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Biscuits and gravy goes upscale at eateries

Anyone with Southern roots knows the allure of biscuits and sausage gravy, a down-home comfort breakfast of the first order. Would it surprise you to learn that upscale North Texas restaurants have picked up on the regional favorite, too?

Scott (he goes by only one name), the creator of DallasFood.org blog, pointed this out in his recent survey of "Rich Folks' Biscuits." He includes mouthwatering photos of biscuits and gravy from places such as Craft, Bolla, Smoke, Second Floor, the Landmark Restaurant, Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen and Charlie Palmer at the Joule. Many of these places are considered Dallas destination dining, but they also serve as the on-site restaurant for a hotel.

In Fort Worth, diners at Cast Iron restaurant inside the Omni Hotel can order biscuits and gravy for breakfast -- and occasionally they appear on the brunch menu. They're served for breakfast at the new Cowtown Diner and appear on the catering menu at Reata (though the restaurant's famous sourdough-pecan biscuits come with every meal).

Cooking the Cowboy Way, the latest recipe collection from Fort Worth chef Grady Spears and food writer June Naylor, includes one for sourdough biscuits and green chile cream gravy from Terry Chandler, the "Outlaw Chef"-owner of Fred's Texas Cafe.

"Biscuits and gravy are an obvious choice for a chef who wants to riff on a morning dish with a sense of place," Scott writes in an e-mail message, "whether that's to offer something distinctively 'Texas' to out-of-towners or to appeal to customers who may have grown up with the dish."

His favorite was Scott Romano's version at Charlie Palmer. Indeed, it was a most delicate and refined biscuit, topped with a house-made sausage patty and a smooth, saucelike gravy. Pure elegance. But brace yourself: It will set you back $15 for two small biscuits.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can find a surprisingly inexpensive version at Smoke: $7 for two fluffy, fat biscuits, split and slathered with cream gravy studded with executive chef Tim Byres' sausage, also made in-house. Byres then gilds the lily with a streak of spicy green-peppercorn brown gravy.

Cooking at home

As for making biscuits and sausage gravy at home, leave it to the obsessive crew at America's Test Kitchen to come up with the definitive version.

Here's its step-by-step rationale: The editors nixed flaky biscuits, which didn't properly soak up the gravy. Thumbs down to crumbly cream biscuits as well. The best, they declared, were buttermilk biscuits.

"They were sturdy enough to absorb some gravy without turning to mush," the editors wrote. The testers also arrived at the ideal balance of butter and shortening and found that briefly kneading the dough "yielded biscuits with better structure."

Their gravy calls for milk instead of cream or half-and-half, which make it too rich. Too much liquid, and your gravy turns out thin; too much flour, and it's pasty. The Test Kitchen editors take the guesswork out of the equation with a precise ratio: 1/4 cup flour to 3 cups of milk.

But here's where we do things a little differently in Texas: The Test Kitchen staff adds fennel and sage to pump up basic bulk pork sausage. That's a good start, but we find that starting with a spicy sausage, such as Owens or Jimmy Dean Hot, precludes the need for additional herbs. You could also add red pepper flakes to achieve a nice, fiery effect.

We also tried some shortcuts, such as using packaged gravy mix or baking frozen biscuits, with mixed results.

The best shortcuts

If you're pressed for time, you can snag a shortcut for either the biscuits or the gravy.

The frozen biscuits far outshone the gravy mixes, and some were downright fabulous. So if you must save time, opt to make the gravy and serve it over frozen biscuits.

Best frozen biscuits: Gagné Foods' brand was far and away tops: flaky, fine-textured and slightly sweet. It's easy to see why they won the 2006 Gold Award for Outstanding Baked Goods from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. They're available at Whole Foods Market.

Other frozen biscuits: Pillsbury Grands! (widely available) and Alexia brand (Whole Foods Market and Central Market) -- both a homey, buttermilk style -- are still good alternatives if you don't have time to bake from scratch.

What about store-bought?: Whole Foods Market's big, fluffy, cream-cheese biscuits are our favorites ($4.99 for six). Many stores have in-house bakery versions.

Gravy from a mix: Of those we tested, Southeastern Mills Old-Fashioned Peppered Gravy Mix was the standout, with the creamiest mouthfeel and best flavor. You'll need to add sausage: Brown a pound of bulk sausage, drain excess grease, add your gravy made from a mix. We found this at larger Tom Thumb stores.

No-fat gravy mix: Pioneer makes a no-fat gravy mix, but it was disappointing. Better to spread good jam on your biscuits.

Jimmy Dean Reduced Fat Pork Sausage: It's certainly not low-fat, at 140 calories per 2-ounce serving with 100 calories from fat. But if you're counting, that's less than regular sausage, which comes in at 180 calories with 140 calories from fat. You won't sacrifice flavor with a reduced-fat version.

