Firefly Sweet Tea Martini, Salem Kitchen Cheese Straws
It’s hard not to notice the theatrical backgrounds of John and Julie Adams when having dinner in their home. Their Saturday night dinner, a benefit fundraiser for Surry Arts Council, was no exception. The four-course dinner plus cocktail hour fell into place with the precision of a well-directed and solidly performed three-act play, complete with prologue and grand finale.
John Adams is a retired television director whose career included a lot of commercials. He knows how to get across a message with maximum efficiency. Julie Adams is a wardrobe stylist for television commercials and a costume designer for film. She knows how to make everything look exactly right. Both John and Julie know how to make it taste good.
As Julie says, “I like to eat, so I like to cook.”
In each of the past seven years, patrons of Surry Arts Council’s Arts Ball sign up to attend the dinner in the Adams’s home. Guests pay for the privilege with a donation to the arts council. It is one of several such dinners on offer at the Arts Ball. According to Surry Arts Council’s executive director Tanya Jones, the dinners are one of the most lucrative moneymakers at the annual fundraiser.
“We started doing this for the arts council,” said John. “We thought we’d make a nice dinner because it meant raising money for Surry Arts Council.” But then it grew and grew to be this thing where people liked to come. “It supports the community and schools, and we wanted to help with that. We also wanted to do it ourselves. That’s part of the hospitality.”
John and Julie cook the dinners themselves. Lincoln Thomas, who came up from Raleigh, and Amanda Edgerley, who drove up from Elkin, helped with serving, parking and general assisting, but there is no professional chef in the kitchen pulling the strings. Nineteen guests, and the hosts are the chefs.
“Each year’s dinner has a theme,” said Julie. “We’ve done French, Italian two times, Mexican, steakhouse and now this.”
“This” referred to the Adams’s 2018 theme, Southern Comfort; an evening of Southern comfort food.
Backfin Blue Crab Cake with Ava Gray’s Biscuits, Mixed Greens; Served with Grandfather Vineyard 2017 Appalachian Bubbles Sparkling Wine
As guests were seated for the first course, Rosie and Kester Sink found themselves seated at the Adams’s kitchen island facing the kitchen with a front row view of the evening’s performance as it unfolded.
“I signed up for the chef’s table,” said Rosie Sink, “but I’m not quite sure what that means.”
“We weren’t quite sure how that would work out,” said Julie, “but we wanted to get as many people in here as possible.”
The previous year, the Adams’s had done two dinners for 12, on successive nights, but the couple didn’t want to do that again, so instead, they utilized the table for six on their terrace for the first time and introduced a chef’s table in the kitchen. They got lucky with the weather and the outside table. The previous weekend had originally been considered for the dinner, but was ultimately rejected, thankfully, as it was the week when Florence terrorized the state.
When the idea of a Southern Comfort dinner was decided upon, John decided he wanted to use only local wines, which made the first course pairing difficult as North Carolina is not known for its sparkling wine.
Fortunately, John discovered a delicious Grandfather Vineyard sparkling wine while serving as a judge for the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem.
“I can’t believe we’re off to Boone to find sparkling wine,” said Julie at the time, but off they went, and Act 1 fell into place.
Better Homes and Gardens Chicken Pot Pie, Homemade Pickles; served with JOLO Vineyards 2017 Golden Hallows Vidal Blanc and Traminette
For the second course, the Adams’s chose a classic recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, a staple guidebook in all mid-century kitchens. Of course, John jazzed it up a bit with some mushrooms and a pastry crust so light and fluffy it was almost possible to mistake it for puff pastry.
“No,” said John. “It’s a regular crust. The only secret is not to overwork it.”
Accompanying the pot pie were some of John’s homemade pickles, a true Southern comfort.
At this point in the evening, it became apparent that the Adams’s were not only both excellent cooks, but were oven magicians as well, with three courses in a row having baked goods (biscuits in the first, chicken pie in the second and cornbread yet to come) and each was hot from the oven, perfectly browned and no wait between courses. That’s a rare feat in a multi-starred restaurant. In a home kitchen, it verges on a magic trick.
“It’s like choreography,” said John, making it clear his show business background played a role in the evening. “You do the kitchen dance,” he says, as he and Julie move around the kitchen, never once running into each other.
“He only ever yells at me if I come up behind him with hot things,” laughed Julie, adding that singing out “behind you” is not something that is done in the sewing room.
Likewise, plating the food for a Southern dinner is difficult. Sympathetic to the fact that guests might feel compelled to clean their plates lest they be thought rude, yet not wanting the sparse presentation common with a multi-course meal but which is inconsistant with Southern comfort food, John envisioned each of the three plated courses as a meal: brunch, lunch and dinner.
