I have two boys in high school, and any parent who has lived through those years knows it’s hard to cut through the sports, homework, friendships and drama (oh, the drama) to sit down for a family meal, no matter what time of day.
My secret weapon: Scratch-made biscuits and chocolate gravy.
I first heard of this unlikely combination when the then-younger boys returned from summer at grandma Marian’s home in North Carolina. I think I laughed out loud. Chocolate does not belong with biscuits. Butter? You bet. Jam? For sure. Honey? I’m all over that. But chocolate was a new one.
This past summer, my father-in-law hosted a family reunion with about 30 of us on the Outer Banks, and on the menu for Sunday morning was Grandma Marian’s biscuits with chocolate gravy.
Soft on the inside, a little crisp on the edges. Pull it open and drop a little real butter in the middle, then drizzle with hot chocolate and ponder: Do you risk picking it up with your fingers? Or go for the safer fork option? Either way, it was divine.
Seeing the pleasure filling the bellies around the room, I asked Marian if she would share the recipe. “Oh, hon … I don’t have a recipe.” She rattled off “three or four cups of flour” and “some Crisco” and “buttermilk … you gotta have buttermilk. Ted likes ’em that way.”
The only specific instruction was using your fist to make an impression in the middle of the sifted flour so you can pour in the milk and melted shortening before you mix it.
Marian’s son-in-law, Lee, suggested I talk to his wife to get a recipe. She didn’t really have one, either, but I asked her to try. She sent it through Facebook.
With these “instructions,” I set out every weekend for about six weeks straight to make the perfect biscuits.
Marian and Meredith both were REAL insistent on Southern Biscuit flour, but I haven’t found it in Austin, so I’ve been using King Arthur’s self-rising flour. I tried H-E-B’s self-rising flour, but it’s a bit too salty for me. I learned that “3-4 cups” is really a sifter full, which makes sense now but didn’t when I first heard it because I can’t recall using a sifter before my biscuit quest.
I’ve also learned: “Five to six tablespoons of melted Crisco” to me is a 1/4 cup smashed in the measuring cup before I put it in the microwave for a minute, then another 30 seconds until the liquid is clear.
I’ve used both the fat-free milk we usually have in the house and H-E-B-brand buttermilk. I think I like the regular milk better, but more experimentation is needed. (OK, that’s just an excuse to cook more biscuits.)
I struggle to roll the dough out evenly with our French rolling pin, and I’ve learned to make them thicker instead of thin. I wonder if I should just use my hands.
I don’t grease our cookie pans because they are nonstick.
I forget half the time to top the raw dough with melted shortening, and they are just fine without it.
The chocolate gravy is thinner than I imagined when I hear the words “gravy,” but it works just fine.
I remember that first week, the kitchen was left a wreck with white flour all over the counter, dusting the top of the dishwasher and the dogs licking it off the tile floor. Once the biscuits were in the oven, I was racing back to my iPad with dough-sticky fingers to figure out the chocolate recipe. I struggled with a whisk to get the clumps out of the cocoa and have since learned to not place the sifter in the sink so it remains dry to run the cocoa through it.
That first morning, the boys openly smiled when they came down to the table stacked with jams, honey, chocolate gravy and the fresh-made biscuits, holding their warmth in a red-and-white-napkin-lined basket. I could see their mouths watering.
My wife, Cory, pulled apart the first one, spread sweet butter on half and took a bite. Her eyes closed as she savored the soft texture and the crisp bottom. Then she caught herself, looked at me with a sly smile and said, “Nope. You’ll just have to keep trying.”
Getting the boys to the table for a family breakfast on Sunday morning has never been easier.
Southern biscuits and chocolate gravy
3-4 cups (1 sifter full) self-rising biscuit flour (Southern Biscuit brand flour, if you can find it)
1/4 cup Crisco shortening
1 1/2 cup milk or buttermilk
For chocolate gravy:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 Tbsp. cocoa
Preheat oven at 450 degrees.
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Use your fist or a spoon to put a depression in the middle. Melt shortening in the microwave. Pour the milk into the bowl of flour, followed by the melted shortening. Stir the flour into the liquid and stir together as little as you can get away with until all is wet. It will be a fairly sticky mixture.
Flour a rolling surface and dump the dough onto it. Liberally sprinkle the dough with flour and spread out with your hands, folding two or three times, topping with more flour each time. Roll it out at least a 1/2-inch thick. Use a glass or biscuit cutter to cut the biscuits, dipping in flour between cuts. Place them with space between on a cookie sheet. Top with melted shortening or butter if desired. Bake 8-10 minutes until tops are golden.
To make the chocolate sauce, heat ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir well while heating to a boil, then turn heat off. Serve warm.
— Christian McDonald