“A man bred, born, and raised in the South must enjoy a plate of biscuits and gravy with regularity to be truly happy in life.”
— Beau Blake
“You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the biscuits and gravy out of the boy.”
— Tam Blake
Little did I know, in our wedding vows I should’ve said something like, “I promise to honor your love for biscuits and gravy. I promise to take your appetite for biscuits and gravy seriously. I promise to spend at least some amount of time in the learning of how to make biscuits and gravy at home, even though there are many other dishes that I personally would rather eat, because from this day onward I will take seriously the matters that interest you.”
I’m not sure when I first realized that Beau seriously loves biscuits and gravy, but I think it was after we’d tied the knot and it was too late to back out. It’s possible that Beau curbed his unnatural passion for biscuits and gravy during our courtship… but he definitely unleashed his love for savory breakfast dishes again after he had me captured for good.
I am quite confident I had never, ever eaten biscuits and gravy before we were married. Oh, sure, I knew biscuits and gravy were a thing… somewhere in the back of my mind… but they had never been on my family’s table and had never jumped out at me from a restaurant menu. When we married I didn’t even like sausage, and as far as I was concerned, biscuits were for topping with jelly and honey and other sweet things.
My, how far we’ve come. These days I enjoy a plateful of biscuits and gravy with some regularity… because my husband loves them, and because I like to “wear my hair just for him, and do the things that he likes to do.” All jest aside, Beau is a great eater who loves food and it makes me happy to fix food that will make him happy.
The thing is — and I’m sure many marriages run into this — most of the comfort foods he remembers from growing up were not in my vocabulary when we married. Even if you married a fella from down the road, you’d have the same trouble to some extent. (As in: “My mom made this all the time and I loved it.” “Well, my mom didn’t.”) But Beau is from the Deep South and I’m from the Frozen North! Most days we can barely understand what the other is saying! So I’ve really had my culinary work cut out for me with him. Gumbo? I’ve researched recipes but only made one true attempt. Red beans and rice? I’m getting pretty good, thanks to a gift from my mother-in-law: “River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine,” a cookbook which was put together by the Junior League of Baton Rouge and which, I might add, has earned itself a place in Tabasco’s “Community Cookbook Hall of Fame.” Armed with that little cookbook, I have in the course of our marriage so far applied myself to many Cajun and/or Southern pursuits which were previously foreign to me: shrimp and grits. Side meat. Boiled peanuts. Jambalaya. Barbecue. Banana pudding. Coconut cake. Pork chops and gravy. Tomato gravy.
I attempt to make these things at home because I like to experiment in the kitchen and because it pleases me to try to please him (thankfully he’s pretty easy to please)… but also because we don’t make it down to his Southland very often these days, and so he goes years sometimes without a morsel of the good cooking he was raised on. So I try, albeit clumsily, to fill that hole in his belly.
I started to notice not far into our marriage that without fail Beau ordered biscuits and gravy whenever we sat down at a restaurant that had ’em on the menu. Didn’t matter what else was on the menu or what time of day, he always ordered biscuits and gravy. I started to feel bad because it was clear he had to look elsewhere for a comfort I wasn’t fulfilling… so I finally decided to take off the sausage-hating badge I’d worn most of my life and apply myself to the greater good.
I have to say, it may have taken 13 years, but I think I’m pretty close to perfecting the (passable) plate of biscuits and gravy. Whipping up the aforementioned is not as easy as you think, folks. (And it’s not just because I’m overthinking it, Mom!) “Biscuits and gravy” is a deceptively simple title for a complex word problem. First there’s the roux for the gravy, which must be just so or you’ll end with a weird texture in the final result. Roux. Roux. Bow down, people! I mean, it’s a French word! (And one I had never heard until I was married.) How could one not approach a French cooking term without proper respect and trepidation?
… As for the biscuits? Well, they’re a world in and of themselves. Southerners take their biscuits seriously. One of my favorite biscuit illustrations comes from “The Gift of Southern Cooking” by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, another cookbook, another offering from my mother-in-law to aid me in this lifelong cooking crash-course I’ve signed myself up for. In it, Peacock writes, “One of the first stories that Miss Lewis told me was about a man from the North who traveled south to experience the delights of Southern cooking, buttermilk biscuits in particular. When he returned, his friends asked him, ‘How was everything? How were the biscuits?’
“‘I don’t know,’ he replied, sadly. ‘Every time someone would start to bring biscuits to the table, they’d stop and say, “I’m sorry but they’re not hot enough”… and they’d disappear.'”
Peacock continues, “This tale illustrates the pride, even fanaticism, with which Southern cooks regard traditional breads. In this chapter, you’ll find exemplary biscuit recipes — to be served hot, of course — and our versions of other essential Southern breads: yeast loaves and rolls, muffins, and a variety of cornbreads…”
(Me again, ol’ Northerner-pretending-to-be-a-Southerner.) Let me tell you, reader, for years I applied myself to the study of recipes for homemade Southern biscuits, hoping to find between the lines a trade secret or a magic wand. I turned out many dismal batches of biscuits along the way, and what’s worse, it got to be that I found the study of all those varying recipes to be somewhat overwhelming. Finally I decided to stick with — maybe even master through repetition — the biscuits recipe below, which my friend Tiff gave to me in the first year Beau and I were married. It’s a simple recipe, with no buttermilk in sight, and likely decidedly un-Southern… but Beau still believes these biscuits are pretty darn good under gravy.
