Merry and Christmas lined up, in order, for the first time in my life when I was 16. It involved food. Of course it did. This is my story. I grew up in a family that knew how to read, but didn’t. But I did. From age three on, I set great store in what I could read with my own eyes. It felt verifiable. I read that Christmas was December 25, literally a red letter day according to the Farmer’s Hardware calendar that dangled off a nail in the wall above the phone on the kitchen wall. The calendar made no mention of merry, a dodgy adjective with strings attached that I had no idea how to pull.
The summer before my 16th Christmas, my dad’s only sister married a very good man, a man so good that even my mother liked him, and she didn’t like anyone, most especially my dad and me. Uncle Ben is the eldest son in his family. As such, he was (and is) the current keeper of the family’s buckwheat sourdough starter. One of his way-back German ancestors stirred up the first batch of the stuff in a handmade pottery crock. That opa (opa!) bequeathed the scion batch to his eldest son, and it’s been passed down to eldest sons for a century and counting. These men are responsible for keeping it going, both the starter and the tradition. Ben’s turn started that year, a token of his status as a newly married man. Because my aunt had the good sense (or luck) to marry into his clan, we Castles got to glom on to their pancake jamboree.
A few weeks before Christmas morning, Ben began feeding the starter so that he’d have enough batter to serve stacks on stacks of buckwheat pancakes to a full house. The keeper of the sourdough is also the pancake cook, so Ben maestroed the stove for at least two hours, greasing the griddle and ladling on puddles of batter in rows like dots on a set of dominos.
Sourdough buckwheat pancakes are not for the faint-hearted. They are blini the size of dinner plates, gray and pungent from fermentation, nothing like the fluffy syrup-sponges one gets at an IHOP. And get this: Ben’s branch of Watauga County hillbillies ate them topped with homemade sausage gravy. That’s right. Piping hotcakes bathed in glorious milk gravy shot through with crisp bits of fresh pork breakfast sausage redolent with sage and red pepper.
After we sopped the last of our gravy course, we scrapped our plates with the sides of our forks to make a clean spot for finale stacks that we buttered liberally and anointed with sweet sorghum syrup, our breakfast dessert. We ate all we wanted, which was a lot.
That weirdo Christmas breakfast was a game changer. Even I, a teenage girl with demeanor and disposition as thin and sour as a buckwheat pancake, understood and appreciated that no one, anywhere, was Christmasing merrier than we.
Avuncular Buckwheat Pancakes
- Yields: Makes about a dozen
You, nor I, can recreate my Uncle Ben’s sourdough buckwheat pancakes because you, nor I, have his starter and legacy. But we can come close enough with this recipe that utilizes yeast and an overnight rest.
These pancakes include unbleached wheat flour to temper the buckwheat and tenderize the pancakes. For stronger flavor, use all buckwheat flour. Buckwheat is a pyramid-shaped seed, not a grain, so its flour is gluten-free.
As for the sausage gravy, I’ll take you there. I’m the Gravy Whisperer. It’s been said before.
Stir together the water, yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Let stand in a warm spot until foamy, about 10 minutes.
Stir together the warm milk and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the yeast mixture. Stir in the all-purpose flour and buckwheat flour. Cover and let stand in a warm spot overnight. The mixture will increase in volume and bubble on top.
When ready to make the pancakes, stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, the melted butter, eggs, and baking soda.
Warm a griddle or heavy skillet over high heat until a sprinkling of water beads, turns white, and skitters away almost instantly. Brush with oil. Working in batches, ladle scant 1/4 cups of batter onto the hot griddle. When the tops of the cakes bubble, flip them and cook the other side. Adjust the heat and grease the pan as needed. Serve warm with sausage gravy (for savory) or sorghum syrup (for sweet).
Sheri’s Sausage Gravy
Warm a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Break the sausage into lumps and drop them into the skillet, spacing them evenly. Cook until browned all over with no traces of pink, about 5 minutes. Stir gently from time to time to break up the meat a bit more. The ideal texture is a combination of fine, crisp bits dotted with small tender clumps. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl.
Tilt the skillet to pool the fat in the bottom. If there is less than 3 tablespoons of fat, add enough bacon fat or butter to make up the difference.
Sprinkle the flour over the pan drippings, let stand for a few seconds so that the flour can soak up the fat, and then whisk to blend and to loosen the browned bits of goodie off the bottom of the pan. Cook for 2 minutes, whisking continuously. Don’t shortcut this step. It takes at last 2 minutes for the raw flour taste to cook away. It’s okay if the roux browns a little, but don’t let it scorch.
Add 3 cups of the warm milk in a slow, steady stream, whisking continuously.
Switch from a whisk to a heatproof spatula for stirring. Cook until the mixture thickens and bubbles, about 10 minutes, stirring slowly, continuously, and evenly over the bottom of the skillet. Scrape the edges every once in a while.
Return the sausage and any accumulated liquid to the skillet. Stir until warmed through and gently bubbling. If the gravy gets too thick, add a little more warm milk. No two pans of gravy act the same. Use your best judgment.
Season very generously with pepper. Serve piping hot.
Bulk Pork Breakfast Sausage
- Yields: Makes about 3 pounds
The saying goes that no one wants to see how sausage is made, but that’s faint praise, dammit. Homemade sausage isn’t difficult and the quality is within your control.
The best texture for sausage comes from a meat grinder, either the old-fashioned hand crank type or an attachment to a heavy duty stand mixer. In lieu of those, finely chop the meat in a food processor. No matter the method, keep all of the ingredients, the equipment, and your hands cold, which makes for better, safer sausage.
This recipe yields more sausage than is needed for one batch of gravy, but fresh sausage can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to three months.
Spread the pork on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the freezer until the fat is very firm, but not frozen solid, about 20 minutes.
Force the meat through a fine-grinding die of a meat grinder or pulse in small batches in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. If the meat bogs down, add a trickle of ice water to get it moving again. Collect the ground meat on the rimmed baking sheet.
Stir together the remaining ingredients in a small bowl and sprinkle it over the meat. Using hands dipped in ice water as needed to keep the pork fat from melting, knead the mixture until the spices are well incorporated and the meat is smooth and sticky, about 5 minutes.
Cook at once or wrap tightly and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.