Sunday, January 8, 2012


The first thing I ever learned to cook was biscuits.  Granny Booker kept a big bin of flour because she made biscuits every morning.  She would line the underside of the bin with fresh sage leaves to keep the millers out. When I was little she would let me stand on a stool and get up to the level of her rolling board. This was a drawer covered over with a board and with contact paper, which meant she could roll it away and also that it was easy to wipe down.
   Start by putting as much country sausage as your group will eat into an iron skillet.  Turn it on medium and let it cook fairly slowly. Turn the oven on to 475 to preheat.
   My recipe for biscuits is a compromise between a lot of different techniques I’ve used at different times, at different elevations, using different flours.
   My first preference is to use White Lily self-rising flour.  This is a Southern flour and has a lot of starch in it, being made from winter wheat.  It’s very fine and soft.  The starch makes it hold finer bubbles from the leavening, which makes biscuits with a finer texture.  These are, like myself, very white and very fine biscuits.
  To make breakfast for four people, start with 2 cups of White Lily Self-rising flour.  I don’t measure ingredients very much anymore, so there is a certain amount of leeway in these quantities. Sprinkle and mix in about a tablespoon of baking soda.
   Now scoop out about ¼ cup of cool or cold shortening with a fork.  You can use Crisco, lard, or other types of shortening.  I use Crisco because it’s what Mom used.  I like to have it pretty torn up when I drop it in the flour.  I don’t just put in a block of shortening, I put it in already in strips.  I work it around for a bit using a fork to mash it through the flour, then I scrape the fork on the edge of the bowl and, making sure my hands are clean and dry, I continue to work the shortening into the flour using my fingertips against my thumb, the way you would rub fabric to test its quality.
   Once the shortening is so worked in that the flour seems almost dry again and has no chunks, I rewash my hands and use hot water to get all the greasiness off.  About now you probably need to turn the sausage that has been browning in the skillet.  Now pour buttermilk into the flour mixture.  Use about ¾ of a cup.  If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use regular whole milk and put a couple spoons full of vinegar in and let it sit long enough to curdle, about ten minutes or so.
  Stir the milk through the mixture with a fork until it is moist throughout, being sure to scrape down to the bottom of the bowl to mix in any pockets of flour left unmoistened.  I like my batter to be so moist it barely holds together, so I put plenty of flour down on my rolling board.  I don’t knead the dough, I just fold it over and over, allowing it to take up enough flour to hold together.  Make sure not to press out the air that is building up in bubbles inside the dough.  The dough should be just barely a dough at all when you have it all together, holding together and dry, but much more moist and delicate than a yeast bread dough.
   Now roll it out using a light touch.  Use a rolling pin if you like, though I often as not use a glass since it is easier to clean and you don’t need to bear down much.  If need be, you can cut the biscuits out with a cup, though I prefer a real biscuit cutter, since it will have an open top or vents in the top and will not smoosh down the biscuit as you cut it.  The one I use at home is made from half a tin can with a handle screwed on top and a couple of vents poked through next to it. You should be able to cut out a dozen or so biscuits, depending on the size and thickness you like. Stick them in the oven on a cookie sheet.
   Take the sausage out when it is cooked to your liking, but don’t let the grease cool off.
   In a large bowl beat together 6-8 eggs.  Use a splash of milk to smooth them out and mix them until all the whites and yolks are so mixed that they are indistinguishable.  Pop uses a hand mixer, but I find that a fork does just fine for me.
   Put a couple tablespoons or so of butter into a slick or Teflon skillet and turn it on to medium low heat.  This is where you are going to scramble your eggs when you get to the very end, so let it warm fairly slowly, since the next part is hard and requires a lot of attention. Check the biscuits, even though it is too early.  That will give you an idea how fast they are baking, and whether you will have to add dragging them out of the oven in the middle of the hectic next stage.
  To make your milk gravy, make sure that you have a jug of milk standing close by.  The grease from the sausage should be hot now, below smoke point but not by a lot.  Sprinkle flour into the grease, about a quarter cup or so, depending on how much grease you have.  The flour should be wet through and through, though not completely swimming in the grease.  Stir it up against the bottom of the pan with a fork as it begins to brown.  Once it is a light brown color, begin to spill in milk a bit at a time.  Too fast and you end up with a cool flat paste, too slow and you end up with a crumbled greasy pancake that will be hard to turn into anything but a disaster.  Keep adding in milk slowly and keep stirring, flirting with the edge between solidifying too much to be gravy and getting so thin it will never be anything but paste.  Once you get it to the point that it seems it is too thin, let it simmer at medium low heat until it makes little bubbles throughout, what mom used to call “frog eyes.”
   Meanwhile, if you haven’t taken the biscuits out of the oven yet, you better do it unless you are an old hand and have made your gravy in record time.
   The butter you put on to melt should be liquid by now.  Turn it up a bit, just past medium heat, and mix your eggs again to make sure they haven’t come unscrambled on you.  You might salt and pepper them before cooking, though the salt causes the eggs to break down more than some people like.  If you have a big skillet, cook them all at once, if not, do them in a couple of batches.  Don’t be afraid to lift the pan off the burner if you need to in order to control the heat and keep the eggs cooking without hardening or crusting.
  In the middle of cooking the eggs, there is a moment where you don’t have to pay super close attention and you can go back to your gravy and adjust.  It is probably just about the right thickness now, but if its too thick add a little milk, if it’s too thin, turn it up a little and try too cook out some of the moisture.  Only under the most dire circumstances do you add flour, and to do that you need to mix flour with cold water, make a full wet suspension, then add it to the mix and cook longer until it thickens, though by that time odds are your eggs will be cold, your biscuits cool, and breakfast will be okay but no one will insist you do it again.
  Your biscuits should be about five minutes or so out of the oven.  If you are going to put them on the table, wrap them in a tea towel in the bottom of a bread basket.  Serve the rest as you wish, making sure to put butter and jam out on the table.

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