Virginia Willis Blog

Southern Saturdays with Virginia: Meme’s Yeast Rolls

Last week I was in Charleston for part one of shooting the photographs for my next cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them up for Company. It’s the lead book for Ten Speed Press for fall and will be out September 2011. Save the date, the launch party hootenanny is 9/30 at The Cook’s Warehouse and I’ll be traveling the country teaching in the months following the launch. I can’t wait!

The photographer Helene Dujardin is a veritable Renaissance woman! Check out her very popular blog, too.

I am also working with the lovely and talented Angie Mosier, who has a new gig going on with placemat productions, newcomer Jenni Coale who brings such joy and freshness to the experience, and Gena Berry who is also working with Top Chef Kevin Gillespie. Wow! Right? Quite the group!!

So far? Let me tell ya, the photos are amazing. Helene does such lovely work and we all make a great team. No egos, just good, honest, work and a real sense of collaboration. It’s The Pork Chop Theory Redux.

Speaking of pork… We went to dinner one night at Husk, James Beard award-winner Sean Brock’s new restaurant. Our feast started with old-fashioned yeast rolls sprinkled with benne seeds and served with pork butter. Yes, pork butter. Butter mixed with rendered country ham fat. I’ll give you a moment to think on that for a bit….

It was really wonderful cooking all day last Saturday. The house was filled with laughter and smiles. There’s something just wonderful about the freedom of cooking on a Saturday – even when it’s work! That’s the day for long cooking soups and stews, yeast breads, and things that require a little more time, a little more “room” than a weekday will allow. Weekends are the time to try homemade puff pastry or giving a layer cake a shot.

It’s my intention to blog and write a newsletter late in the week with a recipe for you to try over the weekend. We all know good intentions paved the road to hell, but I am really going to try.

So, y’all want to give it a shot? Southern Saturdays with Virginia? Let’s start out with Meme’s Yeast Rolls. Let me know what you think! Please send pics and notes to me at Can’t wait to see!

Bon Appétit, Y’all!


PS Zip over to my website, to see updates on the events page.



Meme’s Yeast Rolls

Meme may have made the rolls, but it was Dede who did a lot of the work. He beat the dough with a special wooden spoon that had a small ledge on the end for gripping. He'd cradle the big bowl in his arm and beat the wet dough so it slapped "wap, wap, wap" against the bowl. All that "muscle" developed the dough's structure, causing the rolls to rise in the oven light as air, slightly sweet, and richly sour with the scent of yeast. We all thought it was Meme's gentle touch forming the rolls, but it was actually Dede's strong arms that made them taste so good. When yeast begins to ferment and grow, it converts its food to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gluten sheets that form when water is stirred into flour trap the carbon dioxide and allow the dough to rise.
Author virginiawillis


  • 3 packages active dry yeast 63/4 teaspoons
  • 1/2 cup warm water 100° to 110°F
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 1 cup dry milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup corn oil more for brushing
  • 4 large eggs lightly beaten
  • 4 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 9 to 10 cups all-purpose flour


  1. To activate the yeast, combine the yeast and warm water in a large bowl. Set aside to proof. The mixture will become creamy and foamy after about 5 minutes.
  2. To make the dough, combine the hot water and dry milk in a liquid measuring cup; let cool slightly. Add the reconstituted milk to the yeast. Stir to combine. Add the sugar, the 1/2 cup of oil, eggs, salt, and 4 cups of the flour. With a wooden spoon, hand-held electric mixer, or large heavy-duty mixer fitted with the dough hook at medium speed, beat very hard until smooth, 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually add additional flour, 1 cup at a time, beating hard after each addition. When the dough is too firm to stir, using your hand, work enough of the remaining flour into the dough by kneading and turning the dough until it becomes smooth and elastic. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead, 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. (The dough is ready if it bounces back when pressed with your fingers.) Return the dough to the bowl.
  3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dry towel and place in a warm, draft-free spot to rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
  4. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Punch down the dough with your hands, then turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Flour your hands and pull off equal pieces of dough about the size of apricots and shape into balls. (If you are using a scale, 3-ounce portions will make 28 large rolls.) Place them on the prepared baking sheet about 1/4 inch apart. Brush off any excess flour from the rolls and brush their surfaces with oil. Cover and let rise again in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 to 11/2 hours.
  5. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Bake until brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly, then invert the rolls onto a rack so they won't become soggy on the bottom. Enjoy!
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New Year’s Day Luck and Money: Peas & Greens

The peas are simmering on the stove top fogging up the windows with ham-scented steam. It’s cold out and rather than face the snow, I’m ready to snuggle in and build a fire. I’ll cook the greens and cornbread a bit later today. Some folks make Hoppin’ John – we’ve always just had peas. I think I will actually make a pot of creamy grits instead of rice….