Hot sausage: This being Texas, bulk spicy sausage is widely available.

Frozen option in a pinch: If you've just got to have a fix, with time only to pop something in the microwave, Bob Evans Original Sausage Gravy & Biscuits are surprisingly good. The gravy is made with real sausage (second ingredient), and the biscuits are light and fluffy. We found this at Tom Thumb.

Biscuits and sausage gravy

Makes 10 to 12 biscuits

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces and chilled

4 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces and chilled

11/4 cups buttermilk (see Note)

Sausage gravy (recipe follows)

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. Pulse the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, butter and shortening in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Transfer to a large bowl. (Note: If you don't have a food processor, start with the large bowl and cut the butter and shortening into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter or 2 knives, as you would piecrust.)

3. Stir in the buttermilk until combined.

4. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough until smooth, 8 to 10 kneads. Pat the dough into a 9-inch circle, about 3/4 -inch thick. Using a 3-inch biscuit cutter dipped in flour, cut out rounds of dough and arrange on prepared baking sheet. Gather the remaining dough, pat into a 3/4-inch-thick circle and cut out remaining biscuits. (You should have 10-12 biscuits total.)

5. Bake until the biscuits begin to rise, about 5 minutes, then rotate the pan and reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Bake until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool. (The biscuits can be stored in a zip-top plastic bag for up to 2 days.) Split biscuits and serve with sausage gravy.

Note: If you don't have buttermilk, whisk 1 tablespoon lemon juice into 11/4 cups milk and let it stand until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Sausage gravy: Combine 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon ground fennel, 1 teaspoon ground sage and 11/2 teaspoons black pepper in a small bowl. (Note: For a Texas touch, add up to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes.) Set aside. Cook 11/2 pounds bulk sausage in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the sausage and cook, stirring constantly, until the flour has been absorbed, about 1 minute. Slowly stir in 3 cups whole milk and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 10, biscuits and gravy: 623 calories, 45 grams fat, 38 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams protein, 82 milligrams cholesterol, 947 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 65 percent of calories from fat.

Green chile cream gravy

This gravy recipe, from "Outlaw Chef" Terry Chandler, owner of Fred's Texas Cafe in Fort Worth, appears in the cookbook "Cooking the Cowboy Way." A recipe for Chandler's biscuits, including his own sourdough starter, also appears in the book.

Recipe notes say, "In Texas, you can't eat biscuits without a good, homemade gravy made with real cream. Terry's special gravy ... was made with fire-roasted green chiles. He likes Hatch or any other long, green chile from New Mexico, but poblano chiles will work, too."

Serves 10 to 14

6 large green chiles

1 pound hickory-smoked bacon

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

4 cups heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Roast the green chiles over an open heat source or under the broiler in an oven until they are black and blistered; transfer to a closed container to allow them to steam.

2. Once the chiles have cooled, about 20 minutes or so, put on gloves to peel, seed and chop them into a medium dice. Set the chiles aside.

3. Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat. When the bacon is crisp, remove it and set aside to drain on paper towels; reserve the bacon for putting on top of pan de campo, if desired.

4. To make a roux, stir the flour into the bacon grease over medium heat, stirring constantly until the flour stops foaming. Add the cream, increase the heat to medium-high, and stir until the gravy begins to thicken. Decrease the heat to medium or medium-low, continue to stir, and add the salt and pepper. Do not let the gravy boil. Stir in the green chiles, remove from the heat, and serve hot over biscuits.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 10: 635 calories, 58 grams fat, 13 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams protein, 169 milligrams cholesterol, 869 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 81 percent of calories from fat.

Buttermilk-pecan biscuits

Although Reata restaurant in Fort Worth only serves biscuits and gravy on its catering menu, all diners are treated to these mouthwatering biscuits before every meal. The recipe appears in the cookbook "Reata: Legendary Texas Cooking."

"... When you heat up a little leftover tenderloin, or better yet, a [chicken-fried steak], and serve these under a boatload of our cracked-pepper cream gravy," recipe notes say, "well, there's simply nothing better for breakfast." A recipe for the gravy appears in the book.

Makes about 15 biscuits

8 cups self-rising flour

2 cups pecans, coarsely chopped

3 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1. In a large bowl, thoroughly combine all the ingredients. Liberally flour a clean, dry work surface. Knead the dough several more times until it is elastic but not too sticky.

2. Roll the dough to about 3/4- to 1-inch thick. With a large knife, score the dough into 2-inch squares, being careful not to cut the dough all the way through. Place the scored dough on a baking sheet in one piece, then carefully slice through scores to make clean cuts. Let the biscuits rise on the baking sheet for about 1 hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes. The biscuits are done when the tops are golden brown. For some extra flavor, brush the tops with melted butter just before serving.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 372 calories, 12 grams fat, 57 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 907 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 28 percent of calories from fat.

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