Two Pastry Geniuses Have Your Thanksgiving Desserts All Figured Out
Pastry chef Kelly Fields partnered with baking legend Claudia Fleming to create the ultimate dessert table for the holidays.
In 2000, I had just started leading the pastry kitchen in a popular New Orleans restaurant when I took a trip up to New York City to help me find (and grow) my own pastry legs. It was a time when tall, overly constructed desserts were all the rage, and I felt lesser-than because I didn’t want that to be my style. (I really don’t do architecture.)
I went to all of the NYC hot spots on that trip, but it was at Gramercy Tavern that I found my true North Star in Claudia Fleming. I didn’t know who Claudia Fleming was before I walked into the restaurant—I didn’t even know she existed! But damn, her desserts were so simple, beautiful, and thoughtful, and they resonated with me in a way that no other desserts ever had. That moment at Gramercy Tavern eating Claudia’s desserts was the persuasive argument for my entire career.
After I got back to New Orleans, I found Claudia’s seminal book, The Last Course. It instantly became my bible. I carried it with me everywhere for two solid years. I cooked out of that book, following Claudia’s recipes to the letter, and basically memorized it word for word. She taught me techniques and flavor combinations that I could apply to the kinds of desserts I was doing in the South. She solidified my entire catalog of custards, for instance—teaching me just how to bake them, how soft they should be, how to leave them alone and not jiggle them while they cool.
In the big picture, Claudia changed the way I approach food. Like with fruit in particular, she keeps things so simple, but she shows off the exact personality of the ingredient without adding a bunch of different flavors and muddling it. Whatever else goes on the plate is there only to showcase the fruit—never to compete or contrast with it, always to elevate it. The way she did that framed the past 20 years of my cooking.
The funny thing is, though I worshiped her from afar, I didn’t meet Claudia until a couple of years ago at an anniversary event at Union Square Cafe, where I was invited to cook—savory food. Claudia was doing the desserts. I almost died when I realized I’d meet her. It was a total fangirl moment. To think that I was going to be sharing a kitchen with Claudia, after looking up to her for so long? It was like meeting royalty!
I was allowed to bring a sous chef, so I invited pastry chef Lisa Donovan, who also worshiped Claudia. I mean, I had to share in this moment, and I knew it would be huge for both of us. We got to the restaurant, and we were in the kitchen prepping for like a day and a half—but no Claudia. Every time someone came around the corner, we were like, is it her? Is it Claudia? It was like Christmas morning.
Finally, we were upstairs for family meal, and she snuck into the kitchen, as unassuming as she is, and got to work. We had no words; we just shook hands. Then, after the ice was broken, she exceeded every expectation I’ve ever had because she was genuinely nice and so humble. That night, she made buttermilk panna cotta with Concord grape sorbet—one of the most Claudia desserts I can imagine. I ate three of them, and they were exactly as I’d imagined they should be. I was in heaven.
Claudia and I became friendly after that, though I am still in awe of her. For this Thanksgiving, I remembered how grateful I am for her presence in my life as we teamed up long-distance to create something special for Food & Wine readers in the form of a dessert table with our favorite sweets, including one we made up together. Getting to create a recipe with her for this story, I felt like a giddy little schoolgirl. When we started collaborating, it came together very naturally because I’ve been mimicking her style for so long. We didn’t even have to brainstorm much. We didn’t overthink it. There is no bold line between what part is hers and what is mine. And that, after all these years of admiring her from afar, is an amazing gift—and one I will treasure for many years to come.
Goat Cheese Cake with Wine-Poached Cranberries
“I’m always on a quest to lessen sweetness in desserts,” Fleming says. “For my cheesecake, I balance cream cheese (which is inherently sweet) with tart goat cheese.” For a beautiful, festive finish, she tops the cake with candied pistachios and cranberries poached in wine.
Pumpkin Spice Snickerdoodles
“As somebody who is obsessed with texture in general,” says Fields, “these are crazy good.” The secret is adding cream of tartar to the batter, which defines the ultimate snickerdoodle texture: kind of chewy, kind of crumbly.
Lemon Chiffon Pie with Saltine Cracker Crust
This recipe was handed down to Fields from her great-aunt Jean, who grew up in Appalachia during the Great Depression, when graham crackers were too costly to buy. In place of a graham cracker crust, she made one from saltine crackers, creating a crispy, salty base for the pie that’s unbeatable with the sweet and tangy lemony filling.
Cornmeal Cake Trifle with Sabayon and Candied Kumquats
Unfussy and wildly delicious, this stunning trifle comprises layers of cornmeal cake, Prosecco sabayon, candied kumquats, marinated oranges, and toasted meringue. “We didn’t even have to brainstorm much,” says Fields. “We both contributed things to the dish that would naturally enhance the other parts.”
Thumbprint Cookies with White Chocolate-Espresso Ganache
In thinking about holiday flavors for her classic thumbprint cookie, Fleming’s first thought was white chocolate, but as she says, “Straight- up white chocolate is a nonstarter.” So to make it unique and special, she incorporated espresso, creating a rich, decadent white chocolate– espresso ganache for the crispy thumbprints.