Virginia Willis Blog

Happy New Year: Vegetarian Hoppin’ John

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Hoppin’ John

Eating black-eyed peas and rice in the form of a dish called Hoppin’ John and Stewed Greens on New Year’s Day is a Southern tradition. Folklore says the combination will bring luck and money in the upcoming year. Typically, the dried peas are black-eyed peas and there is generally a hunk of meat bobbing in the pot. This year, I wanted to mix things up and create a recipe for a Vegetarian Hoppin’ John. (more…)

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Christmas Traditions: Old-Fashioned Yeast Rolls

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Christmas Traditions

Every family has at least one culinary Christmas tradition. In our family, at the top of the list of our Christmas traditions are Old-Fashioned Yeast Rolls. These Old-Fashioned Yeast Rolls are light, buttery, golden-brown pillows — perfect for sopping up gravy, dipping into salty, smoky potlikker,  or for making a sandwich the next day with the leftover turkey, crown of pork, or roast beef. (more…)

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Southern Sweet Tooth: Peppermint Fudge Recipe

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Peppermint Fudge

The Southern Sweet Tooth is a powerful force. Sugar is more than an ingredient in the South. It falls somewhere between a condiment and a food group. During the holiday season its status is even more prominent with tins of homemade mints, brittle, and fudge on every sideboard. It’s nearly obligatory serve a sweet treat to guests or to take as a gift for a party host. But, yikes! Time seems to accelerate this time of year and the to-do lists grow longer and longer. Who’s got time to make homemade candy? You do! My recipe for Quick and Easy Peppermint Fudge fits the bill. (more…)

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Holiday Cheer: Bourbon Apple Cider

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Bourbon Apple Cider

The smells, sights, and colors of fall are brilliant, vibrant, and comforting. The long hot summer is finally at an end and we welcome the first nip of fall in the air, warm fuzzy sweaters, and filling soups and stews. However, once the leaves change and the days grow shorter, to many it can feel dreary, grey, and sad. Thankfully, the holidays are finally here and tis the season for holiday cheer! It’s time to break out of our gloom and celebrate with friends, attend festive gatherings, and host parties. One of my favorite winter combinations to serve guests during the holiday season  is Bourbon Apple Cider, delicious warm or chilled over ice.

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Holiday Cheer

Bourbon and apple cider are both early American beverages. Bourbon’s roots go back to the late 1700s, when Scotch-Irish settlers started making whiskey in Kentucky. In the 17th century Colonial America, hard cider and whiskey were consumed more often than water. In the cities, water was often contaminated and alcohol-based drinks were less likely to spread disease and had a longer shelf life than non-alcoholic beverages.

You’ve likely heard of Johnny Appleseed? He’s not just a children’s fairy tale, but a real person whose name was John Chapman. In the late 1700s he traveled the frontier planting apple orchards, then would return several years later to sell the orchard and the surrounding land. The small, tart apples his orchards produced were used primarily to make hard cider and applejack.

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Heirloom Apples

There are many different cultivars of apples and I often use apples as an example to explain plant diversity. When we walk into the grocery store we see five or so kinds of different apples — whereas we don’t normally see five different types of lemons or five different types of yellow squash. Yet, many produce departments often contain Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, and McIntosh apples.

Now, it looks like diversity, but in reality it’s not. In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States. Prohibition had a lot to do with the eradication of some of those early nurseries as they were planted with apples used to make alcohol. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties, such as the ones found in the grocery store today, to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten and became commercially extinct. However, apple trees can last several hundred years. The apple glossary above features a smattering of apples I found last year at my local co-op, all heirloom apples. Each of them were wildly different in flavor and texture. From top to bottom, here’s a bit  about each.

Orleans Reinette is a good cooking apple and has both citrus and nutty flavors.

Lamb Abbey Pearmain is a dessert apple, small and intensely flavored with a hint of pineapple which becomes more pronounced as the harvest moves later into the fall.

Ribston Pippin was a very popular dessert apple during Victorian times due to its bold flavor, juiciness, aroma, and firm texture.

Sheep’s Nose is a New England variety from the early 1800s and is traditionally used as a cooking apple due to it’s rich flavor and aromatic quality. It’s known as a “Sheep’s Nose” due to it’s unusual shape which tapers toward the base.

Reine de Reinette is a French apple from the 1700s with a high sugar content that is balanced with acidity. It’s a very juicy apple, great for eating out of hand, and is considered the best apple in Normandy France for producing apple cider.

Ananas Reinette was grown in France in the 1500s. It has a zesty pineapple citrus flavor and a fine grain textured flesh. Translated into English, this means “Royal Pineapple.”

Maiden’s Blush  originated in the 1700s and was traditionally used for dried apples.

This holiday season I am sharing with you a recipe for Bourbon Apple Cider marrying wonderful winter flavors in one glass. I find most mulled apple ciders too sweet and prefer to bring out cider’s richer qualities with lemon, cinnamon, and thyme. The lemon gives it zest and tempers the sweetness, fresh apple slices layer the flavors, and cinnamon and thyme round it out with savory aroma. I also suggest a bourbon with a heavy blend of rye on the mash to give cider a little heat. This Bourbon Apple Cider can be served over ice or warmed and ladled into a mug. Make sure to raise a glass (or a mug) this holiday season.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia Willis

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Bourbon Apple Cider
Serves 4

4 cups apple cider
4 ounces bourbon
juice of 1/2 lemon
Pinch of cinnamon
thyme, for garnish

For a chilled cocktail combine chilled cider, bourbon, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Stir to combine. Pour over ice and garnish with thyme.

For a warmed beverage combine the cider, bourbon, lemon juice, and cinnamon, and thyme in a small saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Pour into mugs and serve.

Order Lighten Up, Y’all and I’ll send you a signed bookplate! Amazon and Barnes & Noble have my books on sale for 33% off! And, for a simple stocking stuffer, don’t forget about Grits by Short Stack Editions

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If you’d like to book me to speak at your event or host me for a cooking class or a book signing let me know! Send an email to and we’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. All photos and content are copyright protected. Please do not use photos without prior written permission. If you wish to republish this recipe, please rewrite the recipe in your own words and link back to this recipe on Thanks so much.

Photography by Virginia Willis

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Copyright © 2015 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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Lesson Learned: Quick and Easy Pear Tart Recipe

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Lesson Learned

Several weeks ago, my mentor and dear friend Nathalie Dupree and I hosted a cooking class fundraiser for the Atlanta Community Food Bank. We had a very ambitious menu, essentially preparing a modified Thanksgiving spread for 50 attendees, including a two-hour demonstration class — in less than 6 hours. There were many hands to help, but it was still a substantial amount to cook and prepare. During prep, I got wind that Nathalie had requested the ingredients for a Pear Tart because she didn’t think we were offering enough in the way of dessert. I had already been very concerned about making a Thanksgiving dessert recipe for 50, so I had offered up that I would make Ambrosia. So, how is it that in the end, we served her Quick and Easy Pear Tart? Here’s the conflict – and how I found myself adding a recipe a mere hour before class was to begin – she considers Ambrosia a salad and I consider it a dessert. Lesson #1. (more…)

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