A Cookie that's Sweet & Southern
Ben Mims, Associate Editor at Food & Wine magazine, thrives in sophisticated cities like New York and San Francisco, where he has lived his culinary life. But when it comes to food – and especially sweets – there’s a special place in his heart for Kosciuko, Mississippi, a small town an hour north of Jackson, where he grew up.
Ben captures the nostalgia of his youth with mouthwatering descriptions of the endless parade of desserts his family baked, in Sweet & Southern, Classic Desserts with a Twist, published last year by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. With luscious photos, recipes and tips, we are transported to the Deep South and Ben’s family table.
You may remember Ben as a Special Fork blogger in 2013, where he wrote weekly posts for beginner cooks. We treasure the 51 stories, recipes and photos he produced that continue to live on our site.
On Thursday, I called Ben in New York City, to talk about his book and to ask for some dessert tips and a recipe for our Special Fork family. I learned that the impetus for the book was a reaction to Ben’s poignant and personal story about Southern layer cakes, an exquisitely written piece for Saveur magazine when he was its Associate Editor; it's still one of the best examples of good food writing.
Ben has dedicated a third of his dessert book to prized family recipes, updated for contemporary tastes. A third comes from his years in the Saveur test kitchen where he discovered dishes from around the world that shared similarities with Southern desserts; he blends the best global techniques and ingredients with Southern flavors. And a third was developed for balance, to ensure that he delivered the variety of recipes that readers would expect from a dessert book.
Since Ben has had a personal relationship with Special Fork’s cooking newbies, I asked him about pitfalls for the baking newbie. Here's his advice:
- Have patience. If you skip steps because you don't have the time, or skip ingredients because you don't have them, it will be reflected in the quality of your end result.
- No one is going to be a great baker from the first time, but if your accomplishment didn’t match your expectations, you can still learn from the experience and make the recipe that much better the next time.
- Start small, making small things like cookies, brownies or cupcakes. They are easier to manage for first projects.
- Get familiar with the practice of baking. For example, as you gain experience in baking cakes, you'll develop a sense of what ingredients are needed and what temperature and time are required. You'll almost be able to put things together without a recipe.
- When making a pie, make the crust a day ahead and freeze it. Then make the filling the next day and bake the pie. Not only does it make the work more manageable, it's easier to clean up a little on both days, than all at once.
- When baking a cake, bake it a day ahead and wrap it in plastic wrap. Make the frosting and assemble the cake the next day.
- Inexperienced bakers should stick to the recipe. It's not a good idea to change the number of eggs or omit the milk, without understanding how baking works. Where you can improvise with impunity, however, is swapping out milk chocolate for dark chocolate, if you prefer milk chocolate. You can take liberties with flavoring in most recipes, using different nuts or spices. And you can improvise on a cobbler or crisp, which is more forgiving.
Ben’s favorite recipe from his book? “Coconut cake,” he says. “Mostly because it’s my grandmother’s recipe and she died before I was born. It gives me a connection to the woman I never knew.” The recipe uses fresh coconut and coconut water for a cool, crisp coconut flavor.
While the coconut cake is beyond our Special Fork parameters for time and effort required, Chess Squares, also from Ben’s book, is a sinfully rich and decadent bar cookie that fits perfectly.
“Growing up, Chess Squares was a convenience cookie for tailgates using a box yellow cake mix. I reverse-engineered it to make it from scratch,” Ben explains. “It has chess pie flavors without having to make a crust. It's very rich with cream cheese and all that sugar tastes amazing. It's to be enjoyed in very small bites. This cookie is similar to the St. Louis gooey butter cake.”
Having made a batch of Chess Squares, myself, I can attest to how addictive they can be. Store these bar cookies in an airtight container at room temperature. It should keep for about five days – if they last that long!
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1/4 cup milk
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 (1-pound) box confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with parchment paper and spray evenly with baking spray.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Put the granulated sugar, butter, and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. Add 1 of the eggs and beat until smooth. Add the dry ingredients and milk and beat on low speed until the dough just comes together and is smooth. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking dish and use your fingers to press it evenly into the bottom.
In a bowl, beat the cream cheese with a handheld mixer on medium-high speed until smooth and fluffy; add the remaining 3 eggs one at a time, beating well after each, until the mixture is smooth. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat on low speed until smooth (if a few lumps remain here and there, it’s okay; they won’t matter in the finished product). Pour the mixture over the dough in the baking dish and spread out evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean and the top is lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Let cool completely, then cut into about 16 small squares (you want to keep these rich bites small – trust me).
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