Biscuits and Gravy
David and I have eaten at our fair share of diners. If we have the option, we usually sit at the counter. We really like eating at the counter. In some diners the counter lets you see inside the kitchen, which is a little fun. Sometimes sitting at the counter just gives you a view of the ice machine... not as much fun. It may just be my imagination, but it seems like the wait staff are slightly friendlier to the folks that sit at the counter. They see you more often as they come to pick up orders, or retrieve something from the back of the counter and it almost seems rude for them to not check in and refill our coffee before they head out into the main dining area. This is also where the regulars tend to sit, so the staff almost always ends up knowing them by name. There is also a bit more banter between the staff and the folks that sit at the counter. Of course as an avid talker I often will comment on random things just loud enough to be heard by the staff, just to get a laugh or two from them. (Hey... they let you take extra jelly packets when you’re funny, what can I say?) This also holds true for sushi places. Sit at the counter at a sushi place and talk to the chef. You'll be surprised at how much fun that is. At the local sushi place we often frequent, there was a chef who had exceptionally good knife skills and I made a point of dropping my jaw, and exclaiming "wow" one time after he sliced an avocado into super thin slices in just a few seconds then picked up the whole thing and somehow fanned it out into a perfect circle to place on a plate. When he had it on the plate he looked up at me and said, "What? ... YOU could do that". This started a conversation on how I can't even get the avocado out of its skin in less than three minutes and ended with him preparing us a dish that wasn't on the menu that was pretty much to die for.
Once, while David and I were walking through Greenwich Village in Manhattan we decided to pop into this little corner diner for breakfast. Honestly we picked this place because through the window we saw it had a counter. This place was one where the counter seats were permanently bolted to the floor and swiveled. I like the swiveling seats but I am not a fan of the bolted to the floor part, because you can't pull the seat closer to the counter, but oh well. The counter in this place was shaped like an L with about six or eight seats along the long side and only 2 or 3 seats along the short side. Behind the counter was the usual service stations, ice machine, refrigerators, coffee brewers, toaster: nothing out of the ordinary. We took two seats along the long side of the counter and grabbed a menu. On the wall above the short side of the counter was a big fancy sign, which said, "World’s Best Oatmeal". Not New York's best; not the state’s best; not the USA's best... The World’s Best! Seated directly below this sign was a very elegant woman who was wearing a full-length fur coat. She looked just a little haggard, as if she had just left an all night gala event or perhaps morning had just crept up on her a little too quickly after being out with the girls. I could only imagine her hailing a cab from some fancy art gallery somewhere and on her way back to the Upper East Side she spotted this little diner and dramatically yelled for the cabbie to stop the car so she could get out to eat. So there she sat, directly below the world’s best oatmeal sign, in her full-length fur coat, waiting for her food, which turned out to be... The World’s Best! oatmeal and an extremely large glass of milk! No lie, she was sitting at the counter, on a swivel seat bolted to the floor, in a full-length fur coat, eating a bowl of oatmeal! The perfect advertisement for the diner if you ask me, and had the cell phone camera been invented back then I would have snapped a picture, sold it to the restaurant and retired right then and there on the marketing royalties.
As we sat there mesmerized by this "Manhattan socialite" eating oatmeal at a village corner diner. You might think we would be tempted to order oatmeal, but alas we did not. I don’t remember what we ordered, but I do know it wasn’t the oatmeal. The restaurant was actually pretty quiet, besides us and the full-length fur coated lady I think there was only one other couple seated at a table near the window, but that quiet was abruptly broken by the sound of breaking glass. Somehow, the lady had dropped her very large glass of milk and spilled the contents all over the counter. Milk was going everywhere, it ran down onto the sleeves of her full-length fur coat and it poured off the edge of the counter into her full-length fur covered lap. Busboys rushed to her with towels to mop up the milk but I would be willing to bet she had to make another stop on her way home that day, this time at her local, (full-length) fur cleaner.
Now, somewhere on the menu in almost every diner that serves breakfast is oatmeal, but more importantly there is usually this dish... biscuits and gravy. Sometimes they are just offered as a side dish, other times as a full course. When I see them on the menu, I won't lie they make my mouth water a little bit, but with very few exceptions I will not order them, nor would I recommend ordering them to you. Why? Well, in so many places, in order to keep the food coming quickly, the cooks will have made a vat of sausage gravy early in the morning that sits in a big container over a steam tray to keep it warm, and as it thickens they add more milk to loosen it up a bit, which just serves to dilute the flavors. Or worse yet they just serve it as is, very thick and almost pudding like… not good, nope, not good at all. The biscuits are also made early in the morning and while that in itself is not a horrible thing, often they are warmed in a microwave before being plated. All in all that's simply not a “the best thing about food”.
