Awe, Gratitude, and Rooming with Julia Child Tuesday, Aug 14 2012 


L»R: Julia Child, Nathalie Dupree, and a young Virginia Willis

Meeting Julia Child

The first time I actually met Julia I was completely awestruck. My mentor Nathalie Dupree and I were attending a media breakfast event at Food Network. (The very, very first time doesn’t count. It was a booksigning and I was struck dumb and mute. I had to be nudged to take my newly signed book from her and then was escorted away. It was kind of embarrassing.) Anyway, after the breakfast I was in a pre-production meeting for Nathalie in the test kitchen and Julia poked her head in to say what a good job everyone had done on the breakfast and thanked all the cooks. I was so impressed at her gratitude. By that time I was working behind the scenes with quite a few other celebrity chefs and believe me, some of them were not that kind or gracious. Her polite kindness and professionalism really stuck with me.

After working for Nathalie, I left to apprentice with Anne Willan at LaVarenne in Burgundy, France. As if living and working in a 17th century French chateau weren’t life-changing enough – eating new foods, tasting new flavors, learning new cooking techniques – Julia Child would come to visit Anne for several weeks each summer. Seriously. Those were bizarre, surreal times. One moment I would casually say to her, “Ma’am, could you please pass the salad” or “Would you care for cream” as we stood in the kitchen drinking coffee. It was as normal as normal could be. The next moment I would be overcome by screams in my head of “OH MY GOSH, THAT’S JULIA CHILD!!!”

She was always kind, always polite, always interested in what we stagiares were doing. She always said thank you for the meal and our work. She would thank the caretaker, Monsieur Milbert, when they crossed paths in the morning as he dropped off the vegetables from the potager. (I am sure she wasn’t always a saint, but my high esteem for her had a great deal to do with why  I got sooo ticked off about the movie and wound up on the phone with ABC news.)

We cooked together several times over the weeks she was there, and that was one of the more rewarding experiences of my whole, entire life. After all, the primary reason I was in France to begin with was greatly the result of her books and influences on my mother, which deeply affected my thoughts and feelings on food and cooking, as well. LaVarenne, itself, was created at the encouragement of Julia Child. To say she was a “huge influence” on me does not remotely express the fullness and depth of it. And, she affected many, many lives. For all practical purposes, she started food television and was one of the biggest influencers of food and cooking of the 20th century. It was a true honor and pleasure to cook with her.

LaVarenne at the Greenbrier

Summer ended, my apprenticeship at LaVarenne led to a job and in winter I travelled stateside when Anne would go to the US for “LaVarenne at the Greenbrier.” One cold March I drove over from DC to West Virginia along winding mountain roads in freezing rain and snow to arrive long after dark. I was staying with Anne and her husband Mark in their cottage, yet when I entered, I {somewhat gleefully} realized they were still out at dinner. I was very tired and thought what luck! Anne and I can catch up on reviewing my work and recipe testing tomorrow morning. I quickly dozed off and shortly thereafter, I heard a loud “knock-knock” at my bedroom door.

Anne’s crisp English accent called out, “Virginia, are you there?”

I rubbed my eyes and {less gleefully} quickly changed from my pajamas for our meeting. Clearly, Anne didn’t want to wait as I did to discuss the recipe testing results of the previous week. Sigh. We sat around the coffee table and discussed the work. After our meeting, she began to hem and haw. It seemed she wanted to ask me something.

I was a bit grumpy at our late-night meeting and began to be concerned. Anne Willan is not one too hesitate, hem, or haw.

Finally, she slowly, carefully said, “Stephanie is going back to Boston and I’m wondering if you would mind staying with Julia?”

She asked me like it was a favor.

I nearly passed out, but somehow I kept it together and sputtered out a “Yes, ma’am.” The next moments are blurry and I’m not at all certain I slept that night. I wanted to do cartwheels down the mountain. I do know the next morning the bellman came and moved my belongings to a suite with wallpaper festooned with loud, garish pink rhododendrons the size of a dinner plate in typical Greenbrier fashion.

I was rooming with Julia Child.

I treated her just as I did my grandmother. I helped her get from point A to point B. I carried her books and papers, made sure she didn’t forget her cane. Late at night I escorted her back after the long fireside chats. It was incredible. She was always very nice, kind, polite, and very thankful for my assistance.

I don’t think my toes touched the ground for days.

In the next year or so we’d see each other at professional events and conferences. She was always mobbed with people. She was an absolute rock star, yet I never heard a cross word about her or her behavior. One event was a professional dinner in NYC while I was working for Epicurious. It was years after her guest appearance during my stint as Kitchen Director at Martha Stewart, even longer after LaVarenne and sharing a suite at the Greenbrier. My friend suggested I go over to her and say hello like all the others. I declined, I really just wanted her to be able to eat her dinner in peace. Finally, there was a bit of a lull in the adoration so I got up the gumption to go say hello. (Yes, I was still positively awestruck.)

Honestly, I didn’t know if she’d remember me. She met so many young doe-eyed girls just like me who somehow felt that she had saved their lives. I decided I might need to give her a hint, a point of reference. I walked over and re-introduced myself, “Julia, it’s “Anne Willan’s apprentice, Virginia, I am so sorry to bother you…”

In her great, warbly voice she interrupted me, “Yes, I know who you are, I was wondering why you hadn’t come over to say hello.” She then patted the seat beside her and I sat down to catch up. Once again, she was kind, interested, and polite.

