Virginia Willis Blog

Make Ahead Appetizers for New Years Eve & A Birthday Ramble

I’m taking a break for the first time in a while and it feels wonderful. We’ve spent some time with Mama and my sister, Jona at Christmas. It was fantastic. Mama was a bit sick (please send healing thoughts and prayers), but we had a great time – watching movies, sleeping, cooking, sleeping, eating, and, yes, more sleeping.

We may have a new Christmas Eve tradition with a very untraditional Chicken and Matzoh Ball Soup. It was delicious, healing, and made with love. It warmed my not only my belly, but also my heart and soul. And, I know it did for Mama, too.

This time is so crazy for everyone, but I have an added bonus. My birthday is tomorrow! People are always so apologetic about the timing of my birthday. I don’t know any different, so it’s fine. (I established at a very early age that doubling up on Christmas/Birthday presents wasn’t acceptable.) Frankly, I’m excited about beginning a new year and beginning the New Year.

And, even though I am “on break” I wanted to share some recipes for some easy make ahead appetizers. I felt kind of slack in a way, thinking I “needed” to do this. Folks ask me for recipes all the time and during the holidays, my friends email, call, twitter, and Facebook me for easy make ahead hors d’oeuvres so I figured I should blog about it, too. Sometimes the “muse” strikes me more than others. Sometimes it just comes flowing out easy breezy, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I want to share my words and stories — and sometimes I just want to share recipes.

You know, it occurs to me I don’t take the prettiest photographs of my food. There are blogs out there with truly award-winning photography. Sometimes I use one that was taken by a “Real Photographer”. (By the way – speaking of – I am thrilled to announce Helene Dujardin aka Sweet Tartelette is the photographer for my next cookbook!!)

Sometimes I get lucky and take a good one myself, like the with the gougères below, and sometimes? Sometimes I post with a shot from my iPhone, like the picture of the shrimp I shot while shooting my TV pilot.

I can’t get hung up on everything not being perfect all the time. Wow. That was a big statement for me. It’s easy to get so lost in the proverbial forest it’s absolutely impossible to see the trees.

You know what I can promise? Something I believe in as strong as I believe in anything? I can cook. That in an of itself defines my existence. Pretty heavy stuff, but it’s true. No, it’s not just work defining me as a person. It’s all the little pieces that come together. It’s the cast iron skillet I inherited from my grandmother. It’s the pecan tassies I made over the holidays with my mama. It’s the smell of grating fresh coconut on Christmas Eve that reminded me of my grandfather. It’s the recipe for cheese puffs below I go to again and again that remind me of working with Anne Willan in France or the shrimp rillettes, using wild American shrimp, a result in my passion for Sustainable Seafood. It’s Matzoh Ball soup on Christmas Eve.

It seems to me as I reflect on where I am and where I want to go on the eve of my next birthday that almost everything that has meaning to me has meaning to me in relation to food.

I am more thankful than I could ever express that I get to do what I love. I work hard and I work a lot, but it’s what I love so I don’t really mind it at all. Sometimes lately, I’ve had an embarrassment of riches. And, if everything in terms of the writing, and TV, and all that “other” fell apart tomorrow? You know what? I can cook.

I’m okay with that. I’m better than okay with that, I am very, very thankful.

Thank you to all of you for your love and support.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!



Coca-Cola Glazed Chicken Wings

Serves 4 to 6

1 cup Coca-Cola Classic

Juice of 2 limes

11/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

3 jalapeño chiles, finely chopped, plus 2 jalapeño chiles, sliced, for garnish

3 pounds chicken wings (12 to 14 whole wings)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Position an oven rack 4 inches below the broiler element. Preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place an ovenproof rack on the lined baking sheet.

To make the glaze, in a small saucepan, bring the soda, lime juice, brown sugar, and the chopped jalapeño chiles to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer until syrupy, about 30 minutes; keep warm over low heat.

To prepare the chicken wings, cut off the wing tips (reserve the tips to make stock), and halve the wings at the joint. Place the wing pieces in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Pour about half the glaze over the wings and toss to coat. Keep the remaining sauce warm over low heat.

To broil the wings, place the glazed wings on the rack set on the baking sheet. Broil for 10 minutes per side, brushing twice on each side with the reserved glaze.

Transfer to a warm platter, garnish with the sliced jalapeño chiles, and serve immediately.

making ahead: The glaze can be made ahead, cooled, and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before cooking the wings. The wings can be completely prepared ahead and reheated in a 350°F oven until warmed through, about 10 minutes.

