Good Gravy, episode 1

I love my parents – they’re hilarious and adorable and they’re best friends and huge nerds, and they compliment each other in a million different ways. But my favourite yin/yang quality of theirs has to do with my favourite breakfast: biscuits* and gravy.

My mom is the cook in the family. She reads cookbooks for fun, re-creates recipes after eating a dish at a restaurant, and has a vault of self-learnt recipes that impossibly blends complete trash food and gourmet dining. With the exception of something we now call “Corn Loaf”, a corn and cheese side dish that was supposed to be a fluffy Mexican corn dish that somehow went wrong and solidified mass of corn and goo that we could almost cut in slices, I can’t remember a single dish my mom has made that I haven’t liked. No one makes a grilled cheese sandwich or a plate of scrambled eggs like my mom. And I’ve tried for years to replicate my all time famous dish of hers, Baked Chili Spaghetti, to no avail. I’ve been asking for about ever for her to write these recipes for me, but I always get the same answer – “I’m not sure – I just make it. Just take X and X and X and go with it!” She’s a jerk.

My dad, on the other hand, passed his cooking skills down to me. We both need detailed instructions and tools. But we both looooove to eat. So it all balances out.

One of the biggest things I miss about living with my parents is the food. Particularly the big Sunday or holiday breakfasts. “Breakfast Skillets,” which are individual skillets layered with a fried egg, hash browns, sausage gravy, and topped with cheese and crumbled bacon. French toast fried perfectly with crispy edges and a soft center and topped with maple syrup and powdered sugar; Bacon and egg fried rice; but the best of it all is biscuits and sausage gravy.

Mom makes a helluva good gravy. I’ve never actually seen her make it – it just always appeared at the same time as the scrambled eggs did – both hot and ready to eat, with only one pan being used. It’s a mystery to me. For all the cooking talent my mom has, she can’t form a biscuit to save her life. They come out lumpy, malformed, a bit like a gargoyle fist – if that gargoyle fist was slammed in a door a few times. They break when you touch them and they’re pretty dense.

That’s where my dad comes in – his gravy may taste floury or be too watery, but his biscuits are always geometrically perfect with flat golden tops, and have the most perfect smooth and fluffy texture. I remember watching him make the dough, flouring the counter top, rolling the dough with a rolling pin, and using the same cup he always used to stamp out the biscuits. It’s the only cooking ritual I remember my dad having in the kitchen – besides the giant bowl he used to eat cereal.

With my parent’s powers combined, they make one awesome sauce breakfast. And it’s just one of those little anecdotes about their relationship that I think is too adorable.

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I was looking through our fridge this morning and noticed our bacon was about to go off, and I immediately thought about making gravy with it. Even though I never made bacon before. So I called the Breakfast Masters for a crash course in Gravy 101 – what kind of spices to use, what kind of utensils, and basically the most important aspect of gravy – which is continuous whisking.

Now, this is for bacon gravy, which isn’t as good as sausage gravy – (which I’m attempting next week), so this is an abbreviated method (mostly so I won’t forget when I try again next week)

Step 1: Fry lots of bacon. Sing the bacon some sweet songs to encourage all the grease to collect in the pan (you only have to do this in Australia, where the bacon isn’t NEARLY as greasy as it is the US)

Step 2: Once bacon is at desired doneness (extra crispy for me, please – I want that shit to shatter in melty bacony goodness), remove from pan and wrap in aluminium foil to keep warm.

Step 3: On medium heat, melt some butter (see above note about Bacon not being greasy enough)

Step 4: Sprinkle a couple table spoons of flour over the butter and whisk that up with either a whisk, a wooden spoon, or the bottom of a flat rubber spatula – whatever won’t scratch up the pan

Step 5: Whisking constantly, cook the flour and butter for a few minutes until it’s really clumpy. If you don’t cook it long enough the flour will taste raw.

Step 6: Add milk – I eyeballed it by adding 1/2 cup at at time. And whisk whisk whisk.

Step 7: Season with salt, pepper, whatever else you’d like. I threw in some cajun seasoning.

You can add more milk if it’s too thick, more flour if it’s too watery

I served mine over toast with the fried bacon. And it tasted just as good as my mom’s, which made me feel like a double champ – 1) because I tried something new and it wasn’t a disaster, and 2) because it was delish. It felt like a taste from home.

But I also feel like a world of heart clogging, thigh jiggling, gravy topped food opportunities have opened up for me – and that’s hella exciting.

Tune in next week for episode 2! We’ll see if my biscuit game is on point.

 

*I should clarify for my non-Americans that I mean scones – biscuits in the States are the equivalent of scones in Australia. The first time I mentioned biscuits and gravy at work I was met with some grossed out and confused looks.

“Like… biscuits? Covered in gravy?”
“Yeah, it’s SO good.”
“um, ok.”

 

Back to Cakes

In March of 2012, I was a mess.

Mess.

