March 3, 2024


Free For All Food

Holiday baking with Willa Jean chef Kelly Fields starts with recipes from grandma’s kitchen | Where NOLA Eats

Mention holiday baking to chef Kelly Fields, and she goes straight to Grandma Mac’s Apple Cake. “It’s so delicious,” Fields said. “Seeing people cook it across the world, she would be so delighted.”

The recipe from her maternal grandmother is in “The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes and Cornbread,” by Fields with Kate Heddings (Lorena Jones Books, $35). So are many other family favorites, six kinds of biscuits, inspired riffs such as cornbread madelines — plus south Louisiana favorites such as doberge cake and king cake.

It is Southern to the bone, a culmination of Fields’ 20 years in professional baking. The chef/owner of Willa Jean in New Orleans and winner of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef has already made the 2020 Saveur 100 List and The New York Times and Los Angeles Times’ list of best 2020 cookbooks.

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She grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, with a mom who constantly baked, had a beautiful garden, preserved and harvested.

“My mom is a big Christmas buff, so there was always music or, nine times out of 10, ‘White Christmas’ on TV,” Fields said. “There was a lot of baking, a lot of food, family. Mom would go into overdrive baking cakes and cookies to pass around the neighborhood.”

Local cookbooks give home chefs a taste of fine dining in their own kitchens

Here are a few other cookbooks that would make good gifts for the home chef in your life.

After high school, Fields moved to New Orleans and found her calling working with Susan Spicer at Spice Inc. After culinary school at Johnson & Wales, she became pastry chef at Restaurant August. Then came Hurricane Katrina, and she lost every recipe. In evacuation, she started re-creating them in a red notebook she uses to his day.

For five years, she lived in San Francisco and traveled the world, cooking and learning. In 2010, chef Michael Gulotta reached her in New Zealand and asked her to come back to August, where she worked until opening Willa Jean five years ago.

The high-end experience was invaluable, Fields writes. “I never could have come up with my idea of a perfect chocolate chip cookie if I hadn’t gotten to know chocolate the way I did at August. Ditto bananas, pineapple, vanilla …”

That cookie took her 2½ years to perfect, working on it daily. Then, she had the huge challenge of creating its popular companion.

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to come up with an oatmeal cookie recipe that stood up to … that chocolate chip cookie,” Fields said. “It probably took a solid year” to perfect.

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Oatmeal and All the Dried Fruits Cookies

But baking doesn’t need to be all grams and precise weighing, Field believes. Our Southern foremothers made do with a pinch of this and a handful of that. Trust yourself.

The biggest surprise about having a restaurant and a cookbook, Fields said, is that “after 20 years of being, probably, overly serious and taking myself and food maybe a little too seriously, when I let go and be genuinely who I am, the more fun I have and the more well received things are.

“This has all kind of helped me settle in to who I am, and be very OK with that.”

Kelly Fields of Willa Jean wins James Beard Award

Chef Kelly Fields is interviewed at Willa Jean by dining reporter Todd Price as part of the Where NOLA Chefs Eat video series. (Photo by Frankie Prijatel, | The Times-Picayune) – Chef Kelly Fields Frankie Prijatel

Grandma Mac’s Apple Cake

Fields writes that her grandmother, who grew up in Appalachia, made this cake almost every other day during apple season. The tang of the buttermilk sauce balances the sweetness of the cake. I suggest baking this for a treasured neighbor.

Makes one 10-inch cake.


Butter for greasing pan

2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for flouring the pan

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups granulated sugar

3 eggs, at room temperature

1¼ cups vegetable oil

¼ cup fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups peeled grated Honeycrisp or Granny Smith apples (about 4)

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 cup sweetened coconut flakes


1 cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter

½ cup buttermilk

½ teaspoon baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Liberally butter and lightly flour every crevice of a 10-cup tube or Bundt pan.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda and cinnamon. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer, combine sugar, eggs, oil, orange juice and vanilla, beating on medium speed until well blended. Add dry ingredients. Mix until incorporated. Fold in apples, nuts and coconut. Spoon into prepared pan.

3. Bake about 1½ hours, rotating pan after 45 minutes, until top springs back when lightly pressed with a fingertip. Transfer to a wire rack and let cake cool in pan for 15 minutes.

4. While cake cools, make the sauce. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, butter, buttermilk and baking soda. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture boils for at least 1 full minute. Sauce may look a bit separated, but continue whisking; it will come together.

5. Place a serving plate with a raised edge over the pan and invert cake onto the plate, then remove pan. Puncture top of cake all over with a skewer. Spoon hot sauce over warm cake, continuing until cake has absorbed most of the sauce. This will look like too much sauce at first, but cake will absorb most of it while it cools. Let cake stand at least 1 hour before serving. Cake is even better the next day. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Oatmeal and All the Dried Fruits Cookies

“I love these cookies deeply,” Fields writes. “Feel free to use any fruit you want.” The dough is frozen overnight before baking. 

Makes 36 cookies.

1 cup dried cranberries

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup chopped dried apricots

2½ cups quick-cooking oats

1¾ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1½ cups unsalted butter, room temperature

1½ cups firmly packed light brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Large-flake sea salt for sprinkling

1. In a medium bowl, combine fruits.

2. In another medium bowl, whisk oats, flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a large bowl with a handheld mixer, cream butter with sugars until just mixed and light in color (mixing longer will cause cookies to spread too much).

3. Add eggs, one at a time, incorporating well after each. Decrease speed to low and add dry ingredients in three portions, mixing until fully incorporated after each addition. Mix in vanilla, then fruit.

4. Line two baking sheets with parchment. With a 1½ ounce (about 3 tablespoons) cookie scoop, scoop mounds of dough onto prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Freeze 24 hours and up to three months. Once frozen, transfer mounds to resealable freezer bags.

5. To bake, preheat oven to 325 F. Line three baking sheets with parchment or silicon liners. Transfer frozen dough to prepared baking sheets, 2 inches apart, and top each with a pinch of sea salt. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, rotating baking sheets after 10 minutes, until cookies are very lightly browned around the edges and just set.

6. Cool on baking sheets 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to three days.

R.S. Kinney’s Most Favorite Dog Biscuits

Fields’ beloved pup, R.S. Kinney, could not be left out of her cookbook. A batch of his favorite dog biscuits, flavored with sweet potato or pumpkin, peanut butter and possibly bacon, would make a grand gift for anyone who adores a dog.

Makes about 24 dog biscuits.

2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

2 eggs, at room temperature

¾ cup pureed roasted sweet potato or pumpkin

¼ cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky, as long as it’s xylitol-free)

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 strips bacon, cooked crisp and minced (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, mix flour, eggs, sweet potato, peanut butter, cinnamon and bacon (if using). The dough should be dry and pretty stiff. If you need to add water to work with it more easily, add a few tablespoons at a time and continue mixing.

2. Lightly dust work surface with flour. With a lightly floured rolling pin, roll dough about ⅓-inch thick. With a cookie cutter lightly dipped in flour, cut out as many biscuits as you can. Reroll scraps and cut more until you’re left with too little dough to cut a full one.

3. Transfer the biscuits, evenly spaced, to a baking sheet and bake 35-40 minutes, rotating pan after 18 minutes, until biscuits are golden brown and crispy. Cool completely before serving. Store in an airtight container or resealable bag at room temperature up to five days.

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