La Varenne Gougères

Makes 20 medium puffs

This is a savory version of the classic French pastry dough pâte à choux used to make profiteroles and éclairs. Gougères are a classic Burgundian treat commonly served with apéritifs at parties, bistros, and wine bars. You can increase the recipe (see Variation, following), but do not double it, as it does not multiply well.

A note of encouragement: don’t panic when you are adding the eggs and the dough starts to look awful. Just keep stirring and it will come together.

3/4 cup water

1/3 cup unsalted butter

3/4 teaspoon coarse salt

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

5 large eggs, at room temperature

3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese (about 21/2 ounces)

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking sheet or parchment paper.

To make the dough, in a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt to a boil over high heat. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, add the flour all at once, and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a ball, 30 to
60 seconds. (This mixture is called the panade.) Beat the mixture over low heat for an additional 30 to 60 seconds to dry the mixture.

To make the egg wash, whisk 1 of the eggs in a small bowl with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt until well mixed; set aside. With a wooden spoon, beat the remaining 4 eggs into the dough, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. (It will come together, I promise.) Beat until the dough is shiny and slides from the spoon. Add the grated cheese.

If using parchment paper to line the baking sheet, “glue” down the paper at this point with a few dabs of the dough.

To form the gougères, use either a tablespoon for a rustic look, or for a more finished appearance, a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch
round tip. Spoon or pipe 12 mounds of dough about 2 inches in diameter onto the baking sheet, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Brush the puffs with the reserved egg wash.

Bake until puffed and golden, 25 to 30 minutes. To test for doneness, remove one puff from the baking sheet and let it cool for 45 to 60 seconds. If it remains crisp and doesn’t deflate, it is done. If not, return it to the oven and continue baking 5 to 10 minutes more. Remove to a rack to cool. Let the puffs cool slightly on the sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

making ahead: These are brilliantly resilient and freeze beautifully. Once cooled, store them in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 4 weeks. Warm and re-crisp in a 350°F oven, 5 to 7 minutes.

variation: To make 30 to 35 medium puffs, adjust the ingredient amounts as follows: 11/4 cups flour, 1 cup water, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 61/2 tablespoons butter, 6 eggs (5 for the dough and 1 for the wash), and 1 cup cheese.

Shrimp Rillettes

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

Rillettes are found throughout France, but they are a specialty of the Loire Valley, traditionally made with pork or duck, and are essentially pulverized confit. It’s shredded meat smashed with fat to produce a rich, rustic paste for spreading on bread. The meat is cooked slowly over low heat until very tender – this is the confit – then raked into small shreds and blended with the warm cooking fat to form a rustic paste. Rillettes, like confit were originally a means of preservation. The meat could be stored in crocks under a layer of fat in a cool place. The thing to remember is that pâtés and rillettes aren’t considered upscale delicacies in France; they are simple everyday food.

One afternoon I made this for a demonstration in a grocery store. There was a stampede. You could offer cotton balls on toothpicks in the grocery store and people would devour every last fluffy bite.

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 shallots, chopped

1 bay leaf, preferably fresh

1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/4 cup white wine

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 ounces Neufchatel or cream cheese softened

Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Belgian Endive, crackers, or croutons, for serving

Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat the oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add shallot and bay leaf. Cook until the shallots are clear and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the shrimp and wine. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are pink and cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Place the mixture in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment.

Add the butter and cheese. Puree until smooth. Add lemon juice, chives, and salt and pepper to taste and transfer to a 1 1/2-cup crock, or to 3 small jars and cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap directly onto surface of shrimp mixture. Refrigerate at least 8 hours to blend flavors or up to 3 days. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature before serving. Serve with Belgian Endive, crackers, or croutons.


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4 Responses to “Make Ahead Appetizers for New Years Eve & A Birthday Ramble”

  1. The chicken looks delicious — I can imagine licking my fingers before pushing my chair away from the table. Yum!

    And as for matzo ball soup — I think it’s a perfect tradition, especially during cold winter nights. It’s as normal to me as the bagels and lox I had for breakfast on Christmas morning. ;)

  2. Woman, you crack me up. You have so many gifts…cooking, photography, writing. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Be happy we get to express ourselves in a digital world. Your photography skills are excellent and your writing and cooking skills are obviously straight from the heart. That matters so much more than the drive for perfection. While it might be your birthday I think I speak for your many fans that you are our gift to us.

  3. Selma Petrauskas

    i love appetizers because they are one of the tastiest part of a meal aside from the dessert.-

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