Virginia Willis Blog

Make Ahead: Make it Easy for the Holidays

 

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!
VA

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, www.virginiawillis.com

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One Response to “Make Ahead: Make it Easy for the Holidays”

  1. Beautiful site! I can’t wait to try the spice loaf. I just want to confirm, there’s no butter or oil in the loaf?

    Reply

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