Growing up surrounded by the layer cakes, pies, and pastries that spring forth from Mississippi ovens, Ben Mims has always had an eye out for ways to tweak, improve, and update the desserts that cross his placemat. Now, drawing from a lifetime of baking experience and recipe editing know-how, Mims has put together a delicious and inspired collection of recipes in his first cookbook, Sweet & Southern: Classic Desserts with a Twist. Ranging from refreshed Southern standards to internationally influenced originals, the recipes in Sweet & Southern open the door for those who are looking to lighten the saccharine richness that sometimes accompanies dessert, while still satisfying that sweet tooth.
Tell us about growing up in Mississippi.
I experienced the ideal Southern childhood—on Sundays after church we always went to my grandmother’s house for lunch, where we cooked and baked. I had that storybook Southern grandmother who made biscuits and cornbread and fried chicken. She also always had a caramel cake and a coconut layer cake sitting at the end of the table at lunch, though these were made by a “cake lady” neighbor. But we always spent the weekend baking desserts, like pecan pies and cream cheese pound cakes, and then ate those over the next week. So during my childhood I was surrounded by sweets all the time, and since I had a huge sweet tooth, I took advantage of that and ate as much as possible. That’s pretty much how
I grew up—a slice of cake in my mouth at all times.
Did you always love to bake?
Yes! It was what we did, especially around the holidays. About half of the recipes in the book are ones that I grew up baking with my family. They’re very old recipes that I’ve changed a little bit to modernize them, but not that much. The rest of them are new recipes that I have come up with or adapted from things I’ve researched since I’ve been working with food for the past eight years.
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How did the bakers in your family influence you?
My mother and my aunt were great bakers, and so was my maternal grandmother. Whenever my mom would bake I would be in the kitchen, watching her, seeing what she did. Sometimes I would annoy her, pointing out what she did wrong, or telling her she missed something. I think that’s how I learned, by watching her and thinking about ways that
I would do it differently.
How have you modernized old-school Southern classics?
I wanted to make the Southern desserts I grew up with more palatable and accessible to those who haven’t grown up with them. People would tell me that they thought Southern sweets were too rich, and I felt that they didn’t know what they were missing. They’re only overly sweet when made that way, and they can be made to be less sweet. My goal with modernizing certain classics was to show that Southern desserts can be made more simply and with cleaner flavors. Really, these versions are probably more like the originals, before the convenience era brought processed and prepackaged ingredients to the mix.
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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