Make Ahead: Make it Easy for the Holidays Tuesday, Nov 30 2010 


I’m smiling here, teaching at Stonewall Kitchen. What’s not to smile about? Really, nice people, an incredible kitchen, and I adore Maine. It’s a very special place for me and holds very precious memories.

I smile a lot in the kitchen. I love, love, love what I do.

But, don’t get me wrong, I’ve scowled plenty. Plenty.

Sometimes cooking is hard back-breaking work. And, it’s dangerous – it’s hot and filled with things that can burn you and sharp things that can make you bleed. You think that’s bad? The worst part is adding disorganization. Not being organized and efficient just makes Hell worse.

I haven’t worked on a line in a while, but I have, and when you are “in the weeds” it can be absolutely insane. It becomes comedic at certain points, like a Lucille Ball skit, the orders piling in one after another seemingly one quick second after another. Line cooks rely on the (often scowling) expiditer to keep them on track. I’ve also scowled when facing plate up for 800 or so many people – the quantities just become absurd. A spoonful of grits for 800 people becomes 25 gallons of grits. Waking up at o-dark thirty for food television, unripe apricots for a prima donna celebrity chef’s margarita segment, getting the screamers on set from the cooking show host, and finding the “beauty” plate in the trash before it’s been shot does not bring a smile to my face.

No matter what the kitchen, the most important thing to consider is doing what can be done ahead — before you are slammed so bad you can’t see straight.

And, here, I point out to you that we are now in the holidays, a crazy time for everybody. There are parties, shopping, entertaining, lots of obligations we don’t normally have. Often the weather is bad and people’s driving skills become nonexistent.

My answer? Make it easy and make it ahead. It’s about spending time with friends and family – and smiling – not stressing in the kitchen. Here are some recipes I hope you will enjoy.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS There are a couple of additional hors d’oeuvres on my website, as well. See Holiday Recipes



Burgundian Honey Spice Bread

Makes two 9 x5 x 3-inch loaves

The wealthy and powerful Dukes of Burgundy controlled the spice trade in the Middle Ages. The windows of the shops and bakeries of Dijon are filed with tightly wrapped loaves of pain d’épice, the traditional honey spice bread of the region. It’s similar to American-style gingerbread only in that they both contain a variety of spices. The texture of the French bread, however, is denser, as it is traditionally baked at a low temperature for several hours, and the spice combination is slightly different. I’ve adapted this version to cook in less time at a higher temperature. The texture is not as traditional, but the flavor is still incredible. Ground fennel seed is not widely available; to order it, check out World Spice Market or simply grind your own in a spice grinder.

While at La Varenne, we served this bread for breakfast for special guests. It’s also wonderful with a hot cup of tea on a chilly afternoon.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the loaf pans
11/4 cups milk
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
11/2 cups honey (preferably tupelo, orange blossom, or sweet clover)
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons very finely chopped candied ginger
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons baking soda

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush two 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pans with butter. Cut four strips of parchment: two 15 x 5 inches, and two 14 x 8 inches. Lay the two long pieces of parchment the length of the buttered pan and press to adhere. Brush the parchment with butter. Lay the two wider pieces crosswise on top. Brush the parchment with butter. Everything must be very well buttered or the bread will stick.

Heat the milk, brown sugar, and honey in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and set aside until slightly cooled.

To make the batter, in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, combine the flour, ground fennel, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and salt. In two batches, add the honey mixture and candied ginger. Scrape down the sides as needed, and blend on low speed until just combined.

In a small liquid measuring cup, combine the egg, egg yolk, and baking soda. Stir to combine. Add the egg mixture to the batter and beat until well blended.

To bake the loaves, pour the batter into the prepared loaf pans, dividing it evenly and not filling the pans more than halfway. Bake, rotating once, until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cover with aluminum foil if the bread starts to become too dark.

Remove the loaves to a rack to cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Turn them out of the pans and immediately remove the parchment paper. Store very tightly wrapped in plastic wrap for up to 1 week.

French Toast Casserole
Serves 8

When my sister and I were young, our favorite mornings were when Mama would prepare French toast for breakfast. The smell of butter, kissed with cinnamon, combined with the heady scent of sizzling egg was a most welcome greeting as we bounded down the stairs. This version is made the night before, so you won’t find yourself camped in front of a hot griddle in the early morning, groggy and in need of caffeine. The next morning, remove it from the fridge to take the chill off. Grab a cup of coffee and pop it in the oven. By the time the table is set, the family is assembled, and you’re ready for your second cup, breakfast is ready.