Julia Child has long been an inspiration and will long continue to be for me and many others. It was an honor and pleasure to have made her acquaintance. I always endeavor to keep her professionalism and gratitude in my mind and heart.

In honor of the anniversary of her 100th birthday I’m sharing a recipe from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all for a traditional French vegetable salad, Salade Macedoine with my own Southern twist.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS For those of you in New England, I’m at Odyssey Bookshop this Thursday August 16th with a demo, tasty samples, and signing.

Southern Salade Macédoine
Serves 4

Corn, butter beans, and green beans are summer staples in the south. Macédoine refers to a mixture of cut fruits or vegetables of different colors. The key in this salad is everything is cut about the same size. In classic French cooking, the use of an artichoke bottom as a garniture is termed châtelaine, also a term for the mistress of a château, indicating something very elegant. If you wanted to simplify, you could simply put the salade macedoine in a cored and scooped out tomato.

4 artichokes
4 cups water
2 lemons, halved
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
2 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked and silk removed
1 cup freshly shelled butter beans (about 12 ounces unshelled) or thawed frozen butter beans or edamame
6 ounces green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch lengths (about 1 cup)
2 carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (such as tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, and basil)
Coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper
8 ounces mesclun salad greens

Using a sharp kitchen knife, trim all but an inch of the stem from 4 artichokes. Cut off the top two-thirds, leaving about 1½ inches at the base. Hold the artichoke upside down and pare away the leaves, leaving just the pale green center. Rub the cut surface with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Holding the bottom in the palm of one hand, scoop out the fuzzy choke with a spoon. Place in a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon to reduce oxidation and browning until you are ready to cook.

To cook the hearts, heat 4 cups salted water in a heavy pot over medium-high heat to a gentle boil. Add 1 halved lemon, thyme, an bay leaf, and the prepared artichoke bottoms. Cover with a smaller lid or heatproof plate to weigh down and keep the bottoms submerged. Cook over medium heat until the hearts are tender when pierced with knife, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line a plate with paper towels. Remove with a slotted spoon to the bowl of ice water to cool.

To cook the corn, bring 2nd pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the corn and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with tongs to the ice water to cool and then transfer to the towel-lined plate to drain. (Do not drain the water from the pot, you will use it to cook the other vegetables.)

To cook the butter beans, add them to the simmering water and simmer until tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. (Taste one and see how tender it is; the cooking time will depend on their freshness.) About 15 minutes into the cooking, add the green beans and carrots. Meanwhile, cut the corn kernels from the cobs and place in a large bowl.

Drain the vegetables well in a colander, and then set the colander with the vegetables in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the vegetables are submerged. Lift out of the water, shake well to remove the excess water, then transfer the vegetables to the bowl with the corn. Add the mayonnaise and herbs. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Once the artichokes are cooled, remove and pat dry. Drizzle with pure olive oil and season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place artichoke hearts on chilled serving plates, trimming if necessary so they sit flat. Top with the greens and a spoonful of the chilled vegetable mixture. Season with finishing salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately.

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Photo credit Salade Macedoine: Helene Dujardin
Recipe adapted from Basic to Brilliant, Y’all

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

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

How to Make Biscuits: Baking Secrets and Five Recipes Friday, Aug 19 2011 

What’s The Secret to a Perfect Biscuit?

I’ve been asked quite a bit about biscuits these past few months.

Folks pull me aside at book-signings. As I am spending the summer in New England, random folks hear my accent and ask about Southern biscuits. People reach out on Twitter and Facebook. I also get at least a couple emails a week asking about how to make biscuits.

This week it was a plea for a lost recipe, ” They were very light and fluffy, think she used lard and cut the biscuits out and let the dough rest while we went to church. The bread and biscuits were better than any bread or biscuits I have ever tasted.”

I love biscuits and I am not alone.

I have a fantasy of opening a street-front, window only walk-up restaurant in NYC and sell nothing but biscuits and grits. It’s not that I think that there are that many displaced Southerners in NYC. No, not at all. It’s that everyone loves biscuits. Those folks may think they like bagels, but in my opinion, they just haven’t met the right biscuit.

There’s no doubt in my mind that nothing says comfort like a fluffy, buttery biscuit.

No, I am not talking about those obscenely large and layered monstrosities that the fast food places sell. Or those bizarrely soft and spongy cans of biscuit dough that have a shelf life of 6 months!? Those kind of biscuits only exist because of chemical manipulation and ingredients that end in letters like “-ceride” and “-pylene.”

I am talking about flour, fat, liquid, leavener, and salt.

A few weeks ago I gave an impromptu biscuit making class. We made biscuits side by side with two kinds of flours. In the photograph below, Gold Medal All Purpose flour is on the left, and White Lily All Purpose flour on the right. See the difference?

Secrets of Southern Flour

Wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. When you combine flour with water, the proteins create a strong and elastic sheet called gluten. Flours vary in their protein levels, which affects the texture of baked goods. Gluten gives structure to yeast breads, but is not recommended for tender cakes, biscuits, and quick breads. Southern all-purpose flour is milled from soft red winter wheat that has less gluten-forming protein. It is typically bleached, which makes it whiter, but this does not affect the protein. My family has always used White Lily flour, a staple across the South; another dependable Southern brand is Martha White.

