James Villas, of course, already knew.

(Brief aside: I am posting this in August 2018, after having this piece neglected in draft form since September 2017. I am rushing it into publication in honor of Mr. Villas, who I should have paid tribute to a long fucking time ago.)

Around a year ago, if I can use my Facebook activity log as a reputable source for such information, I got the idea in my head to make vanilla biscuits. My husband pooh-poohed me, but was quickly won over once the little vanilla poofs came from the oven and were glazed. “These are awesome” was the basic consensus, and I’ve made them several times since, using them as snacks, as the bases for clever little desserts, and as something I could make fast to serve to children who needed a bit of a treat on a wintry afternoon. Poking around online I did find a couple of websites that were aimed toward the kind of thing I wanted to make, but if you Google “vanilla biscuits,” overwhelmingly what you find is recipes for what I’d call vanilla cookies.

Those British types. Always calling cookies “biscuits.” They’re so whimsical.

So yesterday I found myself at a kind of country fete sort of thing, held in New Haven’s gorgeous Edgerton Park. There are games and rides for children, and vast quantities of flowers and plants and locally grown fruits and vegetables for sale, and there’s a White Elephant sale which is always a lot of fun. People bring their dogs, toddlers ride on dads’ shoulders, there are pony rides. That kind of thing. It’s good wholesome fun and we have been going every year for close to a decade now. This year, my daughter was old enough that I could say to her, “Ok, here’s money to buy tickets, you go do your thing for an hour and I”m going to the book sale, which is behind the greenhouse. Come find me in an hour.” So off she went, and off I went.

The first section I want to hit, in any book sale situation, is the cookbook section. Then humor, then children’s books, then fiction, and then I loop back to see what other random crap might catch my eye. I did my first skim of the titles in cookbooks and felt a little disappointed — nothing amazing jumped out at me on the first go — but my second time, reading spines more slowly, I found a James Villas book on biscuits. I grabbed it and brought it home with much excitement, basically coasting through the rest of the fete, despite my family’s having so much fun, because what I really wanted to do was go home and read James Villas’s Biscuit Bliss: 101 Foolproof Recipes for Fresh and Fluffy Biscuits in Just Minutes.

We got home and my husband went to take a nap, as I recall, and my daughter went to bathe, and I stretched out on the couch and read Biscuit Bliss from cover to cover. And what I discovered almost immediately was that James Villas had a recipe for true vanilla biscuits. Had I read this book when it was published, I wouldn’t have been floundering around making shit up with my vanilla biscuits — not that anyone was even remotely harmed by this process. I would have just looked it up and made it.

James Villas’s cookbooks are not spoken of in my set. I don’t have any friends who display his books proudly on their shelves next to Julia Child or Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver or anyone else. But I keep my copy of My Mother’s Southern Kitchen on my kitchen shelf, with the JoC and Nigella and my Colwin. That is the book I read at a formative age, the book that got me interested in Southern cooking, the book that made me think, “You know, I can avoid pork and have good Southern food, if I want to.” Nothing in that book was too intimidating to me, even in the mid-1990s, when I bought my remaindered copy and I was, believe me, no cook at all. It is because of James Villas I make pimiento cheese. It is because of him that I make biscuits. It is because of James Villas that I make about a thousand things, I expect, that I don’t even think about when I make them, anymore, because they’ve just imprinted themselves in my head, and I default to these things when I’m pressed for ideas for what to cook. Because the stuff I make out of James Villas is stuff that doesn’t require a lot of special effort. It’s good, homey, solid food that tastes delicious and isn’t overly ambitious. It’s a kind of pantry cooking I can get behind. Like the vanilla biscuits. They’re just biscuits, right? But there’s this little pantry item that you slip in there like a magic trick, and then, suddenly, you’ve got this entirely different, really special little thing that no one was expecting.

If you’d asked me, I’d’ve said, “Of course, by now James Villas must be an old man.” And he was. He has died, age 80, in East Hampton, New York, nowhere near the deep South. It is a shame, and I wish I’d brought this essay to the blog last year, if only to relieve my sense of guilt that I didn’t publish this tribute in timely manner. Maybe he’d’ve seen it, maybe someone would have read it to him or something, who knows.

