"Don't overthink it": James Beard winner Kelly Fields shares expert pie baking tips for the holidays

Whether you bake chocolate bourbon pecan or sweet potato pie, you can't go wrong. But the secret's all in the crust

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published November 7, 2020 6:15PM (EST)

Strawberry Pie (Ten Speed Press)
Strawberry Pie (Ten Speed Press)

This is part two of a two-part interview with Kelly Fields.

It took James Beard award winner Kelly Fields two and a half years to get her chocolate chip cookie recipe "just right." Now, the pastry chef sells more than 10,000 cookies every week at her popular restaurant and bakery in New Orleans. Both the triple-threat chocolate chip cookie and the Louisiana location carry the name of an important woman in Fields' life: grandma Willa Jean.

Though not an excellent cook herself, Fields' grandma was also her biggest cheerleader and supporter. Willa Jean encouraged Fields to follow her dreams, and she's followed them to the highest peaks. After being named outstanding pastry chef by the most prestigious honor in the food industry last year, Fields followed up with her debut cookbook last month, which you can purchase here. A book of biblical proportions, "The Good Book of Southern Baking" is a modern encyclopedia that proves once and for all that southern baking is American baking.

"So the whole reason I do this — and have had the privilege to sort of come up in this industry — is because of [Willa Jean]," Fields told Salon Talks in a recent episode. "And the chocolate chip cookie itself was a quest to get back to my roots after doing really fancy food for a very long time. It was just how to go back to the most simple, delicious, bite of joy you can get — and that's how we got there."

In addition to her popular chocolate chip cookies, Fields sells a wide range of pastries at Willa Jean, including biscuits, croissants, and pies. One fan-favorite item around the holidays is her chocolate bourbon pecan pie. When it comes to making pie crust, Fields can't stress one piece of advice enough: Don't overthink it.

"It's very simple. It's very easy. It's one of those recipes you can't overthink, and you shouldn't approach it with any kind of fear," she told Salon. "If you're intimidated by it going into it, it's going to know. So just whip it together real quick. And leave it alone. And don't overthink it."

With the countdown to Thanksgiving upon us, pie season is officially full swing. For expert tips on crust, plus other comfort bakes like banana bread and bread pudding, you can read the Q&A of our conversation below. Part one is here.


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

RELATED: Cookies can be chewy and crispy at the same time. James Beard winner Kelly Fields shares the secret

You write that you're not a huge fan of white chocolate. I'm one of those freaks who likes white chocolate.

Oh, yeah?

Yeah. When you write about about buying chocolate in the book, you point out that the quality of the chocolate makes a difference. Plus, you should buy it in bars and coins. What are your tips for chocolate shopping?

I don't use a lot of chocolate chips. I think there's maybe one recipe in the whole book that uses chocolate chips, because chocolate chips are generally coded with a chemical to keep them from melting. So I like to use just plain chocolate and just chop it up, and that also makes it a little bit more like a chocolate salad in whatever you're putting it in — because every bite is going to be different. So I always do bars or coins, and then chop them up. When I buy a bunch of chocolate, I'll just chop it all up and put it to the side so I don't have to chop it every time I go to bake. And I just think it's a really efficient, fun way to make your pastry more interesting to have something that's not so uniform as a chocolate chip.

I feel your love for New Orleans in the book, which includes Mardi Gras treats like Moon Pies. That's something I've never thought about making at home, as well King Cakes. I'm used to buying them. I've always thought, "Wow, that must be really tough to make." But are they actually easy to make at home?

Yes — I mean, once you get a little practice. Going through a recipe the first time — it doesn't matter what it is — I always kind of fumble my way through it and learn some things. And the second time is always better. A King Cake and Moon Pies — I think they're super fun to do at home. And I have two nephews, and the more that we can devote time to doing stuff like that, the more fun they have. Making marshmallows is super fun. And letting them dip those Moon Pies in chocolate — it's a little messy, but it's good family fun.

RELATED: Purchase a copy of "The Good Book of Southern Baking"

I'll try making them at home this year. Another tried and true New Orleans dessert is bread pudding. What's your secret to a good bread pudding?

I think it's about making it custardy. Bread pudding's meant, for me, to be smooth, kind of thick crème brûlée, more than just French toast — somewhere in between an actual custard and French toast. So I like to find that middle ground. And my favorite thing is to always use different kinds of bread. Banana bread and corn bread actually makes delicious bread pudding, too.

And those are two things I wanted to ask you about. I grew up with a loaf of banana bread constantly around. And I also put a sour cream into my recipe, which makes it super moist. Can you talk about the Creole cream cheese that you add to yours?

So Creole cream cheese is New Orleans' version of ricotta or burrata. It's a lot like ricotta. It's a tangier, a little sweeter, and that essentially plays the same role of sour cream in your banana bread, where it adds moisture. It adds a little bit of tang. I also would recommend if you're making the Creole cream cheese for the cheesecake, save some and use it in place of the sour cream in the pancakes also. Anywhere you put sour cream or a ricotta or mascarpone, you can put that Creole cream cheese in it.

