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.”
When discussing her nearly three-year quest to perfect her cookie recipe in her book, Fields notes, “People have lots of feelings about what a chocolate chip cookie should be.” The pastry chef thinks “the best cookie is chewy, crispy, and crunchy, with ample chocolate in every bite.” To learn more about a grandma’s love and expert tips for baking cookies, cheesecake, and more, you can read the Q&A of our conversation below.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
I’m also from the South. I’m from Mobile, so not too far from New Orleans, where you live now.
Right down the street.
And I have a lot of family who went to school in Charleston, both the College of Charleston and The Citadel. So I also know South Carolina well, which is where you grew up.
It is, it is. I lived there until 1996, when I ended up in New Orleans.
Your mom grew vegetables and fruits, and she was into canning and making preserves. That’s the same way that I grew up with my grandfather, who had a green thumb, and my who always had sweets around the house. She made a really excellent blackberry wine cake. You compared your house growing up to a cookie factory. You were always around food. Is that what inspired you to become a baker? Was it your mom, specifically?
Yes, I think it’s a lot of how I grew up. That was always such a big part of life, and community and family for me. I didn’t realize until the ’90s that you could actually make a living doing that. And as soon as that was a realization in my life, I’ve never tried to do anything else. It just feels a really natural progression for me.
Speaking of your mom, one of the recipes in the book is her cobbler, which you said you used to have on an almost weekly basis.
Yes, especially during the summer.
With cobbler, one reader question that always comes up is: Can you use fresh fruit or canned fruit or frozen fruit? What is your philosophy on what type of fruit should be used?
My philosophy is to use what you love to eat. I’ve never tried canned fruit, but I know frozen food fruit works fine. That’s often picked and processed at the peak of ripeness, so it’s usually a guaranteed delicious item. With canned fruit, I would imagine it’s a little sweeter, because it’s usually packed with some sort of sweetener. But the rule is to eat what you love, I think.
That’s great. And so your bakery in New Orleans is Willa Jean, which is named after your grandmother, who wasn’t as good of a cook as your mom.
The chocolate chip cookie in your book is named after, and that’s a recipe you said you spent two and a half years perfecting. It’s soft, but crunchy and chewy at the same time. Was that inspired by her?
Well, I mean, a lot of it was when I decided to bake for a living, my grandma was my biggest cheerleader, my biggest supporter. She encouraged me to find the chefs that I wanted to emulate or learn from and go work for them, which I did (which I couldn’t really afford to do, because again, it was the ’90s in the food industry). So my grandmother helped me with my rent a little bit and then encouraged me to go to college, and go to culinary school and to get a degree. And she helped make that a reality, too. So the whole reason I do this — and have had the privilege to sort of come up in this industry — is because of her. 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.
How do you get a cookie that’s chewy, and crunchy and crispy at the same time?
It’s about the ingredients you use, and what proportion and also how you mix it. The order in which you mix it makes a difference. And then, I call for the cookies to be frozen overnight — just to sit. And that makes a really big difference, too. And baking them from frozen helps create all those textures and all the personalities that people love about chocolate chip cookies. All of those little steps come to a place where all of those things exist in one cookie.
When you did move to New Orleans, one of the first big names you worked for was Susan Spicer. What was it like to be a young chef working alongside her?
My nickname in that kitchen was googly eyes, if that explains it. Everybody just called me googly eyes, because I was wide-eyed and just blown away everyday by what was happening in that space — and the energy, and the people and how much people knew about everything. And I just tried to absorb it all. Susan is one of the most phenomenal chefs on the planet, and she’s so incredibly generous with her knowledge and the time she spends to share her love of food with you and with me. That job, as short as it was, was the foundation for how I wanted to cook and how I continue to cook today.
After Hurricane Katrina, you left New Orleans. And with you, came a little red notebook full of recipes. Can you tell us about that? That’s a book that you still carry with you today, one which has inspired you and informed you.
Yes, it’s a foundation for what that cookbook is. But when I evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, I left all my notebooks behind, cookbooks, everything — and it was all a total loss. And when the reality of the flood in New Orleans sort of hit home, I realized that none of that stuff was going to be there when I got back. And so I went to the store and bought that little red notebook and sat in coffee shops, or at my mom’s house, or friend’s houses and shut my eyes and walked through the muscle memory of making all of the things in the kitchen and just started writing down every recipe I could recall. I filled the whole notebook, an I still use it today. It’s still in use — falling apart, but still in use.