I think there was one New Year’s Day in my whole entire life, other than perhaps the one that was 2 days after my birth, on which I did not have Black Eyed Peas and Greens on New Year’s Day. Most of y’all probably know, but on New Year’s Day Southerners consume peas to bring luck and greens to bring money in the New Year.

I repeat. One.

I was in Paris, France January 2001. Actually, I had located a Soul Food Joint so that I would not miss out on “Luck and Money”, but when we at long last arrived by Métro in the banlieue, or Paris suburb, it was closed. So I went without peas and greens, popped in a bistro, for lunch and gave little thought to it.

Well, in 2001 I was stuck in NYC on 9/11 while the towers burned, lost my job with Epicurious, and had a major back injury that resulted in a herniated disc that had wrapped around my sciatic nerve. Ouch.

Suffice to say I will not miss out ever again. So, I am far North of the Mason Dixon line for this New Year’s Day, but fear not, I brought a bag of peas with me and made sure to get the collards at the health food store a couple of days ago. I’m not making that mistake again.

And, better yet? Already, on Day One I am happy, contented, and joyful.

Please find a selection of recipes you might enjoy this New Year’s Day. Wishing all of you and your families blessings of good health and good fortune for the upcoming year.

Thank you again for your support.

Happy New Year & Bon Appétit, Y’all

Black-Eyed Pea and Ham Hock Soup
Serves 6

In the summer, we’d sit on the porch shelling the black-eyed peas that Dede had picked that morning. The purple hulls dyed our fingers smoky violet. I’ve used frozen black-eyed peas to prepare this soup, but don’t use canned, as they are too soft. If using frozen peas, reduce the cooking time according to the package instructions or until the peas are tender. Note that the dried peas must soak overnight or have a quick soak. Don’t skip the essential step of simmering the ham hocks in the chicken stock. The flavor and aroma are what makes this soup extraordinary.

2 cups dried black-eyed peas, washed and picked over for stones
4 to 6 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth, plus more if necessary
2 smoked ham hocks
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bunch collards, tough stems removed and discarded, leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade (see page 197)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the peas in a large bowl and add water to cover. Soak overnight. Or place the peas in a large pot of water and bring to a boil over high heat, then remove from the heat and set aside for 1 hour. Discard any floating peas and drain before cooking.

In a pot, bring the stock and the ham hocks to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer until the flavors have married, at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Drain the peas and add to the pot. Add the red pepper flakes and ham hocks with stock to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, decrease the heat to low, and simmer until the peas are tender, 2 to 21/2 hours.

Just before serving, bring the soup to a boil over high heat. Add the collards and stir to combine. Cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into warmed bowls and serve immediately.

Kim O’Donnel’s Smokin’ Meat-less Hoppin’ John

2 cups dried black-eyed peas, soaked in enough water to cover, for at least two hours, and drained.
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup medium or long-grain rice
water or stock of choice

In a large stockpot, add peas and enough liquid — about one inch above beans — and bring up to a lively simmer. Cook at a boil for a five minutes, then reduce heat, cover and simmer, until beans have arrived at desired tenderness. This could take a minimum of 35 minutes and a maximum of one hour. Season with salt, about 1 teaspoon. Add minced chipotle. For smokier results, substitute with ½ teaspoon smoked salt.

Add rice, plus 1 additional cup of liquid, return lid, and cook for 20 minutes over low-medium heat, without lifting lid.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat oil over medium heat and cook onion and garlic until softened and golden, 6-8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and if you’re craving even more smoke, try about ¼ teaspoon ground chipotle pepper.

Lift lid of bean pot. Rice and peas should be moist, with but not super soupy. Add skillet mixture. Stir to combine and taste for salt and other seasonings. Add more smoked salt if desired.

Old Fashioned Greens
Serves 6 to 8

Southerners love their greens. In the South, a large quantity of greens to serve a family is commonly referred to as a “mess”. The exact quantity that constitutes a “mess” varies family to family. Typically, greens are served with corn bread to dip or sop into the pot-likker. Pot likker is the highly concentrated, vitamin-filled broth that results from the long boil of the greens.