Nice. It's something you can just make and keep in the fridge to use on whatever you're baking.

I highly recommend it.

Turning to cornbread, I've used a Jiffy box throughout my life. And I did love that you have the Jiffy fix section in the book, with instructions for how to dress up Jiffy cornbread. I like to throw in some jalapeños in mine. It speaks to the South. Your recipe for homemade corn bread sits overnight. How you develop it? It sounds so interesting.

It was 100% an accident, where we started making the recipe and had combined the buttermilk, and the corn flour and everything; and realized we didn't have what we needed to make the rest of the recipe; and put it in the fridge overnight. And we didn't really expect that the buttermilk — and letting it sit overnight — would tenderize it so much and change the outcome of the crumb so much. So we made it the next day, and we were all just kind of super impressed with ourselves, for lack of a better thing. We were super surprised. We made another batch of corn bread the way we usually made it, and the soaking overnight was just so much better. That that's just the way we do it now.

When you write about your time working at August in New Orleans, you speak to your philosophy of baking as a whole. You write, "Always highlight the main ingredient and never put three or four flavors on a plate." 

I always think — when thinking about baking and thinking about desserts — that trying to accomplish too much is where things get really complicated (and sort of will derail me, personally). I think about things that we have here like strawberry season. Our strawberries are so good. When I am baking with strawberries or making something with strawberries, I want to show that strawberry off and just put it on a pedestal. And anything I add to that strawberry is going to highlight it, turn up the volume on the flavor or maybe show off another side of it — bring out the real floral side or the tart side. Just real simple. How does that strawberry need to be shown off? And that's how I approach all the stuff that I bake with like figs and everything like that. What's going to put that ingredient on a pedestal so that you really get to experience it?

And that's the same with the banana bread. I've seen a bunch of recipes that are really heavy on spices. Once you start adding all that cinnamon and what have, you may not taste the banana.

My philosophy has always been things have to taste the way that they sound. Ice cream flavors need to taste whatever their named and banana bread should taste like bananas. I'm a very simple person and kind of literal in a real dead tone kind of way. So if I'm eating banana bread, I want it to taste banana.

And simplicity is better sometimes.

I'm a fan of that.

I loved the photo in the book — and I assume that it's from Willa Jean — of the signs over the bathrooms, which are gender inclusive.

We had different signs when we opened, and with the change in administration and sort of the environment, we decided we wanted to make a clear statement that everybody is seen and welcomed. And that's just one little small way we could do it.

And seeing this in the cookbook is a powerful message, because you're teaching acceptance at the same time as you're teaching baking.

I mean, it should be that simple, right?

In a weird way, this is good timing for the book to come out. We're talking about the topic of baking through it at Salon Food, and more people are baking at home more than ever before. Have you had any reaction to the book because of that? It's the perfect guide for someone to start baking at home.

Yes, I'm floored. I'm the kind of person, though. My restaurant is five years old, and every morning that I walk in and people are there, I'm surprised by it. The past week or two, every time I get on social or check my email, it's somebody reaching out about the book. Or showing me what they baked or what they're going to bake. Or, "I tried this, this way. What do you think about these substitutions?" It started this whole new conversation in my life about people baking the stuff I love to bake. I'm floored by it. I love it so much, and it inspires me to just keep doing more.

My favorite question to ask anybody who we interview at Salon is why do you cook? Or in your case, why do you bake? For me, it takes me back to my roots in the South. My paternal grandmother is from Mexico. The kitchen really connects me with my cultural roots. At the end of the day, why do you bake?

I mean, I've never not baked. It's exactly who I am. It always has been.

That's a nice and straightforward answer. I like it. Pie season is coming up. We talked about your pumpkin cheesecake, which I think is a great pie alternative. But there are so many wonderful pie recipes in your book. What else should folks take a look at for the holiday season?

I super love the sweet potato and honey marshmallow pie. I think it's really a fun, unusual way to make sweet potato pie versus what I grew up with. It's a little bit different. I love the chocolate bourbon pecan pie. I don't think you can go wrong with that, and it's one of the most popular pies we sell. And I super love my Aunt Jean's lemon chiffon pie, which she did sometimes with the saltine crust, but you can do it with the graham cracker crust, too. It's just a really light, lemony, delicious pie.

Do you have a philosophy about your pie crust or a go-to recipe for your pie crust?

I do, yes. My go-to pie crust is in the book. It's very simple. It's very easy. It's one of those recipes you can't overthink, and you shouldn't approach it with any kind of fear. If you're intimidated by it going into it, it's going to know. So just whip it together real quick. And leave it alone. And don't overthink it.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book? I know that's probably a tough question.

Yes, it's going to change every time I get asked. I think the one I go back to the most is the warm chocolate pudding, because I never grew up with Jello pudding mix. I didn't know that pudding was actually supposed to be cold until I was older than I'd like to admit, because my mom always cooked it on the stove. And me and my siblings would fight over it. And I didn't know that it was an unusual way to eat pudding, but I think everybody should try warm chocolate pudding once — at least once.

Click here to purchase a copy of "The Good Book of Southern Baking."

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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