Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Mention "biscuits and gravy" to anyone who grew up in the South, and the popular breakfast staple will more than likely evoke fond childhood memories.
According to food lore, sawmill crews in Appalachian logging camps often survived on little more than coffee, biscuits and cream gravy—hence the popular term "sawmill gravy." The dish gained regional distinction after the Civil War when food was in short supply. Basic cream gravy consisted of meat drippings, flour and a little milk. If milk was hard to come by, many people made do with water.
Homesteaders made sure no food went to waste. This included the liquid left over after churning butter that quickly thickened and soured. Known as buttermilk, it made a great ingredient for baked goods, including biscuits.
It is so satisfying to open the oven door to reveal a pan of golden brown, fluffy buttermilk biscuits and watch that quick puff of steam rise as you pull one apart to lather on a healthy swipe of butter or jelly. Achieving such greatness is possible if you follow a few key steps.
Before getting started, be sure to check the expiration date on your dry ingredients; outdated elements will cause your biscuits to fall flat. Cold butter or shortening—your fat—is very important. As your biscuits bake, the cold fat in the dough turns to steam, creating moist, fluffy biscuits. You will need to "cut" your fat into your dry ingredients. This is the process of incorporating small pieces of fat throughout your dough. Slice your chilled butter or shortening into cubes first, add your cubes to your dry ingredients, then use a utensil such as a pastry cutter, fork or two knives to "cut" the fat to smaller pieces. Do not use your hands to do this, as the warmth from your hands will warm the fat. Once your fat is well incorporated, your mixture should have the consistency of peas. Add enough of the wet ingredients to allow the dough to come together. However, the dough should be somewhat sticky as wet dough also aids in the creation of steam.
If you can master biscuit making, then throwing together a creamy pan of gravy should be no problem. Drippings from a recently fried pan of breakfast sausage or bacon (Hey, I never said this was healthy) are preferred. It's even better when you include little bits of that bacon or sausage in your gravy. Be sure to keep an eye on the gravy and stir, stir, stir. Once you add your liquid, it will begin to thicken rapidly.
If you timed it right, your biscuits should be ready to come out of the oven just as you finish stirring the gravy. Pile a biscuit or two (or twelve) onto a plate, pour the hot gravy over top, and dig in.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter or shortening
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Cut butter into mixture until it resembles course crumbs. Add three-quarters cup of buttermilk, and stir until dough comes together and begins to leave the side of the bowl, adding additional milk if necessary.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface. Lightly knead 10 times. Roll or pat dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into disks using a 2 to 2-1/4- inch round cutter. Place on a greased cookie sheet about one inch apart.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm. Makes 12 biscuits.
White "Sawmill" Gravy
3 tablespoons shortening or drippings
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat shortening in a skillet over medium high heat. Add flour, one tablespoon at a time, whisking between each addition to combine with shortening and remove lumps. Reduce heat to medium. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly, until mixture begins to thicken to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve hot. Makes about two cups of gravy.