Most national brands of all-purpose flour are a combination of soft winter wheat and higher-protein hard summer wheat. White Lily contains approximately nine grams of protein per cup of flour, whereas national brands can contain eleven or twelve grams of protein per cup of flour. If you live outside the South, White Lily is available online or in some specialty shops in other parts of the country.

For results similar to those of Southern flour, substitute one part all-purpose flour and one part cake flour for the amount of Southern flour in a recipe. Finally, high-protein flour absorbs more liquid than does low-protein flour; if you attempt to make biscuits with a high-protein flour, you will need to add more liquid.

Want to know more?

Want to know just how easy it is to make mouth-watering, buttery biscuits?

Want to know how to have hot, fresh, homemade bread on the table in minutes?

Want to perhaps find your lost recipe?

Well, I’ve got the book for you.

My friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree has just released a new book called Southern Biscuits she co-wrote with Cynthia Grauburt.

It’s The Book on How to Make a Biscuit. Period.

It’s the definitive biscuit book with recipes and secrets to creating every style of biscuit imaginable.

It’s filled with amazing photographs including dozens of how-to photos showing how to mix, stir, fold, roll, and knead.

It also explains what ingredients to use and how the type of flour, fat, and liquid affects the end result; how to cut, hand-shape, or scoop the dough; time and temperature.

Like I said, it’s How to Make Biscuits. Period.

Before you get your copy of the book, I’ll leave you with a few recipes and tips on making biscuits. (And, after all, remember, after Meme and Mama, Nathalie first taught me, too.)

Tips and Techniques on Making Biscuits

  • Chill the bowl used to mix the dough as well as the pastry blender to prevent the butter or shortening from warming up.
  • Cut the butter into flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Cold bits of butter or fat will melt during baking, creating pockets of steam that give biscuits their flakiness.
  • When working with butter, cut it into small pieces, and chill again before adding to dry ingredients.
  • Dip the cutter in flour. Cut the biscuits smoothly and cleanly straight down without twisting. Twisting can seal the dough and prevent the rise.
  • As Nathalie used to tell me, “Get your hot little hands off that dough.” Handle the dough as little as possible. You don’t want to make the biscuits tough by overworking, and you want the fat to stay cold until the biscuits bake.
  • A very hot oven is essential. The steam interacts with the baking powder to create the biscuit’s ideal textures inside and out.
  • The perfect biscuit should be golden brown and slightly crisp on the outside, with a light, airy interior. For a flaky, tender biscuit, don’t overwork the dough: gently combine the ingredients until just blended.

I hope you enjoy this collection of recipes. Keep me posted on what you’re doing – both success and failure stories. Shoot me a comment or email. I’m happy to try to help.

Lastly, a couple of things to share since I am marrying my newsletter and blog. I’ve decided I should call this “Mama’s Reading List!” This week I was interviewed for USA Today about Georgia peaches and Roberta and Lois from Kosher Eye called to chat about Southern Food. And, please check out Lisa is Cooking to see what’s on my bedside table.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

PS The recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits is a sneak peek at Basic to Brilliant, Y’all .(Shh, don’t tell!)

Meme’s Biscuits

Makes about 9 biscuits

Meme most often made rolled biscuits. For large biscuits, she had a special aluminum cutter with a small wooden handle that fit in the palm of her hand. She cut out small biscuits with an empty apple juice can open at both ends. Some purists use lard instead of butter. Although I like biscuits made with lard and understand the tradition and history, Meme and Mama had started using butter by the time I was born.

2 cups White Lily or other Southern all-purpose flour, or cake flour (not self-rising), more for rolling out
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits and chilled
3/4 to 1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 500°F. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. Pour in the buttermilk, and gently mix until just combined.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat 8 or so times. (It’s not yeast bread; you want to just barely activate the gluten, not overwork it.) Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out 1/2 inch thick. Cut out rounds of dough with a 21/4-inch round cutter dipped in flour; press the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked.

Place the biscuits on an ungreased baking sheet or in an 8- by 2-inch round cake pan. If the biscuits are baked close together the sides will be moist. If the biscuits are baked further apart, the sides will be crisp.

Bake until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool just slightly. Serve warm.

variation: If I don’t feel like rolling out biscuits, or just want a different texture, I tweak the recipe by adding more buttermilk to the dough and make drop biscuits: use 3 cups of flour—2 for the dough and 1 cup placed in a bowl to shape the dough into biscuits. Increase the buttermilk to 2 cups. The dough will be very wet and resemble cottage cheese. To form the biscuits into balls, scoop up some dough with a large ice cream scoop; place the dough balls in the bowl with the 1 cup of flour. Working one at a time, roll the balls to coat in flour, then set in an ungreased 8- by 2-inch round cake pan. The baking time will be the same as for cut biscuits.

Sneak Peek Sweet Potato Biscuits
Makes about 16

2 medium sweet potatoes
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup low-fat or whole milk

Preheat the oven to 400°F.Bake or microwave the sweet potatoes until soft and tender, about 45 minutes in the oven or about 10 minutes in the microwave. Set aside to cool.

