Interview conducted & written by
Anna Olson is considered by many to be Canada’s celebrity chef darling. Born in Atlanta (GA), Anna grew up in Toronto and returned to her home country after studying to become a pastry chef at the renowned culinary programme at Johnson & Wales University in Vail (CO). She has since become one of Canada’s most respected pastry chefs and host of several television shows on Food Network Canada. Back to Baking is Anna’s seventh cookbook.
When Anna stopped by Well Seasoned Gourmet Food Store, I got a chance to sit down with her to chat about her latest cookbook and sample some treats from the book’s recipes!
Your latest cookbook – Back to Baking – focusses on the fundamentals of baking. What are some of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to pastry?
I think the most common mistake people make with baking is one that is often made with cooking in general, which is failing to prepare your ingredients beforehand (mise en place). The last thing you need is to be whipping egg whites and having to stop in order to prepare the next step of the recipe. By the time you’re ready the egg whites will have deflated. Always get everything organized before you start.
Another issue is the fact that people take for granted that their measuring cups are accurate. It’s something I discovered the hard way, but after testing my own measuring cups (and spoons!) I realized they aren’t always exact. Because baking is all about precision, incorrect measuring implements can affect your results. Try it at home! Get out your scale and test your measuring cups and spoons.
You took a semi hiatus from baking with your last two books, how did it feel to get the rolling pin back out?
Prior to this book I was focused on my TV show, Fresh with Anna Olson, which did incorporate some baking. But I definitely took some time away from baking specific projects, which makes the title of this book so apt as I got myself “back to baking”. I missed baking! And then I realized that the majority of questions people ask me during cooking demonstrations tend to be geared towards baking. So over the past five or six years I started paying more attention to the specifics around what was being asked. Interestingly enough, I found that people had a lot of questions about allergy sensitive recipes, such as baking without eggs or wheat flour. As a result, I’ve included special sections for dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free and low-fat/low-sugar desserts.
What was your inspiration behind Back to Baking?
This book has actually been a project in my mind for ten years! Basically I took the most frequently asked questions I receive and organized them into separate themes that the book is built around. For example baking with egg whites, why to use unsalted butter, etc. I want to give the average baker the tools to allow them to become more confident in the kitchen because they are able to understand the science behind baking. Understanding baking will make you a better all round cook.
All of the recipes in your book are new. Was this something that you specifically set out to do from the beginning?
Every time I bake, even if I’ve been making the recipe for years, I always try and figure out how I can make it different or better. So going into this project I started off by making a list of desserts that I knew I wanted to show people how to make themselves, then I got a bit more creative and inventive which led me to think outside of the box rather than relying on past recipe successes.
Something that I really admire about your recipes is their high success rate. As a lover of cookbooks it is such a pet peeve to review a book where it is obvious that not a lot of testing has gone into the process. Can you describe what went into the recipe development for this book?
I wish I had my texting book to show you my notes. They’re intelligible! I always handwrite everything at the start; building upon the basic ratios of each recipe before playing around with new flavours or twists on old ideas. The tricky part for me when putting together a cookbook tends to be the yield and bake times. Sometimes I’ll get a dozen cookies out of a batch, the next time there will be a total of 18 cookies. Frustrating when you’re trying for accuracy in a recipe!
If I’m on a good path with my recipe development I can usually finish a recipe after three or four tries. By the third test if I’m still not close to hitting the mark, I’ll scrap everything and start building the recipe again from scratch. What a lot of people don’t realize is that recipe development can be quite tedious! Tweaking a recipe over and over again until it’s perfect takes a lot of time and patience. What difference does ¼ cup of flour make in terms of allowing the cookies to spread while baking? How much sugar is too much and will result in cookies that are overly sweet and excessively crunchy? You have to play around with all of these little details until you’re happy with the results.
I also have a recipe tester who I’ve worked with closely for years. She tries the recipes in her kitchen with her equipment for an objective perspective, and with three boys in her household I know the feedback I’m getting is honest!
You are the author of six cookbooks including two baking specific books. How does Back to Baking differ from your previous titles?
