Chess pie takes the cake

By Erika Pedroza | Published Saturday, October 27, 2012

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SUCCESSFUL SERVING – As part of her prize package for winning the Pillsbury Pet-Ritx Pie Baking Championship at the State Fair of Texas, Helen Fields of Paradise received an engraved pie server, an apron, rosette and certificate. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Helen Fields of Paradise has collected eight years worth of State Fair accolades in a wicker picnic basket. It may have taken a little longer than anticipated, but after this year, the Wise County native can add a blue ribbon for pie-baking to her collection.

She snagged it in the Pillsbury Pet-Ritz Pie Baking Championship with her Jeff Davis Got A New Pie, a play on a favorite chess pie.

BLUE-RIBBON WINNING – Helen Fields of Paradise won the blue ribbon in the Pillsbury Pet-Ritz Pie Baking Championship at the State Fair of Texas with her Jeff Davis Got a New Pie, a play on a chess pie. She won one other blue ribbon (in cakes), a white ribbon and two yellow ribbons. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the Confederacy, his favorite pie was a chess pie,” Fields said. “Obviously if he was the president of the Confederacy, it’s an Old South recipe. The pie originally was all mixed together and had raisins and pecans or walnuts and dates and didn’t have any seasoning. I thought to add this seasoning to change it up.”

That innovation paid dividends as it has in several other contests the Wise County native has entered, including numerous entries in the fair and outside baking and cooking contests, including the Messenger’s first cookie contest and competitions through Allens Vegetables and Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission.

“I really like the creativity of contests, sitting and thinking, ‘This would work doing this’ or ‘I can adjust this,'” she said.

Fields guesses two-thirds of a picnic basket full of awards, garnered through her eight years of State Fair competition, are from baking contests.

“It’s what I like to do,” she said. “I’ve won with casserole, savory, soup and stew. I’ve won other things, but I don’t consider that what I do best. Baking is what I do best, and that’s probably because that is what I enjoy.

“I think of foods such as the savory foods as what we need to sustain, a necessity more than a treat or a gift. And I think of the baked goods as the treat or the gift that you give. And I like that aspect of it.”

In this year’s fair, Fields entered the cake, pizza, cobbler, Spam, biscuit, Tricks With Mix and Guess What’s Cooking and won two blue ribbons, one white ribbon and two yellow ribbons in what Fields considers a “bad” year.

“I’m a competitor,” she said. “I like the blue ribbons.”

Snagging one in her inaugural go-about drives that.

“I had always wanted to take something to the fair. I told myself for years and years. Finally when I turned 55, I decided I was going to enter,” Fields said. “I called my daughter up, and we headed out there. That day was casseroles. I took an Italian-type vegetable casserole and my daughter a sausage casserole … Judges came through and placed a red ribbon on the table for my daughter. We were so excited. Then they placed a blue ribbon on the table for me. And that was it. We were hooked.”

“That first year we tried to go every day. Keep in mind, from my door to the fair grounds, there are 75 miles in between,” she continued. “We’d have to leave by 7, and by the time we stopped to get ingredients for the next day’s competition, we wouldn’t be home until after midnight. Then we’d be up at 4. After that year, we slowed. This year, we put in 10 days.”

That was due largely to a three-week trip to Europe that interfered with the first few days of the fair.

“It was a really, really fun trip, but also a really, really hard trip,” Fields said. “I was jetlagged, and mistakes happen like putting salt in the cobbler instead of sugar.

“I sat and looked at it then thought, ‘Well you don’t have extra.’ So I started scooping it out and kept going. There’s an unspoken rule that ‘if you make it, you take it.’ Even if you’re not satisfied,” she said. “You never know. I’ve won a few times with entries I wasn’t satisfied with.”

Such was the case for her other blue ribbon this year, a simple pound cake.

“The one I thought would win – a white chocolate layer cake – didn’t place,” she said. “The ones I worked hard on didn’t place. But this one, a simple one, did.”

But perhaps the biggest surprise to date is a Best of Show bread.

“That was a surprise because I don’t consider myself a bread baker,” she said. “That was a real thrill.”

Despite the big wins, Fields has her eye on an even more prestigious honor.

“I have yet to win best competitor,” she said. “That’s my goal. But you have to win a lot of ribbons and rack up a lot of points.”

But if the wicker picnic basket is any indication, she may not be too far from her goal.


  • 1 package Pillsbury Pet-Ritz Frozen Deep Dish Pie Crusts
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dates, chopped
  • 1/2 cup almonds, toasted and chopped
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 1/4 cups heavy cream

Thaw single pie crust according to package directions. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Farenheit.

Pulse apricots, dates and almonds in a food processor until finely ground. Press mixture into bottom of pie crust in an even layer.

In a small bowl, stir flour, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.

In medium bowl, beat brown sugar, butter and honey on medium-low speed until just combined. Mix in yolks one at a time, mixing after each until incorporated. Add flour mixture and cream; continue mixing until just combined.

Slowly pour filing over fruit mixture in crust. Bake in center of oven for 55 to 65 minutes, until surface is deep brown and center jiggles slightly when pie is shaken. Remove from oven and cool complete it on wire rack before cutting.

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