When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to touch, peel and mash until smooth in a food processor fitted with a metal blade or with an old-fashioned potato masher. Measure out 1 cup and reserve the rest for another use.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment paper. Set aside. In the same bowl of the food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Pulse in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Combine the sweet potato and milk in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Add the potato mixture to the flour mixture, pulsing just until moist.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead lightly four or five times. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough 3/4 inch thick. Cut out 10 biscuits with a 2-inch biscuit cutter, pressing the cutter straight down without twisting so the biscuits will rise evenly when baked. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Gather together the scraps (by placing the pieces on top of one another in layers instead of bunching it up). Roll out 3/4 inch thick. Cut with the biscuit cutter into 5 or 6 more biscuits. Place the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet. Discard any remaining scraps.

Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Nathalie’s Yogurt Biscuits

Makes 12 (2-inch) biscuits

Yogurt makes a very light, tangy biscuit. With homemade or commercial self-rising flour, it is a simple matter. Yogurt varies in consistency, from the thick cream-topped to the thinner generic brands, so it is always a judgment call as to how much to use to make a wet dough. Do not be tempted to use nonfat or light yogurt as they have additives that will change the nature of the biscuit. But if the yogurt is so thick you can’t incorporate it, feel free to add a bit of milk or buttermilk. These crisp biscuits triple in size and cut easily.

2 1⁄4 cups self-rising flour, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup plain yogurt, divided
Softened butter, for brushing

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior is desired. For a soft exterior, select an 8- or 9-inch cake pan, pizza pan, or oven-proof skillet where the biscuits will nestle together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to circulate and creating a crisper exterior, and brush the pan with butter.

Fork-sift or whisk 2 cups of flour and the salt in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep, and set aside the remaining 1⁄4 cup of flour. Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Pour 2⁄3 cup of yogurt into the hollow, reserving the 1⁄3 cup yogurt, and stir with a rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the yogurt. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1 to 4 tablespoons of reserved yogurt, just enough to incorporate the remaining flour into the shaggy wettish dough If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.

Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto the board and sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough out into a 1⁄3- to 1⁄2-inch-thick round, using a little additional flour only if needed. Flour again if necessary and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat dough out into a 1⁄2-inch thick round for a normal biscuit, 3⁄4-inch-thick for a tall

biscuit, and 1-inch-thick for a giant biscuit. Brush off any visible flour from the top. For each biscuit, dip a 2-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter.

The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although these scraps make tougher biscuits. Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 10 to 14 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning. Continue baking another 4 to 8 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, remove from the oven and lightly brush the tops with softened or melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.

Senator Holling’s Carolina Biscuits

Makes 20 (1-inch) biscuits

According to Nathalie, U.S. Senator “Fritz” Hollings, one of the truly great raconteurs of the twentieth century, posted this recipe on his website. Also called Carolina Biscuits by some, they are the kind of Southern hors d’oeuvre greedily eaten as opposed to nibbling while standing around drinking and telling stories. Without a doubt the flakiest and richest of all the biscuits we’ve made, these tiny

bites melt in the mouth, need no embellishment, and can be served unadorned, warm out of the oven or at room temperature. As someone said, “I can’t believe how good these are.”

There is no sense doing this by hand when a food processor is available, making it easy and stress-free.

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2⁄3 cup butter, softened
1 cup self-rising flour, divided
Softened butter, for brushing

Pulse together the cream cheese, 2⁄3 cup of butter, and 1 cup of the flour two or three times in a food processor fitted with the knife or dough blade. Turn the dough out onto waxed paper and divide into two rounds. Wrap in waxed paper, plastic wrap, or a resealable plastic bag, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly sprinkle a board or other clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Sprinkle the top lightly with flour. With floured hands and a floured rolling pin, roll out one portion of the dough at a time to approximately 1⁄2 inch thick. For each biscuit, dip a 1- to 1 1⁄4-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out the biscuits, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter. The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although these scraps make tougher biscuits.

Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to an ungreased baking sheet, placing the biscuits 1 inch apart. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for a total of 10 to 12 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning.

Continue baking another 4 to 6 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, lightly brush the tops with melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up. These biscuits may be frozen, unbaked or baked, and reheated.

Nathalie’s Overnight Biscuit, Sausage, and Apple Casserole

Serves 8

Sausage and apple is one of my favorite food combinations, and I find ways to cook it into everything from quiches to this soufflé-like casserole, great for a brunch or long weekend.

2 pounds bulk sausage
2 tart apples, cored and sliced
6 cups torn or cut biscuits in 1⁄2-inch pieces
9 large eggs, beaten
3⁄4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1⁄2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
3 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fry the sausage in a skillet, breaking it up as it cooks, and drain on a paper towel. Reserve the fat and let the sausage cool. Sauté the apples in the reserved fat, remove from pan, and let cool.

Move the biscuit pieces to a large resealable plastic bag. Whisk together the eggs, mustard, cheese, and milk in a large bowl. Stir in the sausage and apples. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to the plastic bag. Place the bag inside another resealable plastic bag with the zipper facing another direction in order to prevent leaks. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight or up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pour mixture into a buttered 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish or divide between two 1 1⁄2-quart casseroles. Bake covered 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes until eggs are set and the center measures 200 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer.

