Welcome to Biscuit Week, a special time set aside to cherish the most buttery and beloved of all quick breads.
Marriage to a Southerner has fundamentally changed a lot of my cooking practice. I now make greens for Thanksgiving instead of green bean casserole or roasted Brussels sprouts. Grits are more likely to appear on my table than polenta. And my biscuit game is on point. My mother-in-law of blessed memory taught me how to make her signature morning biscuits so that I could properly feed her son on Sunday mornings. They were both the first and best biscuits I have ever made. Her biscuits rely heavily on baking powder for rise and shortening for richness and eschew the traditional buttermilk for sweet whole milk, in part, I think, because they were designed to be a vehicle for butter and sorghum molasses. They are easy to make and can be thrown together while the coffee is brewing. Whenever my man is in need of a taste of home, these are what I bake.
Adopting biscuits as a morning carb also changed the way I entertain. After decades of devotion to bagels and lox, they made me realize there was a whole other way to do brunch: the biscuit bar.
A biscuit brunch party is endlessly versatile. It can be as simple as one kind of biscuit with butter and various jams alongside a pile of scrambled eggs and some oven-baked bacon, or as complex as three different styles of biscuit with gravies, sauces, and toppings of all sorts lined up and down your buffet. Some of my favorite things to have out at a biscuit bar: pimento cheese spread, fried chicken tenders, jams and jellies, honey, sorghum molasses or cane syrup, tart fruit curds such as lemon or passionfruit, a bowl of freshly cut up seasonal fruit. A gelatin mold is not required but is obviously welcome. Assume at least two large or three small biscuits per person. I always have some sort of egg dish, whether a basic scramble or a baked strata or egg casserole, and at least one meat, and one saucy gravy. While sausage gravy is the traditional choice, red-eye gravy is a natural with ham, and tomato gravy can be a welcome bit of acid to break through rich brunch foods. My secret weapon, though, is chocolate gravy.
I first encountered chocolate gravy at a breakfast at our dear friends Joli and Mac’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, and it changed the color of my sky. Sort of a warm, loose chocolate pudding ladled over fresh baked biscuits, it was deeply chocolatey but not overly sweet. I alternated bites with nibbles of thick-cut crispy bacon in a blissed-out haze for the better part of an hour. Chocolate gravy on a biscuit is like learning the secret Southern handshake: It makes you feel like a warm puppy in the sun, and it tastes like love.
Makes about 24, depending on size
My mother-in-law Shirley Thurmond made her biscuits small, only about 2 inches across, and baked them not touching so that she had a good ratio of crispy outside to tender middle. People could eat them by the half-dozen. But you can make yours as large as you like.
The biscuits can be prepped and kept on baking sheets in the fridge until the guests arrive since batches bake in only 12-18 minutes depending on the size and thickness. You can hold baked biscuits warm in a 200-degree oven or pile them into a slow cooker set to warm, lined with a tea towel, and covered with another tea towel.
- 4 cups flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2½ Tbsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. cream of tartar
- 1 cup vegetable shortening, cubed
- 1⅓ cups whole milk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Sift all the dry ingredients together into a large bowl, then cut in the shortening using a pastry cutter or two butter knives until you have a mixture that looks like coarse breadcrumbs. It’s okay if there are some shortening pieces that are slightly larger. Add the milk to bring the mixture together. Knead in the bowl until the dough is cohesive with no dry flour anywhere, but don’t overdo it or your biscuits will be tough. Roll out on a lightly floured surface to about ¾” thick. Cut into biscuits with a round cutter and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet about an inch apart. Re-roll scraps as needed until you’ve used up all the dough. Bake for 12-15 minutes, depending on size, until biscuits are cooked through and lightly browned on the edges.
This technique is a Southern secret weapon and the ideal recipe if you need to make a lot of biscuits to feed a crowd. The ratio is just two parts self-rising flour to one part full-fat buttermilk. The reduced-fat or lowfat buttermilk generally carried at grocery stores will not give you the fluffy rise you want, so if this is a recipe you want to make for your gathering, source your buttermilk in advance. For every six people you want to serve, you are going to want about 2 cups of flour and one cup of buttermilk. You can multiply up as needed as long as you stick to the 2:1 ratio.
Put your flour in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the buttermilk and stir with a wooden spoon or stiff spatula until you have a shaggy dough. Turn out onto a floured surface, and knead by folding and turning until the dough just comes together. Give it one more fold, pat out about an inch thick, then cut.
For this biscuit, I like to cut the dough into squares, which is not traditional, but eliminates re-rolling, which for this delicate dough would create tough biscuits. I use a floured bench scraper to cut in one sharp, downward move and make biscuits about three inches across. Line your biscuits up on a greased baking sheet so they’re almost touching. Brush the tops with melted salted butter (I use melted butter, but nonstick spray is fine) and bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 12-18 minutes, depending on the size of your biscuits.
Makes about 4 cups
This recipe is very lightly adapted from a queen of Southern cookery, Sheri Castle. If you are not familiar with her extraordinary work, I suggest you immediately buy The New Southern Garden Cookbook and her Instant Pot cookbook Instantly Southern and get ready to have your life changed.
I add instant espresso powder to my chocolate gravy because it enhances the chocolate flavor, and I bump up some of the richness with a splash of half and half, mostly because one time I went to make it and didn’t quite have enough milk and filled in with half and half and I liked it, so I pretended I had done it on purpose. You can use all milk if you want.
- ½ cup cocoa powder
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. instant espresso powder
- Generous pinch Kosher salt
- 6 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 3½ cups whole milk
- ½ cup half and half
- One stick unsalted butter, cubed
Sift the dry ingredients into a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. Mix the milk and half and half in a large measuring cup or pitcher with a pouring spout. Pour the the dairy into the dry ingredients slowly and steadily, whisking constantly until the mixture is smooth with no lumps or dry patches. Put the pot over medium heat and stir constantly as the mixture heats up and starts to gently bubble. You want lazy lava-like movement as it thickens, and you are looking for a loose, pourable pudding texture. This should take between six to nine minutes. Don’t let it scorch.
When you have the right consistency, remove the pot from the heat and drop in the butter cubes, whisking to combine so that they emulsify into the gravy and don’t melt into greasy pools. You can hold the gravy in a 200-degree oven, over a double boiler, or my favorite way, in a small slow-cooker set to warm. If you are using a container with a lid, put a clean lint-free tea towel over the top of the vessel before you put the lid on to prevent condensation dripping into your gravy.