Virginia Willis Blog

Modern Thinking with Sauce on the Side

Image 2

Chef Boy-ardee

In the past week, much has been said about my appearance on Food Network’s Chopped and how I was the only woman, as either contestant or judge. I noticed, believe me.  Most of the side commentary hit the editing room floor, but there was not a lack of off-color jokes during the judging of the appetizer round. Put a platter of testicles in front of a man and he reverts to being an 8-year old.

gender symbols

Many folks were also surprised I was on a show with all restaurant chefs and not a special food writer’s episode. Interestingly enough, it’s pretty safe to say that a majority of restaurant chefs are men and the majority of food writers and cooking school teachers are women. I’ve seen sexism and experienced it first hand. I was once paid less than a man at a major position — and, I was working for a woman! I just try to do the best job I can and let my work speak for itself. It’s modern thinking. I certainly don’t believe that any appendages – other than a good set of hands – make someone a better cook.

Image 1

Chef James Beard?

If anything, I feel my not being a restaurateur has made things more challenging for me.  I’ve worked in restaurants, but it was never my passion. If I had a dollar for each time I answered the question, “what’s the name of your restaurant?”, I would be a very wealthy woman. I worked my way through culinary school by working in restaurants, but I never really wanted to own one. One of the greatest parts about being a culinary professional in today’s modern age is that there are so many choices. I have enormous respect for restaurant chefs. It’s hard work to make a living feeding people day in and day out. Yet, without intending to sound pompous, I feel like for the most part, I can cook clog to clog with anyone.  Of course there’s always more to learn. I am not saying I am the female Thomas Keller, but I certainly would not shrink from cooking for him or with him. I actually find the insinuation that I am somehow a lesser cook because I am a food writer slightly more insulting than any potential sexism.


I am a cook that became a writer. I find it ironic that James Beard, the American culinary icon, whose award is seen as the penultimate recognition of culinary prowess, was not a restaurant chef. James Beard was a food writer.

Sure, there are a lot of food writers that can’t cook like restaurant chefs. They know words, not execution. There are also some food writers that feel uncomfortable cooking with or in front of other people. Some food writers hate to teach cooking classes; I love it. I also relish the opportunity to cook with other cooks and chefs at events and for special book dinners, fundraisers, or as part of a food and wine festival. It’s outside of my day-to-day box and I like it. Maybe because it’s one of the few opportunities I have to show that I can do it, that I can cook with the “big boys” — which is also why embraced the challenge of Chopped.

sauces book cover

One of the elements that separates the men from the boys, so-to-speak, in cooking are sauces.  Home cooks rarely make sauces and trained cooks and chefs often do. A sauce can completely transform a dish.The saucier position in a French kitchen brigade is the highest of all the line cooks, just below the sous chef and chef. French chef Antoine Carême evolved an intricate methodology by which hundreds of sauces were classified under one of five “mother sauces”: Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole; Hollandaise, and Tomate.

Carême devised this organization in the early 1800s and indeed, they are classics, but there is definitely room for something new! My friend and colleague Martha Holmberg has a new cookbook that is the answer. Modern Sauces: More than 150 Recipes for Every Cook, Every Day is a tool kit of incredible sauces for cooks to prepare at home. It’s “sauce-making for everyone.” She, too is a fellow LaVarenne alum and Anne Willan protege. Martha is also the former food editor for Fine Cooking magazine. True to form, the recipes are excellent and very clearly written. The book is receiving very high and deserved praise.

“Modern Sauces is my favorite book this year. It is destined to be a classic reference for the rest of my cooking life, on one of the most valuable but least understood facets of cooking: sauces. Martha Holmberg brings great intelligence and lucid writing and instructions to the important craft of sauces. She is both respectful of and illuminating about classic sauces, innovative in her thinking about contemporary sauces, and practical in terms of everyday cooking. This is a great book.” – Michael Ruhlman

The photography is by Ellen Silverman, the photographer for my 1st book, Bon Appétit, Y’all. Martha’s book is absolutely lovely in words, photos, and flavors. She’s done an excellent job of what good food writers strive to do, to teach people how to prepare restaurant quality, chef-inspired food at home.