Brioche and challah are yeast breads, rich with egg and butter, and make superlative French toast. My friend Barb Pires tells me H & F Bread Company has weekly orders from their stand at the Peachtree Road Farmers Marketfor this make ahead breakfast casserole. It’s certainly one of the most popular recipes in Bon Appétit, Y’all

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 loaf brioche or challah, sliced
11/2 inches thick (about 11/2 pounds)
8 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Confectioners’ sugar, for accompaniment
Sorghum, cane, or maple syrup, for accompaniment

Combine the melted butter and brown sugar in a baking dish. Arrange the bread slices in the dish. Whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in a bowl. Pour over the bread, letting it soak in. Top with the pecans. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Let the chilled casserole stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Bake until browned and set, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Sift over confectioners’ sugar. Serve hot or warm with sorghum, cane, or maple syrup.

Dede’s Cheese Straws
Makes about 6 dozen

When I was growing up, our nibbles were most often the cheese straws made by my grandfather, whom I called Dede. Dede was a tall, strapping man who knew the secret of a long, happy marriage to his iron-willed wife. As he put it, his blue eyes twinkling, he always got in the last word: “Yes, beloved.”

Dede would layer his cheese straws in a tin lined with sheets of butter-stained waxed paper smelling of sharp cheese and peppery cayenne. Everyone loves these cheese straws—I once caught a party guest stuffing his pockets with them.

A cookie press is needed to make these savory crackers. I prefer the version that resembles a caulking gun, although a turn-crank one will do. Some hard-core cheese straw makers invest in the electric version!

11/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/2 pound sharp Cheddar cheese, at room temperature, freshly grated
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Position the oven racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter 2 baking sheets.

To make the dough, in a small bowl, combine the flour, salt, and cayenne. Set aside. In a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, cream the cheese and butter on medium speed until smooth and well combined. Gradually add the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until smooth. (The dough can also be made in the bowl of a large food processor: grate the cheese with the grating blade, then transfer the cheese to a bowl and insert the metal blade. Pulse the dry ingredients to combine, then add the butter and cheese. Process until smooth.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for about 15 minutes.

To shape the dough, work it in your hands; it should be soft and pliable (like Play-Doh). Shape the dough into a cylinder and pack it into a cookie press fitted with the serrated ribbon disk.

Holding the cookie press at an angle to one of the prepared baking sheets, press the trigger twice, dragging the press away to make a long straw the length of the baking sheet. Repeat until you’ve covered the sheet, spacing the ribbons of dough 1 inch apart. Using a butter knife or offset spatula, cut each ribbon into 1- to 2-inch pieces. Repeat with the remaining dough and the other baking sheet. (If your cookie press extrudes the dough in fits and spurts, simply pick up the dough and reuse.)

Bake the cheese straws, rotating the baking sheets once, until lightly browned on the edges, about 20 minutes. Remove the baking sheets to a rack to cool slightly. Using an offset or slotted spatula, remove the individual cheese straws to cool completely.

making ahead: Store the cheese straws at room temperature in an airtight container between sheets of waxed paper. They will keep for 2 to 3 weeks.

Reprinted with permission from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House. Photo credit for food images: Ellen Silverman © 2008

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website,

Recipes for Thanksgiving Weekend: Easy HDs Wednesday, Nov 24 2010 

Here are a few recipes you can make over the next few days to nibble on. I have a lot to be thankful for – there’s a whole lot of good in my world. I am very grateful. Please consider taking a moment in these next few days and give thanks.

Drive safe and be careful.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!


Thyme Toasted Pecans
Makes 4 cups

Southerners always seem to have candied and spiced pecans around to nibble on during the holidays. My grandmother always made sweet pecans crusted with egg whites and sugar, using the nuts she and my grandfather had collected in the fall. So this version, with extra-virgin olive oil and herbs, is a real departure for my family. Recipes such as this, with a short ingredients list, are completely determined by the quality of the ingredients. The shorter the list, the better the ingredients must be. I prefer to use Elliot pecans from Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Georgia. Pecans are the star, but the choice of olive oil and salt is crucial to the success of the dish. Use the finest possible. This recipe is splendidly simple, just perfect with apéritifs and for cocktail parties.

4 cups pecan halves
2 teaspoons coarse salt or sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a large, dry skillet, toast the pecans over medium heat until golden brown and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the salt, pepper, thyme leaves, and olive oil.

