If there’s one condiment Southerners treat with great respect, it’s gravy. So much so that the Southern Foodways Alliance named its quarterly journal after the savory dressing. For the next four weeks, Sheri Castle, author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook, will share her favorite gravy recipes in the SFA series Inside the Boat.
The idea of chocolate gravy leaves no one unmoved. Some people don’t understand the concept and want no part of it. Everyone else wants all of it.
People who adore chocolate gravy understand these things:
1) It is called “gravy” because long ago, any roux-thickened sauce made in a skillet, whether savory or sweet, was called gravy.
2) Warm chocolate gravy is sometimes called “soppin’ chocolate” because it is usually served with hot biscuits for a special breakfast, although no one in their right mind would turn it down as a dessert. Southerners do not shy away from dousing their biscuits in something sweet and syrupy. Sop ‘em if you got ‘em.
3) Chocolate gravy is thicker than fudge sauce and thinner than chocolate pudding, yet delivers the solid, sincere chocolate experience of both.
We’ll never know for sure, but chocolate gravy probably originated somewhere in the Mountain South and spread through the hillbilly diaspora. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America theorizes that it might have been an offshoot of a trading network between Spanish Louisiana and the Tennessee Valley, bringing “Mexican-style breakfast chocolate to the Appalachians.” The entry also suggests that it could have been passed down from Spanish colonies on the East Coast in the 16th and 17th centuries by the mixed-race ethnic group known as the Melungeons.
Those historians might be right, but I remain convinced that the first person who made chocolate gravy was a resourceful mama. It is made from simple groceries (cocoa powder and sugar) available from a country or company store combined with farmstead staples (milk and butter or bacon drippings). When sweet treats were few and far between, chocolate gravy was an inexpensive way to turn ordinary biscuits into something special.
There are two very different approaches, if not philosophies, to making chocolate gravy. One starts with pan drippings from frying bacon, creating a sweet and smoky concoction that appeals to people who adore candied bacon and bacon-blessed chocolate bars. A subset of the bacon bunch adds a little ground chile to create a gravy that is reminiscent of Mexican mole sauce.
The other style of chocolate gravy starts with the dry ingredients and relies on butter, which is what I share below. I freely admit that I am a devotee of this style because that’s how my people make it, but I try to be open-minded to other versions.
Not everyone is swayable. Straw polls and social media debates reveal that people who cook and eat chocolate gravy are surprisingly loyal to their style over all others. Some people even argue over whether the biscuits should be split (and perhaps buttered and toasted) and served on a plate or crumbled into a bowl before the gravy goes on. Folks just need to settle down. Chocolate gravy should soothe nerves, not fray them.
Makes about 2 cups, which is at least 1 serving
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of kosher salt
2 cups whole milk
4 tablespoons butter, cubed
Good biscuits, for serving
- Sift the cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt into a large skillet, preferably cast-iron. Add the milk in a slow, steady stream, whisking until smooth.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously with a heatproof spatula or wooden spoon, until the gravy thickens to the consistency of thin pudding, about 8 minutes. The gravy will thicken around the edge first, so keep it stirred up from the bottom and sides.
- Remove the skillet from the heat and drop in the butter. Stir until melted and smooth.
- Serve the warm gravy with the biscuits.
Note: The gravy thickens as it sits and cools. Thin it with a little more milk if needed when rewarmed.
Sheri Castle is a food writer, cooking teacher, and author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is fueled by farmers’ market fare, good stories, and excellent bourbon.