Martha Hicks remembers catering career, shares favorite recipes

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By Ann Cipperly

Former Opelika caterer Martha Hicks was known for scrumptious dishes elegantly presented for a variety of occasions from dinner parties to events with hundreds of guests. Her talents were known beyond Lee County, as she was the personal caterer for Carolyn and Red Blount of Montgomery, among other out-of-town clients. Martha retired from catering a year and half ago.

Martha grew up in a rural area in Forest Home at The Oaks, located south of Montgomery. The Oaks, an 1850 home, was given to her great-grandfather, who was a doctor, so he could practice medicine in the small town.

The Oaks was passed down to her grandmother, who always had a bountiful garden. Martha spent a great deal of time with her grandmother and great aunts, who were wonderful cooks.

Growing up, her parents had a kitchen in a wing of the house. Martha was involved in 4-H and received many ribbons for her yeast rolls and cookies.

After she graduated from Auburn University and married Lev, she continued her love of cooking. She began selling yeast rolls, and soon friends asked her to cook for their parties.

“When I started Southern Hospitality in 1980,” said Martha, “I didn’t imagine that it would continue for almost 40 years. In 1984, Lev and I added a commercial kitchen onto our home. Lev and my Daddy rescued the heart pine for the floor from a house in Butler County. They installed the floor with square nails. After many moppings, it has a warm patina and is a treasured memory.”

Windows and French doors provided plenty of light in the kitchen. Some of the equipment was new, while some was used but found in good condition. Martha still uses her commercial kitchen instead of her home kitchen for food preparation.

“I am too acquainted with the spaciousness,” she said, “and the ample stainless steel counter tops and the oversized butcher block-topped island to use the smaller home kitchen. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the island surrounded by, sometimes, five industrious cooks getting ready for a weekend of work.”

Martha and her sister, Janie, were the two first employees. “We did wonderful soirées, personally and professionally,” said Martha. “She was extremely artistic and indefatigable.” Janie passed away over two years ago.

Lev joined the business after 1984. Southern Hospitality became a partnership with each of them having different strengths that complemented each other.

“Lev was an excellent cook and tireless,” remembered Martha. “We had always liked entertaining, now it was our livelihood.

“The tipping point for our catering business came at an event for Jim Wilson and Huntington College in Montgomery at the huge shed at the train station. There were to be innumerable events under that shed in the years to come. Carolyn Blount asked who the caterer was, and I had the pleasure of meeting her.

“The Blounts hired me to do the events in their home for the weekend of the grand opening for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival,” said Martha. “This began a life-changing collaboration between Red and Carolyn Blount and Southern Hospitality. They were gracious, generous and a window into a much broader world.”

Martha worked for the Blounts until both of their deaths. “We had the privilege of being a part of the 50th Anniversary of Blount Incorporated at the Montgomery Convention Center. The dessert was custom-made chocolate globes on chocolate stands filled with a vanilla mousse. They were challenging to assemble, to say the least.”

Southern Hospitality helped entertain the crew of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for years in their backyard. “There was dancing, softball games and general merriment,” remembered Martha. “A treasured memory of mine was watching our son, Warren, playing softball with Red Blount.

“We spent every Fourth of July with Red and Carolyn at Lake Martin. We prepared a family lunch for 30 people. Lev and a larger crew brought the food for a reception for 200 to 300 guests, which was served during the spectacular firework display. One year, I talked Lev into making multiple freezers of homemade ice cream, one year and one year only!”

After the conservatory was added to the Blounts’ home, Martha and Lev prepared numerous feasts for seated dinners and elaborate cocktail parties in the kitchen that they helped design under the conservatory.

“I was privileged to say my goodbyes to Red and Carolyn by being a part of their funeral receptions,” Martha stated. “They are buried on the grounds of their gracious estate by the English chapel that Red gave to Carolyn as a gift, just as he gave the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in honor of her. How magical it was to be a part of their entertainment. I am forever grateful.”

Several of their most loved specialties were prepared by Polly Hugley, who worked with them part-time for over 30 years and worked for Auburn for over 40 years. “She is the Princess Polly of the famous cheese biscuits stuffed with ham and savory sauce,” said Martha. “Polly also makes the best pastry for pies that I have ever eaten.

“Polly introduced us to her sister, Barbara Menefee, who ran the cafe for four years for us at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. She had an assortment of college students work with her. It was never dull. Barbara and I said that we were going to write a book about the lunacy that occurred around the back and forth to the cafe.

“Barbara was a fantastic cook. Her dressing was delicious. She could fry chicken perfectly. She was also a master with grilled meats. Barbara passed away in May 2017. She is greatly missed.”

Through Polly, Martha met Judy Baker, Polly’s daughter. Judy became a vital member of the Southern Hospitality team. Her skills covered many facets of food preparation and the orchestration of events. Judy and Martha were the last two employees of Southern Hospitality.

Her specialties included Judy’s Famous Cookies, the secret meat marinade, sour cream pound cake and apple cake. Before the pandemic, Martha and Judy could eat lunch together as they had for over 22 years.

“I can’t begin to name all the college and high school students that worked at Southern Hospitality,” said Martha. “So many of them I consider my dearest friends. We have stayed close. Anytime that I have needed assistance, there is always a Southern Hospitality alumni waiting in the wings.

“My clients taught me so much,” she added. “Their ideas made me stretch and learn. Two wedding clients hired me for all three of their daughters’ weddings. Betsy and Joe Judkins had each of their daughter’s wedding at home. They were delightful to work with. My sister, Janie, helped Joe with landscaping for the wedding. It was a family affair.

“Susan and Earl Ballard had glorious receptions for their three daughters at Trinity Methodist Church. It was such a pleasure to get to know their lovely girls and help celebrate their marriages.

“I wish that I could personally thank each client that entrusted me with their event. I loved what I did.”

Since retiring, Martha still enjoys cooking and spending time with her grown children, Warren and Laural and her grandchildren.

Both Laural and Warren worked for the family business. “Laural worked tirelessly from her high school years, college years and beyond,” said Martha. “She had to learn to adapt quickly as her parents would send her into challenging situations believing that she would perform admirably, and she always did. Laural graduated from Vanderbilt, never left Nashville and works in Human Resources.

“Warren’s help was just as appreciated, but his participation wasn’t as constant as Laural’s. He worked at the cafe in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. Our work made a difference in his life and steered him toward the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. He moved to Germany, first as a glass blower and then onto Norway. He now works in the mental health field but continues to blow glass. He still prepares delicious food for his family.”

In 1999, Lev passed away with AML. “Losing Lev, when he was only 49, was a dark time,” remembered Martha. “He and I worked together. We were married and the best of friends. We each had faith in the other’s abilities. We were fortunate. Southern Hospitality would have never been what it was if we hadn’t done it together. One is compelled not to feel sorry for a loss, only joy in the fact that you were given a great gift.”

Ann Cipperly can be reached at recipes@cipperly.com.

Brined, Roasted Turkey Breast

With our smaller holiday guest lists, this turkey breast is a perfect option. You may enjoy the flavor and ease of preparation so much that it will not be relegated to just holidays.

4 lb. turkey breast with skin-on and bone-in

Butter to rub the interior and exterior

Brine:

Four cups water

½ cup kosher salt

1/3 cup brown sugar

Zest of one lemon

Fresh rosemary sprigs

Fresh thyme sprigs

2 garlic cloves, smashed

6 black pepper corns

Bring half of the water to a boil. Add all the brining ingredients and steep for 15 minutes. Add the remainder of the water. If you are in a hurry, add a few ice cubes to speed cooling. Wash the turkey breast. Place turkey breast in a large Ziplock bag. Add brine and seal. Place the bag in a bowl to prevent spills and refrigerate for four hours. Remove the breast from the brine, rinse thoroughly, then pat dry.

Roasting:

Preheat oven to 450 F. Let breast sit out 30 minutes outside of the refrigerator to roast more evenly. Rub the breast all over with butter, being sure to get some under the skin, but not tearing the skin. Place turkey in an open roasting pan on the rack. Place in the middle rack of the oven and roast 20 to 30 minutes or until golden. Reduce temperature to 350 F and cook for approximately an hour more. Your instant read probe thermometer should read 155 degrees.

Let your beautifully roasted turkey breast sit for 15 minutes before slicing.

Enjoy with fresh, homemade cranberry sauce!

Fresh Cranberry Sauce

This can be prepared several days in advance. It enhances pork tenderloin as well as roasted turkey.

½ cup fresh orange juice

½ cup water

¾ cup brown sugar, maybe a bit more to taste

12 oz. bag fresh cranberries

Zest of orange, plus 2 tsp.

½ tsp. cinnamon

½ cup chopped pecans

Bring first three ingredients to boil; add fresh cranberries.

Boil gently to thicken. Most of the cranberries will pop.

Add orange zest, cinnamon and chopped pecans. Store in refrigerator.

Tuscan Pork Tenderloin

Laural and I attended a cooking school at Agriturismo Podere Cunina in Buonconvento, Italy. Chef Marcelo Freddi, the son of the owners, taught our inspirational class. We ate the delicious fruit of our labors after our class. Laural and I have used this recipe for dinner parties. We had the pleasure of staying in the accommodations there. Visit their website. It is a pleasant virtual respite in this time of limited travel.

One medium pork tenderloin trimmed of fascia and excess fat

Parmesan cheese, sliced from a wedge of cheese

Prosciutto, five slices

Fresh sage and rosemary

Butter

Slit pork to open it like a book. Beat pork with a meat mallet, but not too flat.

Top with prosciutto and cheese. Lightly salt. Tie with string. Tuck stems of rosemary and sage into the tied string. Brown pork in butter on all sides. I use a black skillet. Finish in a 325 degree oven for approximately 25 to 30 minutes.

The pork can be stuffed in the morning, refrigerated covered, and brought out for your dinner party and cooked.

Salad with Avocados or Pears with Laural’s Versatile Dressing

This salad was a staple of my personal holiday entertaining and catering.

Baby greens or chopped romaine hearts

Ripe avocados, sliced or can use sliced fresh pears

Grapefruit sections (I buy the prepared sections.)

Chopped, sugared pecans

Crumbled Maytag blue cheese or goat cheese

Pomegranate arils

In a salad bowl or individual salad places, arrange greens and top with other ingredients in order given.

Laural’s Versatile Vinaigrette

Combine 6 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 4 Tbsp., honey, and salt/pepper. Gradually add 1 cup extra virgin olive oil.

This dressing will separate. Shake before using. It keeps at room temperature.

You may need to add honey, salt, and pepper according to taste.

The above dressing is delicious on tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil.

Risotto

This is an easy risotto from Deb Paquette of Etch in Nashville from Laural Hicks, with a few Martha Hicks’ changes.

1 cup Arborio rice

2 ½ cups homemade or purchased chicken stock

Olive oil

Diced carrots, onion, red bell pepper, sliced mushrooms and diced zucchini or asparagus, cut on the diagonal

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Dried thyme to taste

Dried chervil to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté vegetables in olive oil and set aside. Coat rice with olive oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Cover with warm chicken stock, stir and let cook until stock is absorbed by rice. Continue to add stock, stir to mix but do not continue to stir. When rice is cooked a la dente, add Parmesan cheese, seasoning, vegetables and salt and pepper to taste.

If you need to “hold” this risotto for a short while, do not add Parmesan cheese until ready to serve.

Creamed Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes

Small Campari tomatoes

White Cream Sauce*

Pkg. fresh spinach

¼ cup sautéed chopped onions

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash of nutmeg

White Cream Sauce:

2 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. flour

2 cups milk

To make cream sauce, melt butter in saucepan; add flour and stir until thick. Slowly add milk and stir until it boils and thickens. Set aside.

Wilt spinach in a small amount of water or butter; drain well. Add spinach and onions to cream sauce; season with salt, pepper and a dash of nutmeg.

Slice top from tomato (not the stemmed end). Scoop out tomato and fill with creamed spinach.

Apple and Pecan Cake with Glaze or Caramel Frosting

Many of my recipes are connected to coworkers or clients. The apple cake recipe belonged to Arlisha Johnson. It is the best apple cake that I have tried. Cover the cake with the Glaze or Caramel Frosting.

1 ½ cups oil

2 ½ cups sugar

3 cups plain flour

1 tsp. soda

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. cinnamon

3 chopped Gala apples

1 cup chopped pecans

3 eggs

1 Tbsp. vanilla

1/4 cup buttermilk

Butter and flour Bundt pan. Mix oil and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Mix well. Sift together flour, salt, soda, and cinnamon. Add to egg mixture. Then add buttermilk and vanilla. Fold in apple and pecans.

Bake 325 degrees for about 50 minutes to 1 hour. When cool, cover with the Glaze or Caramel Frosting.

Glaze:

1 cup brown sugar

½ stick butter

1 tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup half and half

Combine the above. Heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until bubbling and thickened.

The glaze needs to be thick enough to remain on the cake but thin enough to pour.

Caramel Frosting:

1 cup brown sugar

1 stick butter

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup half and half

1 box confectioners’ sugar

Bring to a boil, stirring constantly the brown sugar, half and half, and butter. Bubble gently, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Using mixer, gradually add the box of sifted confectioners’ sugar. Add enough half and half to pour glaze but not be too runny.

This is a staple that I have never grown tired of using.

My Favorite Dark Chocolate Truffles

Delicious to enjoy and as well as gift! I use small decorative paper or aluminum cups to serve them. After trying a variety of truffle recipes, this one is delicious and foolproof.

1/3 cup heavy cream

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 ¾ cups Ghirardelli 60% Bittersweet Chocolate Chips

1/3 cup Ghirardelli Unsweetened Cocoa

In a small saucepan, bring cream to a boil. Add butter and stir until melted. Add chocolate chips. Stir gently until completely melted and smooth. Remove from heat and pour into a shallow bowl.

Cool, cover, and refrigerate the fixture until firm, at least two hours.

Using a melon baller or small spoon, roll the mixture into one inch balls. Roll each ball in cocoa. Refrigerate up to a month.

Mrs. Wilkins Hot Chicken Salad

This salad was prepared for Stanley Sistrunk and me by a dear friend in Atlanta. Paired with asparagus spears, it makes a delicious luncheon or dinner.

2 cups diced, cooked chicken

2 Tbsp. finely diced onion

½ cup chopped pecans

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 cup mayonnaise

½ tsp. salt

1 can sliced water chestnuts

I like to add ½ cup sautéed celery.

½ cup grated sharp cheddar

1 cup crushed potato chips

Combine all ingredients except cheese and chips. Bake at 375 until hot, which will not take long. Top with cheese and then chips. Heat until cheese melts.

Nashville’s Food Company’s Hot Chicken Dip with Pita Chips

1 whole cooked chicken breast [I like to buy a roasted chicken and use the breast.]

1 lb. (two 8 oz. pkg.) softened cream cheese [It may require a bit more cream cheese to make it easier to dip.]

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Curry powder to taste

1 to 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans

1/2 cup chopped green onions

Combine above ingredients. Make sure that it is easy to dip. Bake at 350 degrees until mixtures bubbles around the edges. Serve with pita chips.

Fried Wontons with Salmon Mousse and Capers

Wontons:

Cut wontons into fourths.

Heat about one-inch of oil to 350. Fry on each side for 15 to 20 seconds. Drain and sprinkle with sea salt.

Smoked Salmon Mousse:

8 oz. cream cheese, softened

4 oz. smoked salmon

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. minced dill

1 tsp. horseradish

Capers

Combine above ingredients except capers in a food processor.

The mousse and wontons can be prepared several days in advance. Store the mousse in the refrigerator, and let it come to room temperature or it will be too firm to press through a bag with a decorator tip.

When ready to serves, pipe the mousse in a decorative rosette on the wonton and garnish with a caper or two.

Mushroom Croustades

The toast cups will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple of weeks. The toast cups are also good to fill with chicken salad or pimento cheese, as well as to serve with dips.

Toast Cups:

Slices of white loaf bread (such as Pepperidge Farm)

Butter, melted

Lightly flatten slices of loaf bread; cut in 3-inch rounds. Mash the rounds, gently, into small muffin tins. Brush with melted butter.

Bake at 275 until lightly browned and crisp.

Mushroom Filling:

The filling can be made two days in advanced or frozen for up to a month.

1/2 lb. mushrooms, finely chopped

4 Tbsp. chopped green onions

3 Tbsp. butter

2 Tbsp. flour

1 cup heavy cream

½ tsp. lemon juice

Salt to taste

Tiny dash of cayenne pepper, optional

Sauté mushrooms and green onions in butter. Sprinkle flour over them and add cream. Stir and cook until thickened.

Remove from heat add lemon juice, salt and a tiny amount of cayenne pepper to taste, if desired.

Fill the toast cups with mushroom mixture and sprinkle Parmesan cheese and fresh chives on top. Bake at 350 approximately 10 minutes. Makes 24.

Old-Fashioned Toasted Pecans

Heat oven to 250. Toast pecans with a small amount of butter and salt, stirring often, until fragrant and lightly browned.

Prissy Pecans

2 cups pecan halves

5 Tbsp. butter

3 Tbsp. sugar

3 tsp. sherry

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

2 cups pecan halves

Salt

Melt butter and combine with other ingredients. Combine with pecans. Salt to taste. Roast at 275 until most of butter is absorbed and the pecans are fragrant.

Let pecans sit on a brown paper sack to soak up excess butter.

Rosemary Walnuts

6 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. fresh or dried rosemary, chopped

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper

4 cups walnut halves

Melt butter and seasoning together. Toss with walnuts. Bake at 275 degrees until brown.

Black Skillet Olives

You can serve these from your kitchen island, with toothpicks, as a snack for your guests while you finish preparing dinner. The aroma of rosemary is heavenly!

Drain an assortment of olives that have pits. Heat extra virgin olive oil, about 1/4 inch, in a black skillet. Add fresh, chopped rosemary and sauté. Add olives and heat through.

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