When Julia Reed, the author of several Southern cooking and entertaining books, was growing up in the Mississippi Delta, there wasn’t much to do or many places to go. Entertaining at home was a necessity, and as much a part of Reed’s childhood as oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and ice-cold sweet tea.
Later, as a young journalist in Washington, she tried her hand at what she calls more “pretentious” menus, but found herself returning to her Southern culinary roots and her mother’s timeless advice: “Why don’t you just serve something that tastes good?”
Reed’s latest book, “Julia Reed’s South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long” (Rizzoli, May 2016), celebrates that very ethos. Many of the recipes could easily be found in a tattered spiralbound community cookbook (bourbon balls, mock cheese soufflé), others in a current issue of a glossy food magazine (asparagus with brown butter vinaigrette, deconstructed street corn).
Their similarity, Reed posits, is that they all taste good, and that they are not difficult to make. Entertaining, after all, should be fun for the host as well as the guests.
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It is not a cookbook for ingredient purists – recipes call for packaged items like Pepperidge Farm Very Thin white bread and Uncle Ben’s Original Converted Rice – and she extols the virtues of serving Popeye’s fried chicken at dinner parties with Champagne. But in the age of DIY everything, hers is a refreshing if not entirely artisanal approach.
There’s a down-home luxuriousness about her recipes that Southern cooks have arguably perfected. Take the mock cheese soufflé, a glorious, cheesy puff of a dish made from packaged white bread, shredded cheddar and beaten eggs. It’s not exactly a traditional soufflé (it’s more like a bread pudding). But whatever it is, you want more, and why haven’t you been making this for Christmas brunch?
Then there are her chess pie squares. These heavenly little bars are a picnic-ready version of the traditional Southern custard pie. They are like lemon bars without the lip-puckering citrus: a blanket of egg-rich custard generously laced with vanilla, atop a crumbly shortbread crust.
Like much of the rest of Reed’s book, they are unapologetic in their simplicity and Southern-ness, equally at home on a picnic blanket or a monogrammed silver platter.
Chess Pie Squares
Total time: 1 1/4 hours, plus cooling.
For the shortbread crust:
2 cups/240 grams all-purpose flour
1/2 cup/57 grams confectioners’ sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 ounces/57 grams unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
For the filling:
6 ounces/57 grams unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature
1 1/2 cups/297 grams granulated sugar
6 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4cup/168 milliliters buttermilk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons fine white or yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Make the shortbread crust: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Cut in butter with a pastry blender or two forks until well blended and the dough holds together when you press a lump in your hand.
Press dough evenly into the bottom of 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake until edges begin to brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Remove shortbread from oven and let cool slightly. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.
Make the filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time, until well blended. Switch to the whisk attachment and slowly beat in vanilla and buttermilk until well blended. Beat in cornmeal and flour until just combined.
Pour filling over crust. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the top is golden and set. Cool in the baking dish on a wire rack and cut the dessert into 24 squares (each about 2 inches) to serve.
Yield: 24 squares.