With a big wink and a nod, I’m sharing her recipe for a very home-style bread pudding with a very cheffy ginger caramel sauce. It’s the best of both worlds. Try it this holiday season for a simple dessert or as she suggests, give it a go it for an indulgent breakfast!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS If you missed it, here’s a link to part of my appearance on Chopped – ice cream fiasco included. 😉

Image 3

Martha’s Buttery Apple Bread Pudding with Ginger Caramel Sauce
Serves 8

Challah or brioche makes a rich and tender pudding, and white artisanal loaves make a denser but still delicious pudding. You can serve this dessert warm from the oven or cold the next day, and it microwaves beautifully if you want to warm it up for breakfast.

1 pound bread such as challah, brioche or a rustic white artisanal loaf, crusts left on unless tough, cut into 1-inch cubes
2-1/2 cups half-and-half or whole milk
1 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of kosher salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided, plus more for the pan
3 to 4 medium apples such as Braeburn, Pink Lady or Fuji (about 13/4 pounds), halved, cored, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Ginger Caramel Sauce, recipe below
1 cup crème fraîche

Arrange the bread in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet and leave it out on the counter overnight to dry out. (Or dry the bread in a 200-degree oven for about 30 minutes.)

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, 1 cup of the sugar, the eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt until the sugar is dissolved. Add the bread to the bowl and gently fold it into the custard. It will take some time for the bread to absorb all of the custard, so keep folding.

In a large frying pan, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the apples and cook, shaking the pan frequently and flipping the apples once or twice, for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the apples are soft and beginning to brown, 5 to 6 minutes more.

Stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons sugar and continue to cook, stirring often, until the apples looks golden and yummy, another 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer the apples to a large plate to cool. When they are barely warm, fold them into the bread and custard.

Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 2-quart souffle dish or baking dish with high sides (you can use a shallower, wider dish, but you will need to shorten the cooking time). Transfer the bread-and-apple mixture to the dish, spreading it evenly. Cut the remaining 1 tablespoon butter into small pieces and dot the top of the pudding.

Bake the pudding until it is firm and no longer jiggly in the center and slightly puffed, 45 to 60 minutes. It can be hard to tell when the pudding is completely done, so if you have an instant-read thermometer, use it. It should register 160 degrees in the center.

Let the pudding cool briefly. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the creme fraiche to loosen it. Scoop portions of the warm pudding onto small plates or into little bowls. Garnish each serving with the caramel sauce, drizzling it in one direction over the top of the pudding. Then drizzle the creme fraiche in the other direction. Serve right away.

Ginger Caramel Sauce

1 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 tablespoons peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the cream and ginger and bring just to a simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat and let the cream infuse for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste the cream, and if it isn’t gingery enough, let it sit for another few minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing gently on the solids to extract the ginger flavor (press too hard and the cream will have a vegetal taste).

In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring just until the sugar is moistened. Let the mixture boil, without stirring but with an occasional swirl of the pan, until it is a deep amber, smells like caramel, and you can see just the tiniest wisps of smoke, 9 to 12 minutes. The caramel will be very hot at this point. Remove the saucepan from the heat and carefully add a little bit of the ginger-infused cream; the caramel will bubble up furiously.

Return the pan to low heat and whisk in the remaining cream a little at a time (to avoid bubbling over), then whisk in the butter and salt. Continue to whisk until the sauce is very smooth, another minute or so. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sauce cool in the pan; it will thicken as it cools. Serve warm or at room temperature.

— From “Modern Sauces” by Martha Holmberg (Chronicle Books, $35)

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, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, LLC.

Share This on Facebook

3 Responses to “Modern Thinking with Sauce on the Side”

  1. Hello! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about
    this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain
    he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!


Leave a Reply

  • (Will not be published or shared.)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>