5 cups water, homemade chicken stock, or reduced fat low sodium chicken broth
1 ham hock or 8 ounces fatback, diced
2 pounds collard greens
Pepper vinegar, for serving
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a pot, bring the water or stock and the ham hocks or fatback to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and simmer until the flavors have married, at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill the sink with water. Add the greens and agitate in the water so the dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Remove the greens and drain the sink. Clean the sink and repeat the process until no dirt remains. Cut away heavy ribs and discolored spots from leaves. Chop the greens into bite-size ribbons.

Add the prepared greens to the simmering ham hock broth. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until very tender, 45 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve in shallow with plenty of the pot likker.

Tangle of Bitter Greens
Serves 4 to 6

Kale, collards, turnip greens, and mustard greens are dark leafy winter greens that are nutritional powerhouses and familiar friends on the Southern table. Look for brightly colored greens free of brown spots, yellowing edges, or limp leaves. Try flavorful seasonings such as smoked turkey or ham hock for the meat eaters and smoked salt or chipotle chiles for the vegetarians.

I once demonstrated this recipe on a local morning TV show. Aunt Louise was watching and told Mama later, “She took those greens out of that pan just like they were done!” You won’t believe how fast they cook, either.

The best way to clean greens is to fill a clean sink with cold water, add the greens, and swish them around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out, drain the sink, and repeat until the water is clear and the greens are free of dirt and grit.

2 tablespoons canola oil
3 medium cloves garlic, mashed into a paste (see sidebar)
1 medium bunch kale, collards, turnip greens, or mustard greens (about 11/2 pounds), cleaned, tough stems removed and discarded, and leaves very thinly sliced in chiffonade
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper 

In a skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and slightly damp ribbons of greens; season with salt and pepper. Cook until the greens are bright green and slightly wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Garlic Paste
To prepare garlic paste, place the broad side of an unpeeled clove of garlic on a clean work surface and give it a whack with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Remove the papery skin and trim away the tough basal plane at the top of the clove. Halve the garlic lengthwise and remove any of the green shoot, if present, as it is bitter. Coarsely chop the garlic, then sprinkle it with coarse salt. (The salt acts as an abrasive and helps chop the garlic.) Then, using the flat side of a chef’s knife like an artist’s palette knife, press firmly on the garlic, crushing a little at a time. Repeat until the garlic is a fine paste.

I couldn’t find a recent shot, but wanted you to get the idea.

Buttermilk Cornbread
Makes one 101/2-inch skillet bread

I could make a meal out of just buttered cornbread. Except perhaps for barbecue, cornbread is as close to religion in the South as any particular food gets. At the top of the list of cornbread sins is adding sugar. You will notice a complete lack of sugar in this cornbread recipe. Sugar is more often found in what is referred to derisively as “Yankee cornbread.”

Adherents of white versus yellow cornmeal are like Methodists and Baptists: some think you’re going to hell if you follow one path and not the other. I am of the white cornmeal sect. The theory is that white corn was less hybridized and closer to the original grain than yellow. Plain white cornmeal can be surprisingly tricky to find, even in Atlanta; most of what lines the grocery store shelves is a mix or self-rising, which already contains the leavener that makes the cornmeal rise. Although yellow and white cornmeal are interchangeable, plain and self-rising cornmeal are not.

Warming the skillet and bacon grease or butter in the oven prepares the skillet for baking and melts the fat. Most often, I use butter. I like to let it get just barely nutty brown on the edges. The brown flecks give the cornbread extra color and flavor.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or bacon grease
2 cups white or yellow cornmeal (not cornmeal mix or self-rising cornmeal)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the butter in a 101/2-inch cast-iron skillet or ovenproof baking dish and heat in the oven for 10 to
15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, and baking soda. Set aside. In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine.

Remove the heated skillet from the oven and pour the melted butter into the batter. Stir to combine, then pour the batter back into the hot skillet. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.

variation: Instead of baking in a skillet, this batter may be prepared as muffins. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Melt the butter in a small pan over low heat or in the microwave. Prepare the batter as directed; after mixing with the melted butter, spoon the batter into a 12-cup standard muffin tin, filling each cup no more than two-thirds full. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

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.

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Meatless Monday: The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook

A couple of months ago when I was on deadline for my next cookbook I spoke of The Pork Chop Theory by my friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree.

The Pork Chop Theory is based on the premise that if you put one pork chop in the pan and turn the heat on high, the pork chop will burn. If you put two pork chops in the pan, however, and turn the heat on high they will feed off the fat of one another. It’s the ultimate in giving, sharing, and developing mutually beneficial partnerships and relationships. It’s not about competition, it’s about sharing the fat, sharing the love.

