Life starts to feel complete once you've slept in a caboose. My wanderlust has reached a high pitch lately, with dreams of European travel coming, unbidden, at all hours. Since that's not happening soon, given the tots in our house, my husband instead planned a quick mountain getaway recently.
That was all I knew--until I drove up, under his direction, to a sign for "Grassy Creek Cabooses." We were somewhat in the middle of nowhere, off the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Mt. Airy, and sure enough, overlooking rolling meadows and lolling cows, were plunked three tomato-red cabooses, just waiting for me to sleep off the stress of Chapel Hill life.
The cabooses came complete with their own back decks sporting lovely rockers. Pouring rain kept us from finding out how comfortable they were, though, so off we went to find a town with a decent cup of coffee and some Southern hospitality.
The hospitality, we found. The coffee, not so much. And when it came to the food ... well, it reminded me of how easy it is to over-romanticize country cooking.
This was especially true of breakfast. When I go on trips like this, I want heartier food first thing than I usually eat. Nothing fancy, but still cooked with care--I want the Southern-grandmother food about which so many writers love to rhapsodize.
No breakfast dish, it seems to me, can break your heart more than biscuits and gravy. How so many people can take so few ingredients and make such a mess of them remains beyond me, but I can't recall the last time I ate this with pleasure unless I made it myself--certainly not on this trip.
And the problem is, I don't want to make it myself. When I make it, I have to see just how terrible it is for me (after all, it starts with sausage, with a sausage-grease roux interlude, and ends with milk, possibly butter, and more sausage), and I can't eat without guilt--as is possible during travel. But after this trip, I'm sticking to eggs and pancakes when I go out.
Half the battle is finding decent biscuits, of course. Again, how hard is this? For a place that makes them day in and day out, it shouldn't take long to acquire a biscuit hand and make decent ones. I often make cream biscuits (just flour, baking powder, salt and cream), but for this dish, only flaky, rich buttermilk ones will do. Although there's a bit of flour to clean up afterward, these truly do take hardly any more time than popping open one of those scary cans of "biscuits." But even easier should be the gravy. So simple, but what too often comes out is thick, gloppy, floury, underseasoned goop on top of a cold biscuit. In truth, what biscuits and gravy demand just can't be done well, I think, in the constraints of a diner-style breakfast: that is, fresh, steaming-hot biscuits and made-on-the-spot gravy with well-spiced sausage and a roux lovingly and carefully cooked to rich gold.
So, at home, once in a great while, I make a fresh batch of biscuits and gravy, squeezing my eyes shut when the grease hits the pan. And there are so many ways to experiment even with this most basic recipe (which should never get too high-falutin'). Try substituting cider for some of the milk, or adding a bit of herbs, a dash of Tabasco or another hot sauce, some chopped onion (cooked with the sausage) or a dash of spice (next on my list is smoked paprika, with which I remain infatuated, and some smoked kosher salt).
But it wasn't until I started searching my classic Southern cookbooks for gravy inspiration that I came across possibly the greatest gravy invention ever: chocolate gravy. How did I ever miss this before? Not for the faint of heart, a breakfast of biscuits and chocolate gravy, but neither is sausage gravy, so if it's gravy you desire, why feel guilty? Pair it with some fresh fruit (strawberries, bananas, kiwi, blueberries) to reclaim some virtue.
Originally from the Ozarks and the hills of Mississippi, this is fine stuff, though a bit simple for my taste. I added a touch of coffee and vanilla to make it slightly more complex but without gussying it up too far. Now I just need a morning to myself in which to eat a biscuit covered with sausage gravy, with an over-easy egg on the side, followed by a dessert breakfast biscuit with chocolate gravy--something no one else should have to witness!