But better now than never. Rest in peace, Mr. Villas. You may not have been in fashion at the time you went, but if you ask me, the diehards will always love you. I am not giving up any of your books anytime soon. In fact, this week, I will pull out the biscuit book and make a recipe from it. And some more pimiento cheese, too, even though I just made some the other night and it’s still in the fridge. You’d’ve liked it, I think…. I added some duck bacon fat. Just for the hell of it. And some horseradish. I know it’s not your mother’s recipe; forgive me. Think of it as Tante Eva’s Pimiento Cheese, I bet you’d’ve liked it, and asked for the recipe.


Baking on Demand: or, How One Tired Hausfrau Rose to the Challenge Two Times in Two Days

It was late December and that meant there was a lot of baking on demand to be done, at least for me. My husband had no such pressures to meet; he was busy thinking about what he might make for Christmas dinner, which is a whole ‘nother story.

In years past, I’ve been involved with cross-country Holiday Cooky Exchanges; this year, all the regulars were too depressed to get revved up to do it, so that was off the table. But even this year, friends still hosted holiday parties, and that meant that guests still had to come up with lovely little tidbits to bring to add to the festivities. I don’t mind; I’m all for bringing things to festivities. But I was definitely a little blah about it, in terms of planning. I mean, I knew we wanted to go to these parties, and I knew I would have to bring something, but I was not feeling inspired, culinarily speaking. There was no one thing that I was thinking, “oh, man, I’ve GOT to try out those [fill in the blank] cookies on those people! They’re gonna love ’em! It’s gonna be awesome!”

No, this was a situation where we had one party on Saturday and one on Sunday, and in each case, the morning of the event, I awoke with no sense whatsoever of what I was going to bring. It’s really not like me, to be honest. I had moments of doubt: would I come through? And what would I come through with, exactly?
In the end, I began my work by thinking carefully about what ingredients I had on hand and what I’d have to do to turn them into something special. In each case, time would be tight: I’d have a maximum of three hours in which to commence assembling ingredients, baking, cooling, and icing. What’s more, I had to be working in cookies — cakes would not do. These had to be finger-food treats. (I could have gone a savory route, but that would have sent me into same-old-same-old territory — cocktail meatballs or pimiento cheese — and I just didn’t want to do that to my friends.)

In the case of the Saturday event, I wanted something fairly simple to put together but a little quirky. The hosts are people who like good food; they cook, by which I mean they cook ambitiously. I wondered what cheery herb or spice I had that I could throw into shortbread — because shortbread is a fast thing to make, and calls for very little more than flour and butter and sugar. Did I have anything kind of special just sitting around? I remembered the baggie full of candied rosemary that I’ve had sitting in my “sweet” drawer for two years, and thought “That’s it. Rosemary shortbread.”

And so I threw this together in about 15 minutes.

Take a lot of candied rosemary, and grind it in a food processor all by itself (just leaves, removed from stems); I wound up with about 1/2 cup of pulverized candied rosemary, which was probably 8-9 stems of rosemary, but I didn’t count before I started so who knows.
To this, add 1/2 cup granulated sugar; 1 3/4 cups white all purpose flour; 1/4 cup cornstarch; 1 tsp. vanilla powder. Combine in processor and then cut in one stick of butter. Combine, pulsing the processor, until coarse meal forms. Press into 8×8″ baking pan lined with parchment paper; bake at 325° until golden brown (about 30-40 minutes). Prick holes in dough with a fork before putting in oven, if you can remember to do so; I only remembered about halfway through baking, and everything turned out just fine. Cut shortbread in pan while still warm, then remove to rack to cool.

The resulting shortbread is a little sweet and is slightly perfumed with the rosemary. It’s definitely a “sweet” and not a “savory” but the line could certainly be blurred. If you left out the sugar and upped the salt a little, and maybe added some pepper, you’d have a really twisty-turny, probably very delicious snack. (The candied rosemary is always going to mean “sweet” but rosemary is such a flexible flavor, I wouldn’t put it past me to make another batch of candied rosemary just to give a pepper-candied rosemary shortbread a whirl.)

I gave a piece of the rosemary shortbread to my husband and a piece to my child and they both gobbled them down happily. Then my daughter went off to a birthday party for one of her associates.