My Sugar cookbooks are lovely baking books but based entirely on the television show, basically a compilation of recipes from each episode. The recipes themselves are very instructional (same as Back to Baking), but the format was out of my control in order to compliment the style of the TV show.
I love how you included specific sections for dairy-free, egg-free and gluten-free recipes. Why do you think food allergies and sensitivities are becoming more prevalent today than in the past?
That’s a big question that requires a bottle of wine and a vast amount of philosophical debate! There are many opinions on this subject. Some think that food allergies are over diagnosed, others credit more public awareness (especially the case with celiac disease), then there are GMO and food manipulation theories. It’s not a simple question. In fact, I actually went back to school to update my nutrition courses in order to update and increase my knowledge of some of the diet related issues we currently face.
In your book you describe baking as a process meant to be shared with others, one that provides satisfaction to both the giver and receiver. Why at this particular point in time do people seem to be turning to baking?
I think there’s definitely a practical element involved – such as ingredient control. But when I look at what baking is really about it’s not the end results, it’s the journey and exploration. I think people are now seeing baking as a great way to connect with different generations, with family and friends. For me personally, my grandmother was the inspiration behind my love for baking. Whenever I’m in the kitchen I feel connected to her, and I think that’s the type of emotional link that people are discovering and experiencing through their baking.
Some people golf, some fish, others read a book or play video games. Baking is just another ‘to-do’, a way for people to put down their smart phone and participate in an activity that people have been doing for hundreds of years. But unlike golf, with baking there’s something tasty for you to enjoy at the end of the day!
When I get stressed I always find baking a therapeutic release (‘stressed’ spelled backwards reads ‘desserts’). How do you decompress after a stressful day?
Even the simplest of baking recipes (such as a quick bread muffin) takes just enough concentration to give you a mental break from the problems you have been stewing over, or what’s on your to-do list for tomorrow. It’s therapeutic. Even the repetitive motions of stirring and mixing are quite relaxing. It’s like kitchen yoga!
What a lot of people don’t realize is that you were a chef prior to becoming a pastry chef. What was it initially about pastry that drew you into the world of sweets?
Pastry has been a lifetime fascination for me. Growing up baking was my favourite pastime, and I loved whipping something up after school all the way through to my university days! When faced with exam pressure I’d find solace through baking.
When I decided to study to become a professional chef, the idea of specializing in pastry wasn’t on my radar at that time. But I value the fact that I studied culinary arts generally because it gives you such well-rounded training. It also allows you the versatility to specialize later, so I always recommend people start with culinary before branching off into pastry. Gives you more employment opportunities as well. Plus the exposure to a broader take on the food industry means you could fall in love with a specialty you had previously never considered.
Later as I began building my career, I would take the opportunity to fill in for pastry chefs at whatever restaurant I was working at which allowed me to learn through trial by fire. Honestly, the best way to master pastry and baking is to learn by making a lot of mistakes!
Can you tell me a little about your Olson Recipe Generator?
This is a fun app that my husband and I put together to assist people with quick and easy meal preparations. It’s available on itunes and for androids, and basically it allows you to design your own meal plans. What bothered us about a lot of the food apps that are out there is that they’re simply recipe databases. With the Olson Recipe Generator you pick your ingredients and it generates recipe options based on your criteria. Within your main dish choice you then receive options for complimentary side dishes to create a complete meal. There are also videos to help guide you along the way. It’s fun – give it a try!
Can you tell us a little about your new TV show?
It’s called Bake with Anna Olson, a beautiful instructional baking show. It’s based on the actual bakers apprenticeship model that is a three-year programme at the Culinary Institute of America, and basically walks you through the fundamental principals of baking. The fun part? We have a time-lapse camera that records everything happening in the oven, providing viewers with great visual aids! The intention of the show is not to get wild and wacky with flavours, but to really master the fundamentals.
To read more of our interviews with professional and celebrity chefs, please visit the Sound Bites section.
For more information on Anna Olson visit her website www.annaolson.ca
For more information on this book, visit Whitecap Books
For a full list of upcoming cooking classes at Well Seasoned Gourmet Store, please visit their website