This story was originally featured on Saveur.
Kelly Fields can’t show up to Thanksgiving without a bourbon chocolate pecan pie. For the past 20 years, the pie has been her ticket into the annual celebration, and she never risks attending a holiday meal without the decadent treat. “The pie gets better every year,” Fields says via phone as she starts the day at her New Orleans restaurant, Willa Jean.
Some years, her pie is really gooey, others, more dry, but the textural differences are what lure Fields and her family back to the dessert every year. “I like finding that perfect balance,” she says. “You heat it up and it gets really soft, and then you put ice cream on it and it gets cold, and in some places, chewy.” It’s more decadent than a brownie sundae, Fields adds. The chocolate and bourbon add body to the pecans, balancing the nuts with just enough sweetness and bitterness that a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top is a welcome enhancement, even at the end of a feast.
Fields’s favorite thing about this pie—and really any pie—is its lack of ostentation. “The beautiful thing about pie is that it doesn’t require fanciness or technology; it’s a real visit into simplicity,” she says. The only essential gear is a pie plate. “Pie is one of those things born out of having things around. If you don’t have a rolling pin, just use the bourbon bottle,” Fields advises.
Entry-level pie bakers shouldn’t panic about reaching Instagram perfection. “There’s too much pressure,” says Fields. “Nine out of ten times, it’s going to be super delicious. Just keep going. If it sinks, cover it with whipped cream. If the middle cracks, put some whipped cream on there. The difference between a good baker and great baker is the ability to cover up mistakes. We all make them.” Here, Fields shares the foolproof formula for her go-to Thanksgiving pie.
A tender crust
While pie dough can be notoriously fickle, Fields has a secret weapon in her arsenal: white vinegar. The acid in the vinegar helps soften the gluten and allows bakers to work the dough less. Clear alcohol, such as vodka, can also be substituted for vinegar in the same proportion.
From tree to pie
Fresh pecans are plentiful in Louisiana. “It’s really the best part of living here,” says Fields. If you don’t have access to straight-off-the-tree nuts, she recommends purchasing pecans in airtight sealed bags, rather than from the bulk aisle (which pains Fields to say—she’s a huge advocate for bulk-bin shopping, except in the case of nuts). “Nuts are so high in oil content that they spoil quickly,” explains Fields. “In bulk bins, you don’t know how long the nuts have been there, and they’re exposed to air and light, so the integrity of freshness is compromised.” If you’re not a pecan lover, she encourages you to swap in the tree nut of your choice.
A splash of good bourbon
Fields is equally undiscerning about the bourbon: “Use whatever you love to drink. I just don’t believe in cooking with cheap liquor.” She’s currently nursing a bottle of Cask Strength Maker’s Mark, alternating between baking with it and enjoying it on its own.
The proper chocolate
While you can opt for any dark chocolate here, Fields always uses Valrhona’s 70% cocoa Guanaja bar for this pie. “It’s really dark, acidic, and floral at the same time,” she says. “It adds that richness to the pie without making it super sweet. It also brings out the floral notes of the nuts, and plays off the cane syrup in the recipe, which tastes like home.”