Southern Biscuit © 2011 Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Stevens Graubart. Photographs © 2011 Rick McKee

Sneak Peak Sweet Potato Biscuits – Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company (Ten Speed Press 2011)

photos for Meme’s Biscuits and Sweet Potato Biscuits are by me.

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

Rise Up: Setting Goals & Peach Soufflés Thursday, Jul 28 2011 

NYC and Food52

This week I was in NYC and stopped by to see my friend and colleague Amanda Hesser. Amanda and I were at LaVarenne at the same time in the mid-90s. We were both editorial stagiares for Anne Willan. In school speak, Amanda would have been a “sophomore” when I was a “freshman.” It was great to see her. We also taped a segment for her website food52.

During the interview she asked me what all I did — I responded that everyday is completely different. Some days I am writing an article or testing recipes for a magazine or scheduling a cooking class. Other days I am food-styling for a photo shoot, or perhaps like today, puttering around on my blog. I might be consulting for a corporate client, planning a menu for a fundraising dinner, or working on pre-production for a TV shoot. My days are widely varied and I travel all the time, meeting new people, tasting new dishes, seeing new things. I love it.

Amanda then commented that it seemed I had the perfect food job. It struck me as interesting because last week I answered a series of questions for an interview and the journalist said pretty much the same thing.

Hmm….last I checked I thought Amanda had the perfect food job.

But, you know what? I think we just might share the title.

Open to Possibilities

I’ve been very fortunate regarding my experiences and who’s hired me – Nathalie Dupree, Bobby Flay, Anne Willan, Martha Stewart, Epicurious, Turner Broadcasting….

To be very clear, I am extremely thankful and incredibly blessed to get to do what I love and love what I do. I’m also not trying to brag or name-drop – those leads, jobs, and contacts didn’t, and still don’t, fall in my lap.

There’s no preferential treatment. I positively bristle at that suggestion. It’s unfair and rude. I love what I do, but I work hard. I set goals and put myself out there. Frankly, it’s all I know how to do and all I’ve ever done.

My attitude is that if you try, you might fail, but if you don’t try? You are certain to fail. When I was in culinary school my hand shot up first at the call for volunteers when it was time to strain the stock, clean the walk-in, or organize a messy jumble of pastry equipment. I felt that if I volunteered for the grunt work and did a good job that I would eventually be called upon to do something important.

Years later, I still have the same approach.

My first job cooking was as an unpaid apprentice for the taping of Nathalie Dupree’s TV cooking show on PBS. At the end of taping I asked if I could continue to apprentice. I did, and eventually Nathalie offered me a job. I knew I eventually wanted to go to France to learn, study, and eat. I set my goal to work as an stagière (French for unpaid apprentice) for Anne at LaVarenne. I wanted to learn more about the editorial process. After a series of interviews and recommendations, I was accepted and off I went. Amanda and I worked side by side in the LaVarenne kitchen, making jam and cooking dinner for 20 at the same time. I apprenticed for several months and eventually Anne offered me a job. I was meant to be there for 3 months and I was there for 3 years.

Several years later, I started the process of trying to get my foot in the door at Martha Stewart. It took me over a year to get an interview, but eventually I was able to trail for a day, that time-honored tradition of working in a kitchen “trailing” a lead cook. It’s where the rubber hits the road. A paper resume only means so much in a working kitchen. You’ve got to know how to cook.

In 2002, when I knew I was intended to move from NYC, I started the process of trying to get on at Turner Broadcasting. I moved South, but it took me nearly 3 years to get an interview at Turner. I persistently wrote gentle inquiries every 3 months and finally, nearly 3 years later, I was offered a job. In the meanwhile, it took me nearly the same amount of time to get Susan Puckett at the Atlanta Journal Constitution to let me write for her, but I did and it was one of the many steps that lead to writing my first cookbook.

It’s all about setting goals and putting myself out there, and yes, fierce determination and patience are also key.

It’s also important to remember it’s not always about the big name. I try my absolute best to respond just as quickly to the local PTA newsletter interview request as I do to a text message from the reporter at the New York Times. It’s the same principle as volunteering to strain the stock.

Rise Up

When I first went to France, one of my culinary goals was to learn to make soufflé. The first time I cooked a soufflé for Anne Willan, I opened the oven door to discover a lopsided disaster, something more like the tower of Pisa than le Tour Eiffel. I set my goal to learn from the master, I cooked a soufflé once a week for months. It was brutal. We’d huddle at the oven, and she’d cleanly, crisply dissect the soufflé (and my technique) — the whites weren’t beaten enough, or I’d needed more butter to coat the dish, or it needed a pinch of salt.

Finally, I called her in to see what I’d hoped to be my triumph. I squirmed nervously as she tasted the puffy and golden brown soufflé. She nodded and proclaimed I’d finally done it.

I am often asked, “What advice would I give aspiring food writers?” My answer? Set goals and put yourself out there.

Today I want to share with you some basic soufflé techniques and a couple of recipes to help you set goals, rise up, and make soufflés in your kitchen and in your life. I hope you enjoy.

Before I sign off,  I feel compelled to tell you about a friend and colleague who’s rising up and working tremendously hard on a very personal goal. Sally, who never ran more than a lap 2 months ago, is running a marathon — yes, a marathon, 26 miles and 385 yards, in October, a mere 5 months after she started training.