For those of you who have a place that serves fantastic biscuits and gravy, I congratulate you (if it’s near me, please send the address), for everyone else, you will find that making these at home is not only far less expensive, but infinitely tastier. And once again I present you with a recipe you can customize a bit to suit your own tastes by changing the sausage you use or by adding some different spices. You could even add herbs to your biscuits if you wanted. For now let’s just stick to the tried and true and keep it as simple as we can, ok? Honestly, this is a very simple dish to prepare.
Let’s start with the biscuits… I don’t remember exactly, but I think I learned how to make biscuits from the classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking. The thing you will always want to remember about biscuits is you will need to keep the butter as cold as possible because the water in the butter makes steam in the oven and that’s what you want. So keep the butter and the buttermilk in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use them… You can cut the butter into the flour by hand or with a pastry blender if you like but I use a food processor to make things quick. You'll want to have a proper biscuit cutter to make biscuits, they're inexpensive and a can also double as a cookie cutter! A 2½-inch cutter is what I use for these.
This recipe will make eight 2½-inch biscuits.
For the Biscuits:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, cold, cut into ½ cubes (keep chilled in fridge)
1 cup buttermilk, cold (keep chilled in fridge)
For the sausage Gravy:
1 pound sage pork sausage (I recommend Jimmy Dean)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon pepper
Make the biscuits first...
Preheat the oven to 450°F with the rack in the center position.
Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl and whisk them together to combine.
Place the bowl in the freezer for 10 minutes to chill the flour.
Remove the chilled flour from the freezer and transfer to the bowl of a food processor.
Add the butter and pulse the mixture together until the flour looks like course meal, about 5 or 6 good pulses. – You might still see a few clumps of butter but they should not be bigger than the size of a small pea.
Transfer the flour mixture back to the original bowl and add the cold buttermilk.
Stir with a wooden spoon gently, until the flour absorbs the buttermilk, and comes together in a shaggy mass.
Flour a cutting board and turn the dough out onto it.
With floured hands gently bring the dough together and press it into a long narrow rectangle about ½ inch thick.
Fold the dough in thirds (like your folding a letter, bring the top down part way, then fold the bottom over that).
Repeat patting out the dough gently to a long narrow rectangle about ½ inch thick and folding into thirds three more times.
Keep adding flour to the board as needed to keep the dough from sticking and keep your hands floured as well to help in patting the dough out.
Note: if at any time the dough starts to get warm, put it back in the fridge to cool down!
After your last fold, gently press the dough out into a square a little less than 1 inch thick.
Use a biscuit cutter to cut out the biscuits. When cutting push the cutter straight down and then lift straight up. Do not twist the cutter or the edges of the biscuit will seal and it will not rise.
You can gather the scraps, gently kneading them together and cutting more biscuits if needed. These biscuits will not be as perfect as the first ones, but they will be just as delicious.
Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet about 1 inch apart.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
While the biscuits bake start on the Sausage Gravy:
In a medium sized skillet brown the sausage over medium heat until it is no longer pink and well crumbled.
Add the butter to the sausage and allow it to melt completely.
Sprinkle the flour over the sausage and stir to combine.
Cook and stir the sausage until the flour is completely absorbed and is fully cooked, about a minute or so.
Add in the milk and continue stirring (scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan) until the gravy has thickened to your desired consistency, anywhere between 5 and 8 minutes is usually good. You want a semi thick gravy, but be aware it will also thicken considerably as it cools.
Adjust the seasonings, as you like (I almost always add more fresh ground pepper!).
Serve the sausage gravy immediately over your warm biscuits.
I hope you try this classic diner favorite in your own home. Pick a day when you don't have anywhere to go and make a morning out of it. Make some scrambled eggs to go along side and serve with a pitcher of mimosas! And if there's leftover sausage gravy (can't imagine there will be) don't worry, you can reheat it in a small saucepan over low heat, adding a splash of milk to loosen it as needed. And leftover biscuits? Well, they are great just reheated in the toaster oven for a few minutes and served with butter and jam or a drizzle of honey.
Until next time…