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
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.
Sheri’s Sausage Gravy
Photo by LauriPatterson via Getty Images
Bulk Pork Breakfast Sausage
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.
¼ cup lukewarm water (105° to 110°F)
1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 cups whole milk, warmed (105° to 110°F)
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
5 tablespoons butter, melted
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon baking soda
Vegetable oil or bacon fat, for the griddle
1 pound bulk hot pork breakfast sausage (storebought or homemade; recipe follows)
1 to 2 tablespoons bacon fat or butter, as needed
¼ cup instant or all-purpose flour
3 to 4 cups whole milk, warmed
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 pounds boneless, well-marbled pork shoulder (aka Boston Butt), cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons dried sage
1 ½ teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
How to Make It
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.
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.
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.