About ninety minutes later, I lined up the stubby rosemary shortbread soldiers in a little blue Pyrex tub, covered the tub with tinfoil, and we piled ourselves into the car. We picked our daughter up at her friend’s birthday party and then went to the homey-yet-elegant Christmas party a couple miles away. There, two tables held a vast array of Christmas-y treats: a ham, numerous dips and crackers and cheeses, and a bowl of punch. I imagined that my daughter would graze here happily, but it turned out she was quite full up on party good already; she instead sat down in a corner chair with a coloring book and occupied herself nicely, completely fried, for about half an hour. Then we became aware of two things: 1. Our girl needed to sit down and eat a proper meal and 2. She desperately needed an early bedtime.

So we revised our plan — not that we really had a plan — and made our excuses and wrapped ourselves up in our winter coats again and tumbled back into our car. We were driving down Fountain Street when I observed that we were mere yards away from a favorite old restaurant, House of Chao. “We could stop and get Chinese food for dinner,” I said. There was no good reason to do this; we had good food at home. But my husband immediately grasped the appeal of this plan and turned onto Whalley Avenue. We had a hot, cozy meal; my daughter nearly fell asleep at the table, she was so tired (but she declared the food delicious); and we drove home.  It was a very cold night, and we were all exhausted and what we really wanted was to be in our pajamas and curled up on the couch in blankets with our stuffed animals and perhaps a cat or two. By 8.30, this was achieved, and I wondered how the rosemary shortbread had gone over, but wasn’t too concerned. To be honest, it was a “what’s done is done” situation. If no one liked it, then no one liked it, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The hostess of Saturday’s Christmas party was present at the Sunday afternoon party. So I got my little blue Pyrex tub back — empty. This was heartening: if  no one had liked them, she had at least been kind enough to empty the tub out so that I wouldn’t be faced with humiliating leftovers. “I hope people liked them,” I said. “I was kind of going by the seat of my pants.” She told me that people devoured the cookies, and wanted to know the recipe. Well, Gracious Hostess: see above. I thanked her for returning the little tub to me: it’s not a valuable piece of china, but I am very fond of it.

“What did you make for today?” she asked me.  The tables in the kitchen were, again, covered with platters and trays and bowls of homemade goodies, some sweet, some savory. Some things were easily identified (guacamole) and some things were mystery tidbits (tiny quiches that held some savory thing entirely unidentifiable by sight). I laughed and said, “I made something else up,” I told her. “I made these little vanilla poofs with a brown sugar glaze. They’re on a white tray with little blue flowers on it.” I glanced back at the table where the tray of little vanilla poofs with brown sugar glaze was…. nearly empty. Maybe five biscuits left. Out of three dozen made. You could really see the little blue flowers. As we stood in the kitchen doorway blocking traffic, a guy to my left said, “You made those little biscuits? Man, those are good.

I hadn’t started the day feeling so optimistic about whatever it was I’d be bringing to this party. I knew I had certain parameters, and a lot of flexibility. I needed finger food, but it could be sweet or savory; I needed something I could assemble handsomely and carry the daunting distance of one block; and I needed something that would be enjoyed by adults and children. I wanted to stay away from nuts (one worries about allergies at parties) and I wanted to avoid being deliberately weird. (This was not the time to try a pepper-and-candied rosemary-shortbread.) Remembering how, years ago, I brought soup and biscuits to a friend’s family on this same block, just a few houses down, when she’d broken her arm and couldn’t cook for the family, and how the four year old in the house had been enchanted by the biscuits (which she had called “butter muffins”), I decided to make a fancied-up biscuit. Like shortbread, biscuits are made out of basically nothing, and can be gussied up in countless ways.

And so I reached for the flour bin and the butter and got to work. Soon we had several dozen 1″ vanilla biscuits baking. My husband expressed disapproval, saying I was getting too experimental with something I was planning to serve to friends and total strangers; but I was undaunted.