Cook's notes: These biscuits need three things: bleached, all-purpose Southern flour (that is, a low-protein flour such as White Lily); buttermilk (yes, in desperation you could leave out the baking soda and use regular milk, but why bother making them then?); and a light hand. The dough should be moist, and you should gently pat, not roll, it out. This recipe calls for baking them on a sheet, but if you keep a cast-iron skillet handy, put it in the oven while the oven preheats, and when the biscuits are cut, pull it out, swirl a knob of butter in the hot pan to melt it, then add the biscuits and bake. Note that as with most scones and biscuits, you can also place the dough rounds on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and freeze them solid. Store in a plastic freezer bag, and then bake them, frozen, whenever you want a few (it will take at least 5 minutes longer to bake the frozen ones). If you use shortening (I prefer the taste of butter), look for one in natural foods stores that's free of trans fats. The chocolate gravy, which can be made ahead and reheated, makes a thin gravy. For a thicker one, use up to 1 cup less milk, or whisk in 2 tablespoons flour with the cocoa and sugar. You can also reduce the butter (but again, if you've sunk this far, why bother?) Do use a good-quality cocoa; I use Ghirardelli. This is also fabulous for dessert (think shortcakes instead of biscuits and gravy), if it's just too, too for breakfast.
A note: After the publication of my October column on the dearth of decent, healthful children's menus at restaurants, I learned that Chapel Hill's Weathervane restaurant had added a fruit parfait to its kids' menu. That's a start.
Makes about 12 2-inch biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably bleached and low-protein
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, or 1/2 cup vegetable shortening or lard
3/4 cup cold buttermilk, or more as needed
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk or sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Cut in butter or shortening with a pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal with a few larger lumps left in (a food processor also works for hard butter, but take care not to overprocess). Pour in buttermilk and mix gently with a rubber spatula until dough starts to come together. With your hands, gently turn the dough over and over, mixing lightly, until all the flour in the bottom of the bowl is incorporated (dough should be moist; add more buttermilk a tablespoon or two at a time if needed). Transfer dough to a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Press dough out about 1/2 inch thick. Cut out rounds with a biscuit cutter, lightly flouring the cutter as needed, and pressing it straight down and back up without twisting, so the biscuits rise right. Push the scraps together and cut out remaining biscuits. Place biscuits on a parchment paper-lined or greased baking sheet.
Bake biscuits for about 10 minutes, until golden on top. Serve hot.
Serves at least 10
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
Pinch of salt, preferably coarse (kosher) salt
1 1/2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
To serve: Hot biscuits
In a large saucepan, whisk the butter over medium heat until melted. Whisk in sugar, cocoa powder, salt and espresso powder. Whisk in 1 cup of milk and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Whisk in remaining milk and return to a boil, whisking. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Whisk in vanilla. Serve over hot biscuits (it's best to serve the gravy in a pitcher and let diners pour it over the biscuits themselves just as they're ready to eat).
Makes about 3 1/2 cups
1 pound breakfast sausage (bulk, not links)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups milk (skim, low-fat, or whole), or 2 cups milk and 1 cup apple cider
Lemon juice, as needed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat, brown the sausage until cooked through. Place a strainer over a small bowl and pour sausage and grease into strainer. Measure out 4 tablespoons of grease and add them back to the skillet (or, if you prefer, use 2 tablespoons grease and 2 tablespoons butter). Turn the heat under the skillet to medium, and whisk in the flour to make a roux. Whisking without ceasing, cook the roux for at least 4 minutes, reducing the heat as needed to ensure the flour doesn't burn, until the roux is a deep gold and smells nutty.
Still whisking, pour in about 1/2 cup milk, whisk well, and slowly, slowly whisk in remaining milk. Then raise heat to medium or medium-high (again, guard against burning) and let the gravy come to a boil, whisking. Add the sausage back to the gravy, then taste and adjust the flavor as needed with a dash of lemon juice, some salt, and many grindings of pepper. Serve the gravy immediately over hot biscuits as soon as it begins to thicken nicely; remember that it will get thicker and gloppier as it cools, so don't overdo.