Like, moving out of your boyfriend’s apartment and back in with your parents, unemployed, emotional, drunk, extremely fragile mess. I joke now about my tendency to hole up in bed, in sweat pants, watching Teen Mom on repeat, but this is where it started. And I did it for about 30 hours a week, when I wasn’t obsessively rearranging my bedroom or using any opportunity to just get obliterated, in an attempt–I mean, in the worst possible way possible–to get on with my life. Basically, I was trying to dig myself out of the hole that was my life, but I just dug myself in deeper.

It was around this time that my mom and her best friend Sue went to visit Sue’s son Matt and his wife Mandy in Savannah, GA. Mandy took mom and Sue to one of her favorite local eateries, Back in the Day Bakery, and mom brought back some of their Old Fashioned Cupcakes for my dad and me. I have a very distinct memory of that day, as I often do with food that changes my life.

I was unshowered and in my pajamas and had just cancelled all my work plans when mom presented the adorable paper box to me, tied with red and white string and hand stamped with the bakery’s name. The box had a couple greasy spots on it, which immediately intrigued me. After all, grease spots most often forecast a delicious treat. Inside the box was a small cupcake covered in pink icing and white sprinkles. I grew up hating frosting and hating cupcakes because they were mostly frosting. But, I didn’t care. Suddenly I needed to eat this cupcake. I peeled the paper and shoved it frosting first into my face.

Wow.

What a cupcake. Even after a 10+ hour journey in a non-air tight container, this cupcake was perfect. It had the most amazing texture. The best flavor. And it tasted real. Like the first person to have ever created a cupcake had made them in their kitchen from scratch and had delivered it to me. There was no fake sugar taste that accompanies most frosting. It was real butter cream–and all you could taste was butter and sugar. And the cake was moist and had the perfect crumble. Even the sprinkles were tasty. You could taste the attention to detail. It was incredible.

I remember when I was done eating it, I was sad. I was sad all the time back then, but this was a new, different kind of sad. I had a Lester Burnham moment and thought, “This will be the highlight of my day.” And I took a picture of the empty wrapper.

IMG_3531That cupcake, and the three more I ate immediately after, lifted my spirits in a beautifully weird way. Like, the fact that I could love something that I had so long hated made me feel like change within myself wasn’t impossible. Like I had been judging things too quickly. It was cupcake empowerment. Or it was a massive sugar high. But either way, I felt better than I had in a long time.

As with most sugar highs, the feeling was short lived. Most unfortunately. However, a few weeks later, Mandy sent my mom Back in the Day Bakery’s first cookbook that had just been released, signed by chef and co-owner, Cheryl Day. I leafed through it, hoping to find the recipe for the cupcakes that shone a light for me. And lo and behold, there it was. And that to die for butter cream frosting, too.

I took a few hours and I read the cookbook from cover to cover. I didn’t have much baking experience beyond one cobbler recipe, Toll House cookies, and Betty Crocker box mixes. I had attempted a from scratch cake and icing the summer before, but it was still pretty slip-shod. But the Days presented baking and cooking in such an accessible, and funny way that made me want to roll up my sleeves and try. So that’s what I did.

And I loved it.

That first batch of cupcakes helped in a way I didn’t fully realise at the time. Baking gave me an outlet, something to focus on. Following precise instructions gave my brain a break from worry and grief. And looking at the plate of cupcakes, frosted and sprinkled, knowing they were as delicious as the ones made in Savannah, gave me a shot in the arm. I had created something. And it was damn good. And it made everyone who tried it happy. It was the fulfillment I needed in a dark time.

I baked all summer. Some fails, some awesome successes. It was centering, calming, and exciting, even when it made me want to rip my hair out (see: double boiling). But I was productive. As I baked and cooked, life felt easier. For those moments I was in the kitchen, everything was good. And that’s how it’s been since.

Setting down to make something from scratch never fails to make me feel good and right about the world. And I give all the credit to that first batch of cupcakes, and that first cookbook that brought me some hope–something I got to tell Cheryl Day herself last summer when I finally got to go to see the bakery in Savannah.

I haven’t had many chances to bake since I’ve been in Sydney. Mostly because I didn’t have a mixer or pans, and also because I’m still learning my way around Fahrenheit and Celsius and that whole “metric system” thing. So when Joel and I were looking through Back in the Day Bakery’s new cookbook, Back in the Day Bakery: Made with Love, which my mom so awesomely sent to me, and I noticed how wide his eyes got when he saw the Caramel Cake with Salted Caramel Frosting, I knew I had a baking project ahead of me. Yesssssssss.

First, there was plotting. I went to Victoria’s Basement, a kitchen and homewares store that sells items at deep, deep discount, to buy supplies. Then there were 3 trips to grocery stores to find all the ingredients. With Joel gone for two evenings, I knew I had plenty of time in case I screwed up and had to start all over. I measured out my butter and put it out to warm, and then, it began.

There was a minor catastrophe while making the caramel sauce (hello seizing caramel and 40 minutes of stirring over low heat to smooth things out), and I might have rushed things and burned my fingers and over baked one of the layers a tad, but overall, the cake was delicious. And it brought back all the good feelings that that first round of cupcakes brought.

DSCF1671DSCF1683And I’d say it was pretty damn good.

DSCF1688If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen.