Elizabeth Keyser recently had the chance to interview Lulu Powers, entertaining guru, and celebrity chef. Here is what she learned, along with a few of Lulu's amazing recipes.
After writing a profile of Lulu Powers, Weston girl gone caterer-to-the stars, I met Lulu last week at a book party for “Lulu Powers Food to Flowers” at the Westport Women’s Club. Lulu lives in L.A., where she has cooked for Madonna, Will Smith and Jada Pinckett-Smith and Bill Clinton.
Lulu’s philosophy is that entertaining should be fun, and it can be simple and fuss-free --as simple as putting out cheese and crackers, or having someone over for coffee and cookies. Page two of “Lulu Powers Food To Flowers” lists an entertaining cheat sheet -- prepared food to have on hand so you’re ready for unexpected guests or impromptu gatherings. That could be a jar of tapenade to mix with mayonnaise for dip or a frozen Trader Joe’s Alsatian pizza, warmed and served (with a sprinkle of truffle salt) on a wood cutting board.
The simplest thing you can do is hand a guest a drink. Whether it be a cold glass of water with a wedge of lime or Nantucket 8-ball (p. 229), it will make a guest relax, Lulu says.
Lulu, of course, does things with style. She keeps grapes in her freezer so she can instantly garnish a drink. And, her mother told me, “Lulu always loved playing dress up.” Lulu’s vibrant style was on display at the book party in Westport, where table cloths and bouquets of balloons were in “Food to Flowers” bright shades of orange, lime, deep pink, blue.
Lulu was the fourth of six children, and her book is also very much about family. Several of her sisters and her husband Stephen Danelian were at the party. Stephen, who took the photographs in “Food to Flowers” is a photographer who shoots for Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair and Allure. Lulu’s indefatigable mother is Lulu’s inspiration. “She made beautiful dinners every night,” Lulu said in her slight Southern accent (how did this Weston-Nantucket girl ended up with a drawl? Sweet Briar College.)
Lulu started helping her mother in the kitchen when she was around 6, peeling vegetables, hulling strawberries, setting the table. When her mother went pro with Patty Powers Country Cuisine catering, Lulu was conscripted. “I learned cooking by osmosis,” she said.
The book party featured some of Lulu’s easy recipes -- apricots bites with blue cheese and mint, a beautiful jumble of crudités that emphasized the colors and shapes of the raw and blanched vegetables, tender pink roast beef on croutons, and a cheese platter that seemed to invite guests to try the fresh fruit gathered on the plate. But the dessert table had the most people swooping in and out, talking in awed tones. There was lots to try, including Lulu’s million dollar bars (recipe below), but I took one bite of the motzah brittle – sweet caramelized sugar, crunchy matzoh, chocolate, and salt -- and I was hooked. Lulu sprinkles the melted chocolate with flavored sea salt. Nuts and a sprinkle of cayenne are optional. I’d say yes to both.
“Lulu Powers Food to Flowers” is more than a cool-looking, beautifully photographed book. It’s full of fun ideas and practical information, with a slightly retro yet thoroughly modern feel. Divided into Morning, Afternoon and Evening, it gives tips and recipes for theme parties such as Coffee and Newspaper Party; The Anytime, Anywhere Clambake; and Shaken, Not Stirred: A Guys-only Dinner. Along with a children’s party, a first-time dinner party, a “big city cocktail party,” there’s even a party for dogs, the Bowwow Bash.
You probably want to know what Lulu says about working for those celebrities. Well, nothing. Discretion? Or confidentiality agreements? She would say this. Bill Clinton, who loves her caramel fudge brownies (recipe in the book), exudes so much charisma, “it’s crazy.” In a good way.
Here’s a line from her book that I just love:
“Don’t think about impressing your guests – think about making them smile!”
Taste just one of these treats and you'll understand the name. My mom's English friend, Mrs. Kennedy, introduced the Powers clan to Million-Dollar Bars. She wouldn't part with the recipe, so my sister Sarah and I came up with one ourselves. The problem is that you can't eat just one.
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
¾ pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter
(1 stick at room temperature & 2 sticks chilled and cut into pieces)
½ cup packed brown sugar
Two 14-ounce cans unsweetened condensed milk
¼ cup heavy cream
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
Makes 35 bars
1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
2. Sift the flour into the bowl of a food processor. Add the sugar and the chilled butter and pulse until the mixture resembles crumbs.
3. Press the mixture into a 9 x 13-inch pan sprayed lightly with nonstick cooking spray and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until light golden. Let cool in the pan.
4. In a medium saucepan, melt the brown sugar and the remaining stick of butter. Add the condensed milk and stir constantly over medium-high heat until the mixture thickens slightly and becomes light golden in color, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the caramel from the heat and pour evenly over the cooled cookie mixture. Let cool slightly.
5. In the meantime, melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pot of simmering water and gradually whisk in the heavy cream until smooth.
6. Pour the melted chocolate mixture over the caramel and spread it evenly with a small offset spatula or by tapping the bottom of the pan on a hard surface.
7. Cool the bars in the refrigerator until set and cut into squares. If the chocolate hardens, let the bars stand for at least 1 hour at room temperature before cutting. They will keep for 1 week on the counter and 2 weeks in the freezer.
Spinach and Asiago Cheese Sandwiches
Everyone loves grilled cheese, and my secret is potato bread, which tastes richer and is very moist. I've served these everywhere from actor Debi Mazar's baby shower to a grammy-night bash.
Makes about 60 appetizer-size sandwiches
Truffle oil or chili oil (optional)
½ pound (2 sticks) salted butter, melted 20 slices potato bread
One 12-ounce package 4-cheese blend or grated
Asiago, Parmesan, fontina, and provolone
3 cups fresh baby spinach or arugula leaves
1. Add a few drops of truffle or chili oil to the melted butter if you want to be fancy.
2. Place a piece of wax paper on each of 2 baking sheets. Spread out 10 pieces of bread on each baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, brush each piece with butter and turn it over.
3. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons cheese on each bread slice and cover loosely with spinach or arugula.
4. Place the other piece of bread on top and butter the top of the bread completely.
5. You can cook the sandwiches in a large frying pan or on a griddle. Spray a frying pan with olive oil spray and bring to medium-high heat. Place 4 or 5 sandwiches in the pan and let them brown for 2 to 3 minutes. Flip them over and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until brown. (I press a weight on top of the sandwiches to get them crispy, but you can use a spatula to hold each one down.)
6. To serve, cut off the crusts, then cut each sandwich into 6 bite-sized pieces. Serve warm.
Note: If you're not serving the sandwiches that day, cut off the crusts, place the pieces in a freezer bag, separating the layers with deli paper. To reheat frozen sandwiches, place them on a baking sheet and bake them in a 375°F oven for 10 minutes. They will keep for up to 1 month in the freezer. These are delicious right out of the oven brushed with white balsamic vinegar or a little bit of truffle oil.