Let's face it, Southern cooking isn't often considered refined, and in the past few decades it has even been villainized for its liberal use of butter. Special thanks must be given on my part to the new crop of chefs and cookbook authors working hard to change its reputation for the better.
Take Virginia Willis, a classically trained French chef with firm roots in the state of Georgia. Her first cookbook, Bon Appetit, Y'all, introduced home cooks to traditional Southern recipes paired with impeccable cooking technique. Her interesting approach to Southern food and warm, welcoming personality merged to create a unique Southern style (and her signature red lipstick doesn't hurt, either.)
Virginia's newly released follow up, Basic to Brilliant, Y'all, is infused with all the same spunky flair. While her recipes may seem gussied up, trust me when I tell you there's no stuffiness here: Chicken Breasts with Tarragon Velouté sits next to Ruby's Peanut-Crusted Chicken Fingers, and Mama's Salisbury Steak is just a page turn away from Beef Daube Provencal. The catch to this book is that every recipe has a twist. There's the "basic"—which can stand alone on a busy weeknight—and there's the "brilliant"—a little something extra to send it over the top.
As a collector of Southern cookbooks (and cookbooks in general), it takes a lot to impress me. Most of them often contain the same few recycled recipes without much deviation from the norm. But let's be honest, I don't need another recipe for meatloaf, which is why I'm so happy to add this book to my shelf. I promise you're not going to get just the usual meat-and-three's here. Virginia's refreshing recipes breathe new life into a very saturated cookbook market.
All in all, I'm a big fan of Basic to Brilliant, Y'all. The pictures by Helene Dujardin perfectly reflect the style of the food, the recipes are solid (Virginia is arduous about the testing process), and the writing is inviting. My favorite part, however, is how she makes the correlation between rustic Southern fare and classic French cuisine. Because really, good home cooks share the same values across the globe—to use humble ingredients to bring comfort and nourishment to the bodies they feed—and Virginia really brings that message home.
• Buy the Book: Basic to Brilliant, Y'all, by Virginia Willis. Published by Ten Speed Press. Available via Amazon (link above), your local independent bookstore or local library.
Nathalie's Sally Lunn Bread
Makes 1 (10-inch) cake
There's mixed food lore about this rich, briochelike bread: that it was brought with Protestant refugees from France, who called it sun and moon or soleil et lune; that it originated in Bath, England, and was baked by a woman named Sally Lunn; or finally, that it was a bread presented by Carême, and called solilemme. As a former history major, I find food history fascinating, but what I really care about is whether it tastes good. And, it does.
2 packets (4½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
½ cup sugar
1 cup low-fat or whole milk, warmed
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
4 cups bread flour
¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, melted, plus room-temperature butter for pan
In a small bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and warm milk. Stir to combine and set aside to proof and dissolve, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the eggs and salt. Add the yeast mixture. With the mixer on low, add the flour to the egg mixture, alternating with the melted butter, beginning and ending with the flour. Increase the speed and beat well to combine. The batter should be thick. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
Brush a 10-inch Bundt or tube pan with room-temperature butter. Using your hand, punch down the dough. Turn the dough into the prepared pan. Cover again with a clean kitchen towel and return to the warm place to double again, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes to set. Invert onto a cooling rack. To serve, slice with a serrated knife. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Brilliant Recipe: Pecan-Brown Sugar Topping
Sally Lunn is rich, moist, and cakelike but not too sweet, making it a very adaptable dough for cinnamon rolls and coffee cake. For a very Brilliant version, make a Pecan-Brown Sugar Topping. Combine ½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar, ½ cup (1 stick) melted unsalted butter, and ¾ cup chopped pecans. Spoon into the bottom of the greased Bundt pan. Proceed with the Basic recipe for Sally Lunn bread. Bake, transfer to a rack to cool slightly, then invert onto a serving plate.
Recipes reprinted with permission from Basic to Brilliant, Y'all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.