A Holiday Party Menu From Chef Virginia Willis
Atlanta-based Chef Virginia Willis’s bag of Southern recipes is filled with foods fit to grace the table at any holiday party.
by Erin Z. Bass
When Chef Virginia Willis contacted us over the summer to find out if we wanted to post a couple of her recipes on our site and add a copy of her latest cookbook, “Bon Appetit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking,” to our library, we of course said yes. (I believe my exact response to her e-mail was: “I feel like I’ve been contacted by a Southern celebrity!”) Virginia has worked with Martha Stewart as kitchen director for her TV show, where she cooked for President Clinton, Aretha Franklin and Julia Child, as well as tested and edited “The All-New Joy of Cooking.” Her career in the kitchen began in Atlanta as an apprentice to Nathalie Dupree, credited with starting the “New Southern Cooking” movement that has spread through restaurants across the South. Dupree’s influence can be found in “Bon Appetit, Y’all,” which is distinctly Southern in feel without being cliche. Alton Brown may have summed it up best in his praise on the back cover: “Most Southern cookbooks, even the really good ones, usually feel and taste somewhat provincial, as thought their cuisine can only exist below the Mason-Dixon line. Virginia Willis’s cuisine is the opposite. Although her food is undeniably Southern, it comes across as international, universal even.”
Flipping through the cookbook, I immediately thought of the holidays. Recipes for cheese balls, toasted pecans, cheese straws, sweet potatoes, pecan pie and Bourbon Baked Ham all sounded perfect for a holiday party or meal. Virginia agreed to share three recipes with our readers (y’all will have to buy the cookbook for the rest), and they make up what could be a quick and easy spread for your next holiday party or gathering. We’re also willing to bet your party guests would appreciate a few of them packed in a tin and tied with a ribbon. To round out the menu, serve these finger foods with a baked ham and rolls, an assortment of cookies and eggnog, cider or punch. Enjoy!
ON THE MENU
Dede’s Cheese Straws
Mama’s Sausage-Pecan Balls
Sauteed Greens Bruschetta with Fresh Mozzarella
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.” – Virginia Willis
Note: A cookie press is needed to make these savory crackers, but if you don’t have one, Virginia has provided a variation for making by hand.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/2 lb. 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 degrees F. Butter two 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. (I prefer the version that resembles a caulking gun, although a turn-crank one will do. Some hardcore cheese straw makers invest in the electric version.) 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.)
If you don’t have a cookie press, you can shape the dough into two cylinders with your hands and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Slice 1/4-inch thick and place 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets.
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.
To Make 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.
Mama’s Sausage-Pecan Balls
Makes 3 dozen
“Mama found the original of this recipe on the back of a box of Bisquick, a premixed baking product containing flour, shortening, salt and leavening. According to General Mills, the recipe continues to be one of their most popular. Mama added pecans to the sausage balls, which she served during the holidays and at cocktail parties. I made a few additional changes and developed this “from scratch” version.” – Virginia Willis
Note: This recipe works best if you grate the cheese yourself rather than buying it already grated, which is coated to keep the pieces from sticking together. You can add additional cayenne if you like or use extra hot sausage.
1 cup pecan halves
10 oz. sharp Cheddar cheese
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
3 Tbsp solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, at room temperature
8 oz. mild pork sausage, raw
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking sheet or parchment paper. Place the pecans in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until chopped, but not too finely. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Replace the blade with the grating disc and grate the cheese. Remove to a second bowl and set aside. Switch back to the metal blade.
To make the sausage mixture, in the same bowl of the food processor (no need to clean it), combine the flour, baking powder, salt and cayenne pepper. Pulse to combine. Add the shortening and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the grated cheese and the sausage and pulse until well combined. Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Add the reserved pecans and, using your hands, press the dough together until well combined. (The dough will be very crumbly.)
To form the balls, using a small ice cream scoop and your hands, shape the mixture into 1-inch balls and place about 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool. Serve immediately.
To Make Ahead: The balls can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. To serve, let the balls come to room temperature. Or to serve warm, reheat in a 350-degree F oven until heated through, 5 to 7 minutes.
Sauteed Greens Bruschetta with Fresh Mozzarella
Serves 4 to 6
“Working the line in a restaurant is usually challenging, often miserable, but always an absolute adrenaline-filled rush. When dinner service is going at full throttle, the only option is to do as instructed by the expediter and hang on. This is a version of an appetizer served from my station many years ago while I was interning for chef Nora Pouillon at her Restaurant Nora, in Washington, D.C. She was an amazing role model for me: not only was she an industry leader and a woman, but also a pioneer in the organic movement. Her restaurant was the first in America to be certified organic.” – Virginia Willis
Note: Fresh mozzarella is radically different from the hard “pizza” cheese commonly found in supermarket refrigerator cases. The fresh version, in the form of balls packed in lightly salted brine or whey, is increasingly available in many local markets.
1 baguette, sliced diagonally 1/4 inch thick
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, halved, for the toasts, plus 2 more cloves garlic, very finely chopped
1/2 lb dandelion greens, fresh spinach or arugula, stemmed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded fresh mozzarella cheese
Position an oven rack 4 inches below the broiler element, and preheat the broiler. To make the toasts, arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush on one side with some of the olive oil. Broil until brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the toasts and broil the other side. Remove the toasts from the oven and while warm, rub one side of each toast with the cut surfaces of the halved garlic cloves. Transfer to a rack to cool.
To prepare the greens, in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Increase the heat to medium-high, add the greens, season with salt and pepper, and saute, stirring until wilted and tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour off any excess liquid. Add the mozzarella and stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. To assemble, place about 1 tablespoon of the greens mixture on the oiled side of each toast. Serve immediately.
To Make Ahead: The toasts can be made up to 2 days ahead and stored at room temperature in an airtight container.
Recipes 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. Cheese Straws Photo Credit: Ellen Silverman © 2008.
To find out more about Chef Virginia Willis and shop her line of “Southern Pantry” products, visit her website. Her cookbook, “Bon Appetit, Y’all,” is also available on the site for $32.50.