Sunday, February 5, 2012

Virginia Willis on the Food of Love: Chocolate Pots de Crème

Note: Virginia Willis will teach a class at A Southern Season on March 22 based on her new book, “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all.” This blog first appeared on Culinary Historians of the Piedmont.

Shakespeare famously wrote that “if music be the food of love, play on.” But don’t try to pull that mess on Virginia Willis.

“I once had a very romantic date with some chocolate,” said Willis with an amused sigh of recollection. “Loving and kissing just comes to mind.”

Though she’s published recipes for some intoxicating sweets in Bon Appetit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking and her new, much-praised Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, Willis rarely swoons for cake or pie – even if chocolate is a key ingredient.

For true romance, the sort she proposes as necessary for a proper Valentine, it’s got to be Chocolate Pots de Crème, a decadent delight she first learned when studying culinary arts years ago at L'Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne in France.

“They are rich and indulgent, and certainly meant for special occasions,” Willis said during a recent phone call from her Atlanta kitchen. “But the best part is they are dead easy. There’s no worrying about curdling eggs or any of that. If you can melt chocolate, you can make pots de crème.”

Featured in her first book, and shared below, pots de crème may look complicated but are, she said, “nothing more than French pudding cups.” Their simple ingredients and mostly hands-off preparation allow plenty of time for what Willis deems the best part of any meal: the time spent with your beloved.

“I definitely prefer to eat at home on Valentine’s Day,” she said, pairing it with New Year’s Eve as the No. 1 days to eat in. “Restaurants are crowded, everyone is busy. It’s all about turning the tables.

“Having said that, I love to share the cooking and make it an enjoyable experience for us both,” she said. “But you don’t have to stress and do it all at once. This dessert, for example, can be made the day before. All you have to do is whip some cream.”

Despite her mother’s devotion to Cool Whip, which is humorously detailed in an anecdote printed above the recipe, Willis recommends that heavy cream to be whipped into a lush cloud, without sugar, just before serving.

“A friend of mine who is very healthful chooses to use fat-free, non-dairy Cool Whip,” she said with a distinct shudder. “To me, it’s just too sweet. I’d rather had a teaspoon of whipped cream then two cups of Cool Whip.”

Willis also suggests Crisp Roasted Duck with Peach Barbecue Sauce from the new book for the main course, and perhaps Apalachicola Oysters with Sauce Mignonette for a starter.

“It’s fairly typical, but it always makes people happy,” she said, acknowledging the mollusk’s MO as a heady aphrodisiac. “It’s easy and it’s delicious.”

While Willis is thrilled that Basic to Brilliant, Y’All has earned critical acclaim and landed on several year-ending best-of lists, she was less pleased that her name became entwined with Paula Deen’s recent announcement that she was diagnosed three years ago with Type 2 diabetes.

Amid the whirlwind of media attention that followed the news – a private matter, to be sure, but one revealed in connection to a lucrative pharmaceutical endorsement deal – New York Times writer Julia Moskin picked Willis to represent purveyors of “new” Southern cuisine.

“It wasn’t that long ago that I as writing recipes for a PTA newsletter, so I’m always surprised when anyone wants to talk to me about anything,” said Willis. “My position is that Southern cooking doesn’t have to stay trapped in the past. In fact, a lot of what’s been promoted as ‘traditional’ really isn’t. I did not grow up eating deep fried mac ‘n cheese wrapped in bacon, and neither did anyone I know.

“To think we are just fried chicken and overcooked greens is very one dimensional,” she said. “Also, we’re not all working on the farm anymore. We don’t need a 1,200-calorie breakfast to sit at a desk.”

Willis noted with pride that she has taught and cooked her recipes at some of the nation’s best-known spas “almost verbatim from my books.”

“There are a lot of problems with Southern food and big problems with obesity nationally. In a positive light, (the attention) is helping people have a constructive dialogue about Southern food and how it can be made delicious by using healthy, seasonal ingredients. For me, it’s all about fresh ingredients and not doing too much with them.”

Willis will continue to offer insights on Southern fare in what has become her Y’all series. She’s “noodling” on a theme now and hopes to have the next volume on book shelves within two years. In the mean time, the chef is drafting a different sort of book, “a very personal culinary story” about a fifth-generation farmer.

“It will really stretch me as a writer,” she said. “It’s amazingly satisfying to hear that that people like the stories in my books. People may be coming from a different place when they read me, but it’s all about the community you build at the table.”

And if your community includes a beloved partner, so much the better.

Chocolate Pots de Crème
(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.)

Note: I made these in small cordial glasses
that yielded nine delicious portions.
Undeniably creamy and indulgent, these are the French version of pudding cups. Pots de crème are traditionally baked and served in individual ceramic pots with lids, how they got their name.

Much to my consternation, Mama buys Cool Whip instead of using freshly whipped cream. She recycles the tubs for food storage and other uses. I think a pet hamster was once gently laid to rest in a Cool Whip coffin. Whipping real cream is easy, and my mother’s opinion aside, it really does taste better. The key is that everything must be well chilled: the heavy cream in the refrigerator, and the mixer beaters and bowl in the freezer until cold to the touch. I prefer not to add sugar or vanilla to the cream, as I think the dessert is quite often sweet enough and sweetened whipped cream is overpowering.

Serves 6

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
5 ounces best-quality semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
5 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of fine sea salt
Whipped cream, for garnish

Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Place six 6-ounce ramekins in a roasting pan.

In a saucepan, combine the cream, milk, and chocolate over medium heat. Bring almost to a simmer; remove from the heat. Set aside, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is completely melted.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar. While whisking, add a little of the hot milk mixture to the egg mixture to combine. (This technique is called tempering; it makes the temperatures of two mixtures—one containing raw egg— more similar, so the egg won’t curdle in the presence of heat.) Add the remaining milk mixture, and whisk to combine. Whisk in the vanilla and salt.

Pour approximately 1/2 cup of the egg mixture into each ramekin. Cover each ramekin tightly with aluminum foil to prevent a skin from forming. Fill the roasting pan with enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custards are just set in the center, 35 to 40 minutes.

Remove the pots from the water, and place on a wire rack to cool, about 30 minutes. (I usually remove the pots with tongs and leave the roasting pan of water in the oven. Turn the oven off and let the water cool until it is safe to remove the pan.)

When the pots de crème have cooled completely, refrigerate to chill thoroughly, preferably overnight. Just before serving, top with a dollop of whipped cream.


  1. Yay! Thanks so much for including me on this! I do believe I'm replicating the menu next week! Bon Appetit, Y'all! Best VA

  2. You are so kind, Virginia. So grateful for our new connection!

  3. Thank you Virginia, I have made these several times and it nevers goes without saying, SIMPLY DECADENT!!!

  4. Thank you Virginia, I have made these several times and it nevers goes without saying, SIMPLY DECADENT!!!