You might think talking about The Pork Chop Theory on Meatless Monday makes no sense, but it does. My friend, Kim O’Donnel has written a deliciously wonderful book, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook:Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores will Devour. And, I want to share some love with you.

I am a meat eater, being partial to the Southern “lardcore”attitude. Now, I love vegetables, but, I’ve joked a day without pork is a day without sunshine. Foam? Ovoid suspensions? Naw, If I am trying a new restaurant, my test for the chef is Roast Chicken.

Mama has always preferred her beef very rare, what would be considered “blue”; we always tease her and say the meat is still mooing. Once when I was a toddler she had me in the baby tender feeding me steak. I had a bite in each hand, waving them about, and the bloody juices were running down my arms. According to Mama, Meme walked into the kitchen and shrieked, “You’re trying to kill my grandbaby!” She wasn’t, and I still love my meat very rare.

So, what’s a bone-gnawing carnivore like me doing with a book like this?

Enjoying the heck out of it. Forget it being a “great gift” for your flaky cousin, the vegetarian.

It’s for meat lovers.

Happy Holidays!
Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS. Both recipes would be excellent, flavorful additions to your holiday party. The Romesco sauce is astonishingly good and so different than the same-old, same-old sour cream dip. Give them both a try.


1 bunch (4 to 5 cups) Lacinato kale (also sold as Dinosaur kale)
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350°F.
With a sharp knife, remove the stem and middle rib of each kale leaf so that all you have left are leaves. Wash the leaves, then dry thoroughly, preferably in a salad spinner. With a knife, cut the leaves into small pieces (ideally 3 inches long, 2 inches wide).

Transfer the leaves to a medium-size mixing bowl and add the olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes (if using). With your hand, coat leaves with the seasonings; the leaves will glisten a bit.
Place the kale in a single layer on a baking sheet, giving the leaves plenty of room to roast. Cook for 8 minutes, maybe a few seconds more. Remove from the oven and enjoy.

Makes enough chips for 4 sandwiches or a bowl of TV snacks.
Best eaten within 24 hours, stored in a paper bag.


This almond, garlic, and roasted pepper-scented puree hails from Catalan, in the northeastern part of Spain, along the Mediterranean coast. You can spread it on grilled bread, use it as a dip for roasted veg, or eat it right from the spoon. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the peppers listed below; if red bell peppers are all you get, this elixir, er sauce, will still make you swoon. A note on peppers: Ancho chiles are dried poblanos, which will yield a sweeter, almost raisin-y result; fresh roasted poblanos will deliver more smoke.

1 (1-pound) loaf country-style bread
1/4 cup olive oil
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and seeded (See page 194 for roasting tips.)
3 dried ancho chile peppers, soaked for 1 hour, drained, seeded, and roughly chopped, or 2 fresh poblano chile peppers, roasted, peeled, and seeded (either is optional but really nice)
1 small piece fresh serrano or jalapeño pepper (1/2 to 1 inch long), seeded and minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup almonds and/or hazelnuts, roasted
2 to 3 plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded (I use canned whole plum tomatoes, drained)
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar or lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional; particularly useful in absence of poblano or ancho chile peppers)

In a skillet, fry one 1-inch slice of the bread (crusts removed) in 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat until golden on both sides, about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and allow to cool. Place all the peppers in the bowl of a food processor, along with the garlic, nuts, and the fried bread slice. Use the “pulse” button to insure that mixture does not overpuree; you want some texture.

Add the tomatoes, then the remaining oil and vinegar. The mixture will emulsify quickly. Add the salt and cayenne, and smoked paprika, if appropriate. If the mixture is too thick, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water. The mixture should be thick but also have a slightly liquidy quality. Taste for salt, heat, and acid and season accordingly.

Slice one to two pieces of the remaining bread per serving and grill or toast to serve with romesco. Gets better on the second and third day; keeps for about five days.

Makes about 2 cups

From the book The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook by Kim O’Donnel. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2010.

Photo credits: Myra Kohn

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.

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Eating Crow and an Easy Steak Recipe

What are the words I have been told about 1000 times in the last 2 weeks?

“I told you so.”

It seems that my fear of having to give everyone grits for Christmas because they didn’t sell and My Southern Pantry™ was a disaster isn’t a concern. So, now I have to shop.

I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong. It’s the best tasting crow I have ever had.