At 3 1/2 years old Sally was diagnosed with leukemia. Now in her mid-twenties, as a cancer survivor she’s raising money for Team In Training, and organization that helps raise money towards cures for blood cancers like leukemia — the No. #1 disease killer of children. Participants in Team in Training such as Sally, raise money for research and the support of cancer patients and their families. Sally set her goal to raise 10K and she’s already over 3/4 of the way there in less than 2 weeks! Now, that’s setting a goal. I am in awe of her fierce determination, the very same determination that is one of the reasons she is alive today.

Please do what you can to help and click here to read Sally’s story and contribute to her efforts.

Thanks for listening.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Georgia Peach Soufflés

Serves 6

This soufflé uses the meringue method to rise, and the flavor is delicate and light.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the ramekins
2 to 3 peaches, peeled and sliced (about 2 cups)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
7 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Generously butter six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside on a rimmed baking sheet.

In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the peaches until coarsely chopped. (The pieces should be no larger than 1/4 inch.) Remove 3/4 cup of the chopped peaches and place 2 tablespoons of them in each of the prepared ramekins. Set aside.

Add the lemon juice, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt to the remaining chopped peaches in the bowl of the food processor. Process until very smooth and pureed. Transfer 1 cup of the peach puree to a bowl, discarding any remainder or reserve for another use, such as an ice cream topping or base for a smoothie. Set aside.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the egg whites with a pinch of the salt on medium speed until foamy. Add about 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites hold soft peaks, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the remaining granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted.

Add about a quarter of the beaten egg whites to the peach puree mixture and stir until well mixed. Pour this mixture over the remaining whites and fold them together as lightly as possible.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared soufflé ramekins (the mixture should come up to the top of each). Smooth the top with a metal spatula. Run your thumb around the inside rim of each dish, making a shallow channel around the edge of the batter. (This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.) Set the filled soufflé ramekins on the rimmed baking sheet.

Bake until puffed, golden, and gently set in the center, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, and serve immediately.

Need more instruction? Check out me making Peach Soufflé with Lucinda Scala Quinn of Mad Hungry TV.

Basic Soufflé Techniques

Simplifying Soufflés

There are two basic kinds of baked soufflés: savory, which are served as a first course or a light meal, and sweet, which are served as desserts. The name itself originates from the French souffler, which means “to blow up.” It is controlling the “blowing up” that can be tricky. Simple baked soufflés are best served as a main-course lunch, light supper, or elegant starter, and of course, as the pièce de résistance for dessert.

Savory soufflés are composed of stiffly beaten egg whites and a flavored base made from a very thick, well-seasoned béchamel sauce. The sauce must be highly seasoned with flavorings and aromatics to compensate for the blandness of the egg whites. Baked dessert soufflés are made by one of two methods: preparing a flavored meringue by simply adding fruit purée or melted chocolate to a French or Swiss meringue or by preparing a flavored base of crème pâtissière (pastry cream) that performs similarly to the béchamel sauce. Dessert soufflés are very simple, since the sugar and chocolate help create a very stable foam.

Preparing the Soufflé Mold

The dish must also be well coated with softened (not melted), room temperature butter to insure the soufflé will climb the sides of the dish and not stick as the mixture rises and expands. Often when the mixture sticks, it will create a lopsided soufflé. To coat the dish, brush the inside of the soufflé mold with butter and place it in the refrigerator. As the butter chills and firms, you can very clearly see any spots you might have missed.

Properly beaten egg whites are the key to a masterful soufflé. While the soufflé is in the oven, the air trapped inside the egg whites expands, causing the soufflé to rise. Beating egg whites is quite simply incorporating air into the egg white foam. Very fresh eggs will produce a more stable foam. To create a stable foam, it is imperative that the whites must be absolutely free of any yolk or fat. Even a mere drop of yolk or fat will hinder the foam formation. The bowl and beaters must be spotlessly clean; use only glass or stainless steel bowls, as plastic bowls can retain a film of oil.
It is easier to separate eggs when they are cold and straight from the refrigerator; the whites and yolks are firmer and less likely to break. When separating eggs, crack one egg at a time into a cup, transferring each white to the mixing bowl only after it is successfully separated. There is nothing worse that ruining the entire batch on the last egg! Many soufflé recipes will call for 1 to 2 more whites than yolks to enhance the volume. Even though it is best to separate eggs when they are cold, egg whites will whip to greater volume when they have had a chance to warm slightly. To achieve this, let the egg whites stand at room temperature in the mixing bowl while you assemble the remaining ingredients. When ready to beat the whites, start slowly. In the clean metal bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy. Add a bit of cream of tartar or vinegar. Adding acid helps create a stable foam that will hold up until heat cooks the egg proteins and sets the soufflé.

After adding the acid, increase the speed to high and continue beating just until the whites are stiff, but not dry, and no longer slip when the bowl is tilted. (My mentor Nathalie Dupree used to hold the bowl upside down over my head to test whether I had properly whipped the whites!) If the whites are underbeaten, they won’t achieve full volume. If overbeaten, the whites will appear “rocky” and can’t hold air well because all of the bubbles are smashed. Rocky, overbeaten whites will not expand properly when heated. Sometimes beating in an additional egg white might bring back a batch of overbeaten whites.

