November 07, 2010

Biscuits and Gravy v1.0

Juli and I both love biscuits and gravy when the dish is done right.  Unfortunately, as often as not it seems to be done badly.   There used to be a diner where we live that served up great breakfasts:  tasty pancakes, huge, hearty waffles, crispy chicken-fried steak with gravy, apple wood-smoked bacon and especially wonderful biscuits and gravy.   The proprietor of that diner eventually sold it, and while a couple other owners made a good try of things, one thing they never got even close to right was the biscuits and gravy.  In fact, since it was sold several years ago, I don't think I've once had biscuits and gravy that I'd consider really good.  Most examples since then have been just okay, plus a few really bad ones.

At first glance, biscuits and gravy would look like a simple thing to make:  some fresh biscuits topped with a white gravy full of sausage chunks.   Given how often it isn't very good, I suspected there was more to it than that, so as I started thinking of making it, I looked at various recipes I could find in various cookbooks and magazines, online and so forth.  I immediately discovered there were a lot of recipes out there, and that except for a few basics - milk-based sausage gravy seasoned with salt and pepper and served atop biscuits - there wasn't really any agreement between them.  Many used other seasonings; sage was common, but other choices included crushed red pepper flakes (or hot sauce), thyme, sage (a common choice), paprika, garlic, fennel, parsley, onions and even (in several cases) things like chicken bouillon and nutmeg. 

Even those recipes that stuck to the bare basics differed markedly in important sorts of details, such as the amount of milk to use, or whether to use something other than or in addition to milk.  Skim milk.  Whole milk.  Buttermilk.  Half-and-half.  I didn't see any recipes for soy-milk sausage gravy, but I would be surprised if there isn't one out there somewhere.

I settled on a biscuit recipe easily enough, but even my more dependable resources, such as Cook's Illustrated, weren't really providing any clear guidance for the gravy.  None of the individual recipes really struck me as the right way to go.  So, as usual when I run into that situation, I decided to look for general trends and neat ideas among the various recipes I had found, then used those for guidance in making my own recipe.

I knew I wanted something more than just a milk gravy with salt and pepper.   From what I could recall of the versions I'd loved best, all included some heat, and most had garlic and a sprinkling of herbs.  I decided that I would grate up some onion, cook that in with the sausage, toss in a bit of garlic, use some buttermilk (along with skim) for the gravy, and then add some herbs and seasonings. 

The biscuit recipe I used was one for Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits, taken from one of the 2006 issues of
Cook's Illustrated and reprinted in The Best of America's Test Kitchen 2007.  The biscuits in the picture looked darn good, and while I thought I'd be lucky to do that well on my first try at making biscuits from anything other than a mix, the mechanics of the recipe looked intriguing.  Essentially, one mixes up a dough with flakes of shortening and butter still spread through the dough, then rolls it out, folds the rolled out dough, then rolls it out again, essentially layering the dough.  The distinct layers of dough, with the bits of butter and shortening spread between them, should result in a light, flaky biscuit.

I was astounded at how good my biscuits looked.  Flaky, golden-brown... it looked like I'd hit the jackpot.  And, in fact they were pretty good... but not quite as good as they looked.   The texture was just a bit off.  I can't blame that on the recipe, though, because after the fact, I realized that instead of using buttermilk, I'd grabbed and used whole milk.  My only defense was that I was tired, as I got up at 6 am to make these, and hadn't gotten to bed until around midnight the night before.  I'll be more careful next time, though... and I will definitely be making those biscuits again.

The gravy... well, the comedy of errors continued.   When we'd bought sausage, the only type the store had in the brand we wanted was a medium-spicy one, so Juli grabbed that.  Unfortunately, I didn't notice and she failed to mention it to me.   Assuming it was just plain pork sausage with mild seasoning (and, as with the milk, not bothering to take a good look at the packaging), I spiced things accordingly, and as a result, the gravy ended up being a lot hotter than I'd intended, and more than either of us really wanted for a breakfast dish. 

Beyond that, some of the seasoning choices were, in retrospect, a bit much.  I'd been skeptical about how well parsley would work in sausage gravy, but I'd seen one recipe online that added fresh-chopped parsley at the end, and several people had raved about this, so I decided to go with it.  This was not a hit with Juli, and while I didn't dislike it as much as she did, I also didn't think it really belonged.  Also, The finished product was a bit heavy on the sausage and light on the gravy.  I used one cup of buttermilk and one of skim, but next time I make gravy I'll go with 3 cups of milk along with a pound of sausage. 

I didn't think the finished gravy was bad - it was better than quite a few versions I'd had over the years - but it wasn't really more than "okay," and since I always shoot for better than "okay," and Juli didn't even give it an "okay," I'd have to call this version a failure.   That's okay, though, as I learned some things for next time I try, which I expect will be sometime over the next couple weekends.  Next time I make the gravy, I'm going to use more milk, and start with a more basic set of seasonings and build up from there.  And no parsley.  And I'll definitely pay more attention to the type of sausage we get!

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