Check out what The Atlanta Journal Constitution has to say or The Washington Post. It was listed in Where Magazine Atlanta as one of the things they love about Atlanta.

People like the way My Southern Pantry™ looks, one design blog, nicetodraw thought the packaging created by ideaLand (who also designed my store web pages) was pretty enough to write about…

“I told you so.”
“I told you so.”
“I told you so.”

Some certain people have been a bit too gleeful in their smugness, but I am still thrilled beyond measure.

For the limited holiday release My Southern Pantry™ is available through my website and in Atlanta, at The Cook’s Warehouse.

Lots of folks have asked about wholesaling it which we will soon. If interested, please contact me after the new year. I will be doing a demonstration at America’s Mart in January, as well.

This week I am at Christmas at Callenwolde, teaching at The Cook’s Warehouse on Thursday 9 December, and doing demos with the product the the Ansley and Decatur locations on Saturday 11 December. I’ll be signing books and sampling yummies. Please come see me.

This is the deal. My Southern Pantry™ is a collection of wonderful ingredients I really like having in my kitchen and I thought you might, as well. Everything I have chosen as an ingredient is top of the line and has a reason, a back story. I’ve made up my mind, My Southern Pantry™ is going to be what I want – or it simply won’t be. It’s honest and earnest – these are pantry items I have in my kitchen that I love — and I hope you will, too.

To order, please visit

I thank you for remembering these items as you make your holiday gift-giving decisions. And, if you have already ordered, please let me know what you think. I really want to know. Please email me at

Many, many thanks for your consideration and support.

Happy Holidays!
Bon Appétit, Y’all!


Pecan Brownies Mise en Place

My brownies are made with 2 kinds of semisweet Guittard chocolate – chips that melt away and chunks that retain their shape when cooked. In this bag you’ll find everything you need to make the best brownies ever, everything, but the butter and the eggs. ‘Cause if all you need to do is add oil and water, those aren’t the best brownies ever. Forget additives and anti-caking ingredients. This “mise en place”, French technique terminology for “putting in place” or what you need to make the recipe consists of rich semisweet Guittard chocolate, flour, pure cane sugar, cocoa powder, pecans from my friends at Pearson Farms, baking soda, and fine sea salt. It’s just like you came over and we made them together, except you pour your own glass of milk.(21 ounces $9.95 + S&H)


Heirloom Grits

Early on I decided I wanted green packaging, or as much as possible, and it’s expensive. I could only find one bag in the right size in the whole, entire United States that had a biodegradable window on an eco-friendly bag, but I had to have a window to show off the red, yellow, and white of the beautiful heirloom granite ground grits. They are delicious and for now, an internet exclusive. It’s corn — a seasonal crop. (20 ounces $9.95 + S&H)


Pecan Smoked Salt

Large flake sea salt from Cyprus cold-smoked for over  8 hours over  South Georgia pecan wood. Open the tin and smell a campfire. Sweet, nutty, and mildly bitter, it is an excellent addition to your southern pantry. Use as a finishing salt with vegetables for a smoky bacon flavor without the fat. Folks have been telling me it’s great on fish (I love it on trout or salmon) but the biggest surprise was popcorn! (1.5 ounces $7.95 + S&H)


French Quarter Spice Rub and Seasoning Blend

Heady with the aromas of the French Quarter – dark roast coffee with chicory, the thick scent of brown cane sugar, spicy Tabasco chile powder, and a specially crafted Quatre Epice, a warm blend of peppercorns, ground cloves, nutmeg, and ground ginger, this spice rub and seasoning blend calls to the complex flavors of New Orleans. More complex than a simple Creole seasoning it’s excellent on steaks, pork, lamb, chicken, bringing a different flavor to each. It’s also wonderful on rich fish like salmon. (1.5 ounces $6.95 + S&H)


Rib Eye with French Quarter Spice Rub

Author virginiawillis


  • 4 bone in rib eye or strip steaks about 1 pound each, about 1-inch thick
  • 4 teaspoons French Quarter Spice Rub
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Arrange steaks in a single layer in a large baking dish. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Spread 1 teaspoon of My Southern Pantry French Quarter Spice Rub or mixture evenly over one side of the steaks; let rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until shimmering. Add steaks, seasoning side down. Cook steaks 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare (145° on an instant-read thermometer). Transfer steaks to a board; let stand 10 minutes and slice ¼-inch thick. Serve immediately.

PS I have lots of fun on Facebook and Twitter. Let’s friend and follow.

Brownie photograph 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: Ellen Silverman © 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, Thanks so much.

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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!

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

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