I took 1 3/4 cups of white flour, 1/4 cup of cornstarch, 2 tablespoons of baking powder, and 1/2 cup of white sugar and sifted them together. I whisked in about a teaspoon of vanilla powder. I cut in nearly a stick of butter, and set the bowl in the fridge to stay cold while I whisked together my liquid ingredients: I killed the last of a carton of heavy cream, maybe 1/4 of a cup of cream, blended with whole milk to make one cup of liquid, with a teaspoon of vanilla essence added. Basically, I made biscuits, but with more sugar than I’d normally use, and a double dose of vanilla.

I preheated the oven to 400° while I added the liquid to the dry ingredients, and combined them. The dough was rather sticky and delicate, and I had to flour the countertop heavily to be able to roll the dough out. But I managed, and using a 1″ round cutter I got almost four dozen little vanilla biscuits onto baking trays (about 15 onto a tray, as I recall). They baked nicely, if lopsidedly (totally my fault, I must have been sloppy when cutting). When the tops were just golden, I took them out of the oven, and when they had cooled, I took a misshapen one and broke it in half. “Here,” I said, offering a piece to my husband and a piece to my daughter. “Mmmmm!” my child said happily. My husband was less impressed, and said they were good, but he clearly didn’t see the point. “I’m not done yet,” I said. I went back into the kitchen and made a glaze. I melted a couple tablespoons of butter in a pot and added to it about four tablespoons of brown sugar. I stirred over medium heat until the sugar began to boil, and kept stirring to get the sugar to dissolve. I poured in a couple tablespoons of milk and kept stirring, over lower heat. I cooked this fairly carefully for a couple of minutes — I wanted to be sure this was as smooth as I could get it, but I also didn’t want it to boil over and make a huge mess — and then I turned off the burner and let the sugar and milk cool down. About five minutes later I stirred in about a cup of sifted confectioner’s sugar, and I whisked and whisked and whisked it until it was absolutely smooth. I lined the biscuits up on cooling racks that had waxed paper underneath them, transferred the glaze into a measuring cup (so I could pour more easily), and began to pour the glaze over the biscuits.

This was a messy process, and it did not result in beautiful, evenly, perfectly covered tops of all the biscuits, in part because so many of them had slanty tops (I reiterate: this is my fault, not the fault of the recipe). Some biscuits had more glaze than others. I’m going to be honest: These little vanilla poofs were quite homely.

However, the glaze hardened nicely, and by the time I could assemble them on a tray without dinging the glaze, the biscuits looked cute, if a little uninteresting. (Someone with more of an interest in the aesthetics would have added a contrasting-color fillip, like bright green sugar crystals dappling the glaze, or tiny sprinkles shaped like snowflakes, or something like that. Candied violets. I do not have the time or patience for this kind of thing.) Nonetheless, I knew these things would be a pleasure to eat, and I called my husband over. “Have one of these,” I said. He said dismissively, “I already had one, it was good.” I said, “Yeah, but have one of them NOW.” He obediently took a glazed biscuit from the tray and popped it into his mouth. “Oh,” he said. “Now, this version, I approve of wholeheartedly.”

He ate two more biscuits before we headed out to the party. I wrote up a little card explaining that these were vanilla biscuits with brown sugar glaze, taped it to a toothpick, and jabbed the toothpick into one of the biscuits. When we got to the party I set the tray down and stopped paying attention. Maybe half an hour later, I glanced at the tray — I was looking to snag a little artichoke and spinach quiche thingy — and half of them were gone. About an hour later, there were maybe five or six biscuits left. And then, by the time I was telling my daughter that it was time to put on her shoes, it was time for us to go home, there were none left.

I discovered this when someone asked me, as I was wrangling my daughter into her coat, and wondering where my boots were, “What did you bake for the party?” I said, “These little vanilla biscuits. Oh! I need to get my tray actually to bring it home. I’ll just move whatever’s leftover onto another tray.”  I located my boots, set them just outside the door, and I went into the kitchen and looked for my tray. It was on the table, empty. The little card was lying there, but the vanilla biscuits — they were all gone. Only thing left on the tray was the toothpick with the card saying “vanilla biscuits with brown sugar glaze,” and the little blue flowers printed on the tray.

So it appears that the vanilla biscuits with the brown sugar glaze — which my husband described as slightly too experimental sounding — were a huge success. Assuming no voracious dogs in the house: Any little treat where the tray is left empty after 90 minutes is a success.

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