help care for him. He probably asked me to make biscuits and gravy, and I probably did, grudgingly. I probably knew I’d never make them for him again, as his health was rapidly deteriorating and he wasn’t in the mood to eat much anymore. I probably fed it to him myself, since he had limited use of his hands, and I probably wiped gravy off his chin. I probably cried in the kitchen afterwards as I was cleaning up, and I probably didn’t let him see my tears.
I hadn’t made biscuits and gravy since then (at least 8 years ago), until Mom requested them with just a hint of (totally warranted) apprehension in her voice. At first, I winced. Biscuits. And gravy. Nooooo!!! But then I thought….maybe, just maybe…I might enjoy it.
So here you go, dear readers. Biscuits and gravy. In memory of my father and all those years of biscuit breakfasts. I love you, Dad.
The first key to making good biscuits is to use a 50 year old cookbook:
This Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook belonged to my maternal grandmother, Marian. I never met her (she died when my mom was 17), but I’ve been told by many people that her and I are a LOT alike in the way we look, act, dress, etc., so using her cookbook always give me warm fuzzies.
The copyright is 1956. My mom inherited the cookbook in 1971 and has been using it since. I’ve been using it for approximately 15 years. It’s been a staple in our kitchen for forever. Only recently did I take the time to flip through some of the front pages of the book:
Can you get any more 50’s than this? “Domesticity is pleasing and cheery and restful! Cook and clean with a SMILE on your face!”
Hey! The Terrace Kitchen offers every known home-type convenience! Neat-o, Daddy-o!
I didn’t get a shot of it, but there’s another page that offers tips and advice, and one thing they suggest, I kid you not – “If you start to feel tired or overwhelmed, take a few moments and lie down on the floor with your arms above your head. Close your eyes and breathe deeply in and out for 5 minutes, then return to your housework.” Above this blurb is a picture of a woman in a dress, heels, and an apron, lying on the kitchen floor with her arms above her head, smiling. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Anyway, I didn’t spend too much time reading that junk, because I had biscuits to make. It seems as though the cookbook naturally falls open to page 83. Which is unsurprising, because it’s been opened to page 83 dozens and dozens of times over the years.
You can see little bits of crusty dried biscuit dough, splatters of shortening, and all other sorts of nameless grease and grunge smeared across the pages:
The biscuit recipe is pretty straightforward. What’s more, this cookbook offers several variations on the standard recipe. I typically made Southern biscuits or buttermilk biscuits growing up, and the last time I made them, I opted for the buttermilk.
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 450°.
Step 2: Sift together 2 cups flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, and ¼ tsp. baking soda.
Step 3: Cut in ¼ cup shortening.
When I was 16, I finally went out and bought a pastry cutter so I didn’t have to use a fork to cut in the shortening. Using it for the first time, I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight. Cutting in shortening had never been so easy! I left the stupid thing at home when I moved away, because I didn’t plan on doing much cooking, and certainly not any biscuits! I rummaged around my mom’s kitchen looking for it, but couldn’t find it, so I used a fork instead.
Step 4: Slowly stir in ¾ cup buttermilk.
Step 5: Look around for the rolling pin and cutting board to prepare for kneading and rolling out the dough.
Step 6: Find the blasted pastry cutter while searching for the rolling pin. Shake your fist and curse at it. Stupid pastry cutter!
Step 7: Work the dough into a big ol’ doughball.
Now is a good time to get the gravy started. It needs some time to thicken up, and when I was young, it took me several trial breakfasts to figure out the timing. I learned that if I start frying the sausage and let that cook while I’m rolling out the biscuit dough, stirring occasionally, it works out just perfect. I add the liquid as the biscuits go into the oven, and that gives the gravy about 10 minutes to bubble and thicken.
Step 8: Add about a ½ to 1 pound of sausage to a skillet over medium high heat.
Step 9: Season as desired. I usually add some pepper, garlic powder, and minced onion. A dash of cayenne or red chili flakes would be good too, but Mom has a sensitive stomach so I left the hotness out.
Step 10: Get out your rolling pin.
This is the rolling pin we use at my mom’s house. It’s older than the cookbook, and also belonged to my grandma Marian. As long as I can remember, it’s been missing a handle. I’m pretty sure Mom has never owned another rolling pin in her life. She admits that she should just go buy a new one, but I doubt she ever will.
Behold: The wear and tear of 1,000 biscuit breakfasts and just as many batches of cookies:
Step 11: Roll out the doughball to about ½ an inch thick.
Step 13: Continue cutting up the dough into biscuit shapes. Lightly knead together the scraps, roll it out again, and cut up more. At the very end, you’ll have a small little doughball that you can shape into a tiny mini biscuit. If you have a dad and brother like mine, they will fight/bet/sham/rock-paper-scissors/have a contest over who gets the mini biscuit. Every time. It's the coveted extra bonus biscuit.
This is what my mini biscuit looked like this time around:
Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit, it does!!
Step 15: Pop them in the oven and set the timer to 10ish minutes.
Step 16: Bring your attention back to the gravy. The sausage should be browned. If you lowered the heat while you rolled out the biscuits, be sure to set it back to medium high (I’ve made this mistake more than once). Add the liquid to the pan. (4-5 cups of milk with 6 or 7 tablespoons of flour whisked in.)
Step 18: Remove biscuits from the oven.
Step 20: Slice open a biscuit or two, smother them with gravy, and serve the whole mess to your mom with some sliced fresh cantaloupe and pears on the side (even though the out-of-season cantaloupe costs about 7 dollars, but that doesn’t matter because it’s her favorite and it’s her special day).
This one’s for you, Dad.