F&W Star Chef
David Guas is a New Orleans native in the Washington, DC area, where his Bayou Bakery is known for its exceptional Southern sweets and snacks. Here, he reveals an irresistible holiday treat, his favorite wintertime cocktail and a thrifty tip for making vanilla sugar.
What are your favorite holiday food gifts?
I love gifting things in Mason jars, like local honeys I’ve collected from my travels. We also sell pralines and Heavenly Hash at our store; I like to give those away to the kids’ teachers (needless to say, the teachers really like us). We do traditional pralines, pralines with chocolate, and pralines with chicory and coffee. The Heavenly Hash (the recipe is in my book, DamGoodSweet) is easy to dice and throw into a Chinese to-go box with a sticker and a ribbon, so I buy thousands of the 8-ounce Chinese to-go boxes for the holidays.
What is Heavenly Hash?
Heavenly Hash is something that I grew up eating. Like all of New Orleans history it’s a little skewed—we claim it, yet the Ursuline nuns in Mobile, Alabama, are also said to have created the recipe. It’s a fudge-type recipe with evaporated milk, sugar and light corn syrup, all cooked down to a certain temperature. Then we add 70 percent Valrhona chocolate, vanilla, salt, and fold in marshmallows and roasted pecans, before pouring it out, letting it set and dicing it up.
Back in the day, it used to be sold only at Easter time in New Orleans, at a department store called Maison Blanche. Forty or 50 years ago, Maison Blanche and Krauss were the city’s only department stores. Heavenly Hash was said to have been started by a guy who came over from his travels in France and founded what became known as the Elmer Candy Corporation. When we were young kids, it was something we saw seasonally in the department stores, but it began to be produced more widely as it became more popular.
What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
What screams “holiday” to me is brandy milk punch. Even though it’s traditionally served as a brunch item in the morning since it’s milk-based, with its nutmeg and frothy egg-white foam, I can drink it till the cows come home. It’s not thickened with eggs like eggnog or a crème anglaise; it’s not cooked at all. It’s just whole milk (sometimes half-and-half to give it more body), and of course brandy. The egg white is either real or dried egg-white powder depending on the mixologists. That’s all shaken up along with nutmeg and a little bit of vanilla. Then it’s served on the rocks. A lot of mixologists will grate a little more nutmeg on top. Maybe it’s the kid in me who loves a milk mustache, but I pound them. Nutritionally you’re getting good calcium for your bones—there’s a lot of ways to validate having six of them in a day.
Can you share a great entertaining tip?
We joke about this every year—what are we doing to do to spread the responsibilities? A great tip is make your guests bring something. That way there’s more drinking time!
Another little fun thing that my wife and I do at our house: We have blank table setting cards and we let people decorate their own place settings. We’re not talking about a hot glue gun and feathers and whatnot to build something, but maybe you ask them to bring their own place card holder. For me it’s about interaction, getting them involved in an easy way, since you don’t want to stress them out and make them work to come to your house.
On the food side, we do a lot the day before: the oyster dressing, the Spinach Madeleine, we do a lot from the River Road Recipes that the Baton Rouge Junior League put out 50 years ago. We prep much the day before, the only thing I do the day of is throw everything into the oven three hours in advance, then drop the turkey in the fryer 90 minutes in advance. I would like to say we’ve gotten it down to a science.
How do you fry your turkey?
Every year we fry anywhere from a 16- to an 18-pound bird. It’s roughly 3 minutes per pound. We fry it until it literally gets this blackened, charred skin that looks burnt but has a nice sweetness to it from our brine. We do an apple cider and salt brine, sweetened with local honey.
What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
Our lemon ice box pie. It’s easy and oh-so delicious. People come in and buy the book, then tell me they made it this past weekend. I’ll remind them they can keep it in the freezer a month or two, and whenever they get a hankering for something sweet, they can just get a hot knife and cut off a little slice. As long as it’s wrapped carefully in plastic wrap, you can keep it a long time. It’s so versatile, too—whatever time it is, who doesn’t like fresh lemon juice and fresh lemon zest in a frozen pie? I’ve even had customers create cocktails around it in DC—one local barista made a lemon ice box chaser with an espresso drink for a barista competition.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
I love two kinds of cookbooks: ones for reading, and ones for cooking.
For reading, I love all of Justin Wilson’s books, like Justin Wilson’s Homegrown Louisiana Cookin’ and Justin Wilson Looking Back: A Cajun Cookbook. I may own them all. I grew up watching him on PBS, I just fell in love with him, the red suspenders and fancy tie, and sometimes overalls. According to my deceased grandma, my dad’s mom, he’s something like a first or second cousin, and they grew up next to each other in Amite, Louisiana. His mother, Olivet Wilson, owned the house two doors down from my grandmother. So there was always that idea that he was kin. When I started collecting cookbooks, I tracked his down. When I was finishing up culinary school, he signed one of them to me. In fact, my grandmother set up a phone call when I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do. I couldn’t even talk to him on the phone, I just stuttered. But he gave me good advice: He said that it’s not always about school, it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people and being open to learning. So if you don’t decide to go to school, maybe you should get a job at the best hotel you can find in New Orleans, where you can finish your education. So I did trade school for three months and then went to the best hotel I could find in New Orleans, the Windsor Court. He published multiple volumes, I don’t have a favorite per se. I love the photographs in Homegrown, because it’s him and his Catahoula Leopard dogs, which are the Louisiana state dogs, out there at one of his country houses roasting a whole pig and doing a crawfish boil, so I like looking at the photographs.
On the pastry side, I’m a huge fan of any book by Pierre Hermé. I got Desserts by Pierre Pierre Hermé as a young pastry apprentice 16 or 18 years ago, and now I also have Chocolate Desserts. Because I didn’t go to school for pastry, I learned a lot of my techniques from reading his books cover to cover—the proper way to handle berries, procedural methods like that. His books combine phenomenal technique, fantastic photographs and stellar desserts, they’re the whole package.
What’s a technique everyone should know?
I don’t know if it’s a technique or a tip, but save vanilla pods. A lot of people discard the pod after they scrape out the meat, but you can use them to make vanilla sugar, vanilla powder or your own vanilla extract. To make vanilla sugar, fill a Mason jar with granulated sugar, add the pod (or pods) and let the jar sit at room temperature, shaking it up every now and then. Over time the pods will perfume the sugar, which you can use for your next batch of cookies. You can also dry the pods in the sun, grind them and fold that into sugar, or put a 1/2 teaspoon into creamed butter and sugar for your cookies. To make your own extract, keep your spent pod or pods in a small bottle filled with 80-proof or higher alcohol. Keep it in dry storage out of the light. Just like anything, it takes time, but it eventually starts to taste of vanilla.