How to Fold

Once you have gone to the trouble of putting all that air in the whites, it is important not to deflate the whites when mixing them with the soufflé base. Folding is folding, not stirring. Gentle folding is the key to maintaining volume. I sacrifice about a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten the yolk mixture before adding the rest of the whites. This helps blend the whites with the base and makes the real folding easier. Then add the remaining whites. Using a large rubber spatula, gradually combine the mixtures with a downward stroke into the bowl, continuing across the bottom, up the side, and over the top of the mixture. Come up through the center every few strokes and rotate the bowl often as you fold. You are bringing a bit of the soufflé mixture at the bottom of the bowl up and over the egg whites. Fold just until there are no streaks remaining. Then, gently pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Lastly, run your thumb around the inside rim of the dish, making a shallow trough around the edge of the batter. This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.

The soufflé treatise is reprinted from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking (Ten Speed Press 2008).

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

Southern Saturdays with Virginia: Seafood Gumbo Thursday, Jan 27 2011 

It’s so cold in much of the country. This winter has been astonishing! It’s snowed twice in Atlanta, Georgia and we were shut down for a week. Last week I was in Birmingham, Alabama for Food Blog South and it was freezing! Even though it was cold, I had a great time listening and learning from so many great speakers and attendees including Alison Lewis, Kim Severson, Jennifer Davick, and
Christy Jordan of Southern Plate.

Since I was speaking I couldn’t get in the kitchen with you so thanks so much for all of you that sent me photos and notes from last weeks’s Southern Saturdays with Virginia! WOW!! Very cool. Isn’t it awesome we can connect all over the world in the kitchen?

Let me share this note – it made me, leakey around the eyeballs…

I must say, that I made these for the first time 2 years ago when I saw them in my new recipe book, Bon Appetit Y’all, and now we can’t have a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner without them. Even before my husband or kids ask what the menu is, they always want to confirm that we are having Meme’s rolls. We love the lightly sweet taste and they are so fluffy. It’s truly a party in your mouth. Lately when I made a batch, it was a Saturday, and I left out enough for dinner that night, but froze the rest in packages of 6. They made great buns for our pulled pork and sloppy joes. You have our two thumbs up for this wonderful recipe. I just wonder if in the years to come, my kids’ kids, which aren’t born yet, will wonder who Meme is?

Gulp.

And, check out this beautiful photo of the rising dough from The Karmic Kitchen

And, finally, a photo of Lynnette’s grandson Buddy making rolls and biscuits with her, just like I did with Meme many years ago.

See….

We’re gearing up for the second photo shoot for my next cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them up for Company with Helen Dujardin in Charleston, SC. Many thanks to the folks at Whole Foods Market in Charleston for all their help. I am looking forward to seeing my dear friend Nathalie Dupree, again. She made fried chicken THE DAY I LEFT! Hmmpf.

Well, there’s lots of other good eating there, too.

We ate at Sean Brock’s new restaurant Husk. Yum. Let’s just say this, not a lack of pork fat. But, it’s more than just pork fat. We enjoyed some locally caught amberjack that was incredible. It’s all about friends, farmers, and fishermen. (Click here to check out Sean on twitter. I’m also looking forward to eating at O-Ku and The Glass Onion.

I just found out this morning you can actually order Bon Appetit, Ya’ll on Kindle! And, the great folks at IdeaLand have made a YouTube channel for me. I’m working on some fun things and about to “flip out” amongst other things, so subscribe to stay tuned. Lastly, please check out the events page on my website, www.virginiawillis.com for updates on where I will be teaching around the country and abroad! I’m teaching in both Paris and Mexico at Rancho la Puerta this spring.

So, if you missed the inaugural post of Southern Saturdays with Virginia, click here to see Meme’s Yeast Rolls.

And, if you want to sign on for week two, give Mama’s Seafood Gumbo a try!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Mama’s Seafood Gumbo
Serves 6 to 8

To quote the regional cookbook Louisiana Entertains, “Good gumbos are like good sunsets: no two are exactly alike, and their delight lies in their variety.” All gumbos use a roux. However, in addition to a roux, some gumbos flavor and thicken with okra and others call for filé powder. Integral to Creole and Cajun cooking, filé powder is made from the dried leaves of the sassafras tree. It is used not only to thicken gumbo but also to impart its mild, lemon flavor. Filé powder should be stirred into gumbo toward the end of cooking or it will become tough and stringy.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
4 cups water or shrimp stock (see below)
2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds large shrimp (21/25 count), peeled and deveined
1 pound jumbo lump or lump crabmeat, picked over for cartilage
Hot sauce, for seasoning
1/4 teaspoon filé powder (optional)
Cooked Rice, for accompaniment

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, stirring slowly and constantly, and cook to a medium-brown roux, about 30 minutes.

Add the onion and bell pepper and stir to combine. Cook until the vegetables have wilted and are lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add the water and tomato paste and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavorful and thickened, 11/2 to 2 hours.

Add the shrimp and crabmeat and stir to combine. Continue cooking over very low heat until the shrimp are cooked through, an additional 10 minutes. Season with hot sauce and stir in the filé powder, if using. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve with rice pilaf.