Add the warm toasted pecans to the thyme-oil mixture. Stir well to combine and evenly coat the pecans. The fragrance is amazing! Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

making ahead: Once the seasoned nuts have cooled, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Bring them to room temperature before serving.

Belgian Endive with Gold Coast Shrimp Salad

Makes about 30 hors d’oeuvres

We sometimes vacation at Jekyll and St. Simons Islands, part of a region that Georgians call the “Golden Isles” or “Gold Coast.” For many years, it was the vacation retreat of very wealthy families from the Northeast. But it was another sort of gold that inspired the name: according to a local historian, it was named centuries ago by the first settlers, who were dazzled by the golden glow of the marshes at dusk. These marshes, the clear estuaries, and the surrounding waters are also home to sweet wild Atlantic shrimp.

With the endive leaves arranged in concentric circles on a platter, this is an especially attractive addition to the buffet table.

12 cups water
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
1 lemon, halved
1/2 onion, preferably Vidalia, peeled
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1 tablespoon coarse salt, plus more to taste
1 pound unshelled large shrimp (21/25 count)
4 to 6 heads Belgian endive
3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper
30 fresh tarragon leaves, for garnish

To poach the shrimp, combine the water, carrot, celery, lemon, onion, bay leaves, and 1 tablespoon of the salt in a large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to low. Simmer gently for about 10 minutes to make a flavorful court-bouillon.

Have ready a frozen freezer pack sealed in a heavy-duty plastic bag or a large heavy-duty sealable plastic bag filled with ice cubes. Make an ice bath to cool the shrimp: transfer several cups (or more, depending on the quantity of shrimp) of the broth to a large heatproof bowl. Place the ice pack in the bowl of broth; move the pack around until the broth is well chilled (drain and add more ice to the bag as needed). Return the heat to high and bring the remaining mixture to a rolling boil. Add the shrimp and boil until the shells are pink and the meat is white, 1 to 2 minutes. Do not overcook.

Drain the shrimp in a colander or remove with a slotted spoon, then immediately transfer to the chilled liquid to stop the cooking process. Set aside.

To prepare the endive, cut off and discard the root ends. Pull the heads apart one leaf at a time. Arrange the leaves in concentric circles like a flower on a large platter.

To prepare the salad, peel, devein, and coarsely chop the shrimp. Place in a bowl with the chopped tarragon and mayonnaise; stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

To assemble, place 1 generous teaspoon of shrimp salad near the trimmed bottom edge of each endive leaf. Garnish each with a tarragon leaf. Serve immediately.

making ahead: The shrimp salad can be prepared completely ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. The leaves can be prepared and wrapped in damp paper towels in a sealable plastic bag overnight. Finally, up to 2 hours ahead, the filled endive leaves can be arranged on the platter, covered with a damp paper towel, and refrigerated. Serve chilled.

Pimento Cheese in Cherry Tomatoes

Makes about 32 nibbles, or 4 cups filling

The “pâté of the South,” pimento cheese is the epitome of a summer picnic delight. Everyone has a slightly different recipe, but the primary ingredients remain the same. Don’t be tempted to buy grated cheese, because the end result won’t be creamy enough. Try this stuffed in tomatoes, slathered on a celery stick, or (one of my favorites) straight from the bowl on a spoon.

11/2 pounds grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (about 4 cups)

1/2 onion, preferably Vidalia, grated

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1 (4-ounce) jar pimentos, drained and finely chopped

Dash of hot sauce

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

32 bite-size cherry tomatoes

32 small fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

To make the pimento cheese, combine the cheese, onion, and mayonnaise in a bowl. Stir until well combined. Add the pimentos and hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Meanwhile, using a serrated knife, slice off the top third of each cherry tomato. Using your index finger or a very small spoon, remove and discard the seeds and inside flesh of the tomatoes.

To fill the tomatoes, place the pimento cheese mixture in a piping bag fitted with a large round tip or use a medium sealable plastic bag with one of the corner tips snipped off. Fill each tomato with the mixture, allowing a little to rise above the tops. Garnish each tomato with a parsley leaf. Serve immediately.

making ahead: The prepared cheese filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. The cherry tomatoes can be prepared up to 24 hours before serving: prep the tomatoes and store them, cut side down, on a baking sheet lined with damp paper towels. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to fill.

variation: For real comfort food, try warm pimento-cheese toasts. Place slices of sourdough bread on a baking sheet and brown on one side under the broiler. Turn over and thickly spread with pimento cheese. Return to the broiler and toast until the cheese is melted and bubbly, 5 to 7 minutes. Curl up on the sofa and enjoy.

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