Why do you use salt and vanilla in virtually every recipe?
A lot of old Southern recipes tended to have very small amounts of salt, which these days would seem so small as to be unnoticeable. I think that’s because back then, the produce and ingredients they used were of higher quality, and they needed fewer additives. The way produce has been cultivated over time, though, has made it bland, and we need a little more salt to help the flavors. Vanilla is the most recognizable flavor to the American palate, so if you are eating something you have not eaten before, vanilla helps bridge the gap of familiarity to give you a frame of reference for the new taste. That’s what I want the desserts to be: new tastes, but also something familiar.
What is your take on baking shortcuts?
I think shortcuts seem attractive at first, but they really don’t save you that much time. It might save you 10 minutes, but what you’re making is not going to be as good. For me a shortcut is reheating leftovers—if I’m going to make something I’m going to make it right, and then I can take a shortcut the next day by just reheating it.
Recipes and photos reprinted with permission from Sweet & Southern: Classic Desserts with a Twist by Ben Mims (Rizzoli, 2014). Photography courtesy of Noah Fecks