Tiff’s Baking Powder Biscuits Recipe
Preheat the oven to 450°. In a large bowl, combine 2 c. flour, 2 T. sugar, 4 t. baking powder, 1/2 t. salt, and 1/2 t. cream of tartar. Stir with a fork (yes, I have perfected how few dishes I need to dirty in the making of these biscuits). In a separate dish, use the fork to combine 1 egg and 2/3 c. whole milk. Meantime, measure 1/2 c. shortening into the flour. Use a pastry blender to combine the shortening with the flour. When that’s done, pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture and stir with the fork until most of the dough is moist. Turn dough out onto a floured counter. Working quickly and being careful not to over-handle the dough, pat it out to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut out biscuits (I usually get 8 of them), place on ungreased baking sheet, and bake for 10-12 minutes.
Okay. The biscuits are done. This next part is important: THE GRAVY MUST BE READY TO SERVE WHEN THE BISCUITS COME OUT OF THE OVEN. Biscuits in the South are served hot (see above). So plan ahead! Be vigilant! Set a watchman! (Sorry, Harper Lee fans, couldn’t help myself there.)
(By the way, having lived waaay out in the hills, I can attest that many substitutions can be made in the biscuit recipe with varying degrees of success. You can substitute a spoonful of mayonnaise for the egg with delicious results. You can substitute cream OR water for the milk. You can omit the sugar. You can substitute butter for the shortening with WONDERFUL results.)
Now, onto the gravy.
P.S.: Sorry if this recipe reads like it could be expanded into a book titled “Biscuits and Gravy for Dummies.” I probably could write that book. Just know that you’re not the dummy; I am the dummy.
Sausage Gravy for Dummies Recipe
Start with a few tablespoons of sausage drippings in a skillet — the more drippings, the more gravy you’ll end up with. (After much trial and error, I have found that the most efficient way for me to obtain sausage drippings is like this: I bake sausage patties on a sheet pan in the oven, then drain the finished patties on paper towels while I add the pan drippings to a skillet on the stovetop. You know, I’ve had wins and losses with bulk sausage; I’ve even made the gravy using bacon drippings, which I thought was good but which my Southerner of a husband regarded with utter disdain. Feel free to experiment with your own drippings.) Anyhow… you’ve got the drippings in the skillet. Add an equal amount of flour to the drippings and whisk — you should end up with an Elmer’s-school-glue-like consistency. Cook this “roux” slowly over medium heat, stirring with a whisk and exercising utter patience. Tell yourself that good people will wait for good food. When the roux has reached a nice golden brown color and you’re sure you’ve cooked any rawness out of the flour, start adding milk… or water. (I always think it should be milk gravy, but truth be told, my oh-so-Southern mother-in-law uses just water with delicious results. Water-based gravy is not so overwhelmingly heavy as is milk gravy, and that’s something I can support. But still… my mind protests. Shouldn’t it be milk gravy? I conjure up images of the pepper-flecked white paste they serve over biscuits and chicken-fried steak in restaurants — which, mind you, is not what we’re making here. If that white paste is truly what you want, just buy a packet of gravy mix at the Piggly Wiggly, ya hear? But if you want real homemade gravy, just do what I do and use some of both water and milk. Now, back to the show…) Add liquid to the roux in slow increments, whisking to combine, waiting with patience and love for the gravy to come to a simmer. Let it simmer slow and long; if it gets too thick, just add more liquid. Wait with patience and love. Look out the window at the tall pines. Think about the Civil War. Whisk, smell. If you want, crumble a sausage patty into the gravy. Drink a glass of wine. Watch the hounds trying to dig out an armadillo. Whisk, taste. Study the clouds for indication of a hurricane sweeping through this year. Season gravy with lots of pepper, salt, seasoning salt, and cayenne. Whisk and smell. Practice patience and love. Put ice in the glasses for the sweet tea. Have a smoke. And ta-da! It’s ready to serve!
(Oh, sorry… for a minute there I was pretending to be Beau’s mom in Beau’s mom’s kitchen. Please understand that all good Southern things are worth the wait. This includes my husband, and definitely includes his mom’s cooking.)
So, now you know the biscuits and gravy recipe that works in my kitchen. These days our little family enjoys it once a month or so. And when I say “enjoy,” I mean that I eat it and I appreciate the flavor and I also appreciate that it’s life-sustaining. I usually have one biscuit with gravy and one with honey butter, and that’s enough for me. But when I say that Beau “enjoys” it… I mean that he piles his plate with a pyramid of biscuits and watches with anticipation as rivulets of gravy cascade down to the plate from the utmost biscuit in its crown position. Then he moans and groans with pleasure as he eats, and finally excuses himself to slide to the floor with a full belly and a look of utter contentment on his face.
Because it’s that good.
Or because he loves me that much.
Now, reader, I understand that you’re feeling over-challenged right now. Making good biscuits and gravy is harder than you ever dreamed it would be! After all, it took me many paragraphs to unravel the process for you. I know you’re not even considering that I’ve somehow overthought the project and/or made it harder than it should be. I know that you know that biscuits-and-gravy-making is real-life, real hard stuff. The good news is that I personally have gone through a lot of trial and error to present to you this fool-proof recipe. You’re welcome. Does that mean that you’ll perfect it the first time you try it? No, oh no; you must suffer and try and try again, like I have. If at first you don’t succeed, and I’m sure you won’t, understand that I have applied myself to these biscuits-and-gravy techniques for the larger part of my marriage. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re not a pro. In fact, I’ll feel better if you’re not a pro. Just be like me, a non-pro biscuits and gravy maker, whose loving effort is the seasoning that makes up for flopped biscuits and gritty gravy. Every time.
© Tami Blake