Shrimp Stock and Fish Stock
Seafood soup, stew, and gumbo all taste better when prepared with homemade stock as opposed to bottled clam juice, the favorite stand-in to freshly made stock. When you peel the shrimp, save the shells (heads also, if you are fortunate enough to have them), and rinse with cold running water. Place the shells in a pot and add enough water to cover. Add a few fresh bay leaves, sprigs of parsley and thyme, a quartered onion, chopped carrot, and chopped celery, and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low and simmer until fragrant and flavorful, about 30 minutes. Strain the stock in a strainer layered with cheesecloth, discarding the solids. If I don’t need to make shrimp stock every time I peel shrimp, I save the shells for later in a sealable plastic bag in the freezer. For fish stock, it’s the same principle, but use bones instead of shells. Do not use oily or heavy fish such as mackerel, skate, mullet, or salmon; their flavor is too strong and heavy. Use approximately 4 pounds of fish bones to 10 cups of water to make 8 cups of stock.

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

More Pork Chop Theory: Nathalie Dupree’s Shrimp & Grits Monday, Sep 20 2010 

My first job cooking was on a TV cooking show hosted by Nathalie Dupree. I started with her as a scared, untrained, but hardworking, novice hungry for knowledge. She took me by the hand and showed how to cook. Nathalie took me out of my mother’s kitchen and showed me a world I did not know existed. I felt like I was tasting for the first time.

Without her I would have never found my way to this path, much less on it.

She has been my friend and guide all along the way. She’s a very complicated woman. All at once she is passionate yet carefree, strong yet vulnerable, and selfish yet giving. While apprenticing in her home, she used to drive me absolutely positively crazy, leaving her peanut butter covered knife on the counter after making a sandwich, or mixing her ladies garments into the laundry with my kitchen towels.

Several months after I left her apprenticeship she called me in DC to ask about how to work her microwave. (She’s going to call me vicious for telling you that.)

We have gone round and round, experienced the range of emotions from absolute joy, as it was dining together in France at the famed 3-star L’Esperance in Burgundy, to pure pain, each of us crying over hurtful words. When I am nice and she is being nice, she calls me her “little chicken.” When I tease her mercilessly, as now I am more apt to do, about her quirks and eccentricities I am deemed a “vicious woman.”

It is somehow wonderfully poetic she now lives on Queen Street in a historic home in Charleston, SC. She has a battalion of tea cups and a freezer in the guest bathroom. Her universe seems like utter chaos, but there she is at the center, calm as the eye in the storm. She is prone to working at her laptop in a wing-back chair, surrounded by towering mountains of books and magazines, ensconced in her own petite fortress.

Pat Conroy once wrote she was “more like a fictional character than a flesh and blood person.” That still makes me howl with laughter. But, it’s not because she putters about in myopic Mr. McGoo fashion, uttering epithets like “if I were the woman I wish I was” or when dropping a bowl/chicken/apple/you name it, on the floor, “Oops, I dropped my diamond.” It’s not because while taping one of her hundreds of TV shows the this or that wouldn’t go right and she’d say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”(See some of her clips on the Charleston Post & Courier.)

It’s because it’s impossible to imagine that anyone could actually, truly be that tender, generous, and loving and be a real live person.

She’s the originator of The Pork Chop Theory. Her flock includes Rebecca Lang, Shirley Corriher, and many many more.

I should write much, much more and one day I will. But for now, I felt compelled to share with you this week this recipe from her Shrimp and Grits Cookbook.

She’s one of my dearest friends ever, and I love her.

Thank you, sweet Nathalie.
I love you.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

CHEESE GRITS SOUFFLÉ WITH SHRIMP SAUCE
Serves 8

A soufflé is just a thick sauce to which egg yolks and beaten egg whites are added. Cheese grits make a sturdy base for the eggs, enabling the soufflé to be assembled in advance and cooked just before serving, or cooked and frozen. Top the servings with the Shrimp Sauce. This is an extraordinarily popular dish for a buffet.
The soufflé:
1 cup uncooked grits, quick or stone ground
4-5 cups milk
1 pound sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 large eggs, separated
The shrimp sauce:
1 cup (1 stick) butter
1 ½ pounds small shrimp, peeled and deveined
2-3 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley and basil, mixed

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter an 8½ x 13-inch ovenproof serving dish. To make the soufflé: Cook the grits in 4 cups of the milk according to the package directions, stirring. The grits should have the consistency of a sauce. If they are very thick, add all or a portion of the fifth cup of milk and heat until absorbed. Stir in the cheese, butter, mustard, mace, salt, and cayenne pepper. Cool slightly. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if desired. Lightly beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir a little of the grits into the yolks to heat them slightly, then add the yolks to the grits mixture and combine thoroughly. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form and fold into the grits. Pour into the prepared pan. (The soufflé may be made several hours ahead to this point, covered and set aside or refrigerated. ) When ready to eat, return to room temperature. Bake the soufflé for 40 to 45 minutes, or until it is puffed and lightly browned. Remove from the oven and spoon onto plates. Ladle the shrimp and their sauce over each serving.

To make the shrimp sauce: Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Add the shrimp and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until they start to turn pink. Add the chopped herbs and spoon over soufflé.

Copyright © Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC 2010

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, www.virginiawillis.com