Braised Beef with Root Vegetables, Garden Green Beans, Cast Iron Cornbread; served with Laurel Gray Vineyards 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon
In Act III, John demonstrated a willingness to up the ante on the classic Southern comforts. His pot roast was made with the most humble of cuts, an ordinary chuck roast. He cut it into pieces and doused it with a whole bottle of red wine, not a move that every Southern Meemaw has in her repertoire. He put it in the oven at 10 in the morning and added the vegetables about three, keeping it covered all the while.
“He tortured us all day with that thing,” said Lincoln Thomas, who had come down from Raleigh to help John and Julie. “He’d pull it out of the oven, and stir it around a bit, and it would make my mouth water.”
Indeed, when finished, the pot roast was silky and melt-in-your-mouth tender, charred on the outside due to an initial browning before being doused in wine. Continuing the theme of kitchen miracles, the meat retained its crisp exterior and bright pink interior despite, or perhaps because of, its long, luxurious red wine bath.
The rest of the course couldn’t have been more traditionally Southern: green beans canned from the garden and corn bread from an old family recipe.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a tricky grape for the Yadkin Valley and doesn’t often live up to its lofty promise when grown locally, but when this Laurel Gray vintage won best of show at the Dixie Classic Fair, John knew he had the third course covered.
Coconut Layer Cake with Homemade Chocolate Ice Cream; served with Shelton Vineyards 2014 Port
With every compliment for her coconut layer cake, and there were many, Julie freely confessed that she got the recipe from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa.
“I thought, if I’m going to live in the South, I need to know how to bake a coconut cake,” she said.
With the aid of the Contessa, Julie knocked it out of the park. It didn’t hurt that she elected to serve the cake with homemade chocolate ice cream and some raspberries.
One guest who has gluten issues and was supposed to get an ice cream-only dessert but was served the cake by mistake did not want to trade in her cake.
“Don’t take my cake!” she reportedly wailed. The cake was that good.
John and Julie have no idea yet what next year will bring, but for those who wish to experience dinner with the Adams Family themselves should contact Surry Arts Council for information.
“The first few years it was all people we know,” said John. “But this year I didn’t know some of the people before they got here.”
Word is getting out. Supporting the arts has never been more delicious.
Sweet Tea Martini
The Sweet Tea Martini was made with Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka (available at the local ABC Store). The recipe is one part Sweet Tea Vodka, one part fresh lemonade, a slice of lemon, a few mint leaves, served on the rocks. You can add water or more lemonade to alter the strength. Like any martini, it’s a strong drink.
The Adams Family Way
1 egg (or two if the eggs are small)
1 and 3/4 cup milk or buttermilk (buttermilk preferred)
¼ cup vegetable oil, plus 2 tbsp.
2 cups corn meal (plain meal, not a mix)
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup fresh corn kernels (optional)
½ cup chopped jalapeno pepper (optional)
½ cup cheddar cheese (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Add the 2 tbsp of vegetable oil to a cast iron skillet and place it in the oven. When the oven is ready, the pan is, too.
In a bowl, combine corn meal, baking powder, salt and sugar, and stir to mix.
In a separate bowl, combine egg, milk and vegetable oil, and stir to mix.
Combine the two bowls and mix together. Do not over mix. As soon as the ingredients are combined, stop stirring. Allow mixture to rest for about ten minutes (about the time it takes your oven to preheat).
Add the corn, peppers and cheese to the cornbread batter if desired. Stir to mix together. The batter should be thick, but easy to pour (comparable to cake batter). Add milk to thin if needed.
Take your skillet or baking pan out of the oven (be careful, it’s hot), and add the batter to the pan. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown crust forms. Cornbread will rise and brown, and pull away slightly from the edge of the pan.
Remove from oven, let rest for a few minutes, slice and serve. Makes about six to eight servings.
Julie Adams freely admited she got her coconut cake recipe from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, with every compliment she received. And there were many, many compliments. But adding a scoop of Julie’s homemade chocolate ice cream and a few raspberries to every serving was Julie’s own idea.
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
2 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 -1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp. pure almond extract
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pans
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup milk
4 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
For the frosting:
1 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. pure almond extract
1 pound confectioners’ sugar, sifted
6 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease 2 (9-inch) round cake pans, then line them with parchment paper. Grease them again and dust lightly with flour.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until light yellow and fluffy. Crack the eggs into a small bowl. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs 1 at a time, scraping down the bowl once during mixing. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and mix well. The mixture might look curdled; don’t be concerned.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the batter in 3 parts, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. Fold in the 4 ounces of coconut with a rubber spatula.
Pour the batter evenly into the 2 pans and smooth the top with a knife. Bake in the center of the oven for 45 to 55 minutes, until the tops are browned and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a baking rack for 30 minutes, then turn the cakes out onto a baking rack to finish cooling.
For the frosting, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and almond extract on low speed. Add the confectioners’ sugar and mix until just smooth (don’t whip!).
To assemble, place 1 layer on a flat serving plate, top side down, and spread with frosting. Place the second layer on top, top side up, and frost the top and sides. To decorate the cake, sprinkle the top with coconut and lightly press more coconut onto the sides. Serve at room temperature.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.