That’s one thing that I wanted to talk to you about — that process of physically writing down your recipes. When I grew up baking with my grandmother, she would say, “Let’s add a pinch of this, or a dollop of this or a dash of this.” She had a muscle memory when it came to ingredients. Baking is about precision. It’s chemistry, and all the ingredients have to work together just right. I didn’t write down all of those recipes, much to my regret. I think that’s not true of a lot of Southern folks, too. So what was it like for you to actually record all of these recipes as you created a new bible of a southern baking?
Ultimately, it’s a love letter to my upbringing and to the regions in which I’ve spent the most time. The thing I love about southern baking, in particular, is that it is so intuitive, and it is so simple and beautiful. Most of the things in the book come from a place of scarcity and baking from what we have around us versus trying to make something particularly precious. I think there’s been a preciousness assigned to southern baking that’s not real. I think it’s really gritty and really smart. I just want to celebrate that. Writing down everything, and then putting it in the book and having that be the foundation is, for me, to take a step back to the true heart of baking in the South.
A dollop and a dash — I think you can learn that to a degree, and I just want to encourage people to do that and not be scared of the precision or the science and the chemistry. Most of the time, if you’re baking with delicious things, you’re going to end up with something delicious. To me, that is the whole point.
In the introduction to your book, you say baking should be fun. You also say baking isn’t meant to be laborious or scary. What advice would you give to people who are baking one of your recipes at home for the first time?
One, have fun. Two, read the recipe all the way through before starting, because I think there are little things that most cookbooks say that we take for granted as professionals. But a home cook — for instance, when I talk about things being room temperature, that’s very much on purpose. So just read the recipe all the way through, and make sure that you’re fully prepared. Those little details are thought about and written about in a way that makes it seem effortless or unimportant, but they’re actually very important things to do.
On the topic of baking from a place of scarcity, like you, I didn’t think any differently about a cake pan or a cookie sheet when I grew up. We just used what we had. So what tools do we actually need to get started baking in the kitchen?
I talk about this a little bit in the book — a good baking sheet. And “good” does not mean fancy or expensive, in my opinion. I write about springform pans in the cheesecake recipe. I think springform pans are garbage. I don’t like them. I think a really good 9- or 10-inch cake pan, that’s 3 inches tall (maybe 4 inches tall if you want to go wild) is important. A baking sheet and a good mixer is all you really need, I think. And a good pie tin.
I also am not a fan of springform pans, but cheesecake is one of my favorite things in the world. Cheesecake is a big deal for folks in New Orleans. You have a pumpkin cheesecake recipe in the book, and you say that it was born out of your distaste for pumpkin pie. I’m all here for that. Is that a permanent item on your menu at Thanksgiving?
It’s starting to be. I find that I really enjoy making purees out of different squashes other than just pumpkin. I really having more fun with this spice combo than the regular cinnamon, allspice, cloves. I’ve been playing a lot with cardamom and some more Indian spices with the squash. So I’m starting to have a better taste for it.
You don’t often hear that you don’t actually need the springform pan to make a cheesecake. What do you use instead?
I use just the round cake pan. I make sure I spray the whole pan with the non-stick spray. And I cut a piece of parchment and put it on the bottom, and then spray the top of that. When the cheesecake comes out, I’ll put it in the fridge and let it get really, really cold. And then you can just very quickly flip it out and then flip it back over. And I usually put parchment on whatever I’m flipping it on, so I can just peel it off the top and it doesn’t stick to the surface of the cake once you flip it right back over.
I definitely am excited to try that after reading the book, because that’s honestly one of the things that deters me from making a cheesecake: the thought of the springform pan. It’s labor-intensive.
It really is. And it feels risky when I don’t think baking needs that much risk to it. Because if the springform goes slightly wobbly and isn’t absolutely 100% perfect, you’re filling will leak out. Or if you’re cooking in a water bath, it’ll leak in. It doesn’t need to be that risky.
A biscuit adorns the cover of your book. Being from the South, I’m obviously a huge biscuit lover. But you found that Italian flour actually works better. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, it works really well for what we call “the baker’s biscuit,” which is the biscuit we serve at Willa Jean. And we learned through lots of trial and error, because we make biscuits the way my grandmother would make them and then add steps. We want to keep a really tender, delicious biscuit. And we found that after an error — or years of trial and error — that the “00 flour” is milled fine enough that it hydrates without creating a lot of gluten. It doesn’t get super tough, so we can add those two extra folds into the pastry without creating a really tough biscuit.
I was in Italy as the outbreak unfolded there. I took a cooking class in Florence, and I did notice the difference as I worked with the flour there.
Yes, it’s a pretty big difference.