Saffitz discussed her latest cookbook, which she visited Norwich to promote yesterday, as well as cooking tips for university bakers.
Source: Courtesy of Cassandra Chamoun
Source: Courtesy of Cassandra Chamoun
Recipe developer, New York Times Cooking contributor and video host, Claire Saffitz is not just any pastry chef. After rising to internet stardom through Bon Appétit’s “Gourmet Makes” YouTube series, Saffitz launched her own channel, “Dessert Person,” to reach home bakers with accessible recipes. Her latest cookbook “What’s for Dessert” comes out this week, and Saffitz visited Norwich for a book event on November 10. The Dartmouth sat down with Saffitz to discuss his new project, careers in food media and cooking in a dorm kitchen.
When did you discover your passion for baking and when did you realize you wanted to make it a career?
CS: It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I started thinking I wanted to pursue a career in food. It was not a career option that I had really considered or that I knew very well. I’ve always loved cooking and baking, and I come from a family where it’s part of our family culture, but I got really serious about it after college. I did an internship, but all I wanted to do was cook and bake, look at recipes, and browse cookbooks. I started thinking, “this is the only thing I have a real sustained interest in right now, I should probably consider this a career.” I was lucky enough to land a job at Bon Appétit after a year of cooking school and a master’s degree in food history, and it went from there.
You attended Harvard University and earned a master’s degree in food history from McGill University. How has your training influenced your work?
CS: I think my undergraduate training in the humanities prepared me well for this type of career. It gave me great research skills and the ability to ask questions and then go for the answer. I love to do the occasional story with old cookbooks and community cookbooks and that sort of thing, so looking at cookbooks as historical documents was important context. And I think general critical thinking skills and, of course, writing skills. I mean, I write recipes and articles for a popular audience, so having those skills is really, really important and has helped me a lot in my career.
You published your cookbook “Dessert Person” in 2020, and your new book “What’s for Dessert” came out this week. How is the process of writing a cookbook different from writing an article?
CS: A cookbook is such a multi-layered, complicated, time-consuming process that has so many more considerations than the work I used to do at a magazine, where I worked in the test kitchen, developing recipes and writing articles. It is a more solitary process. I write almost alone. That’s not to say I don’t have a lot of help – I have a wonderful publisher and agent and family members, and my husband, of course. But it’s a pretty lonely process, and I miss having co-workers in the test kitchen where we could cook each other’s dishes, taste each other’s dishes, and help solve problems. But I also really like having that extended period where I can work on a cookbook and the work is just mine, and I don’t release it to the public until I have the looks like it’s completely finished.
There are also so many moving parts in a cookbook. I always consider things like, do I have a certain variety of recipes? Are they in the order I like? Do they work together? Do I have a number of seasonal recipes? Do I have a number of recipes that are always green? It’s like a huge puzzle. But I wouldn’t if I didn’t like the process. I feel very lucky to be able to work on something that is this major creative quest. I like that my job is to create something.
What are you most excited about as you prepare to release “What’s for Dessert”?
CS: I’m excited to see people start cooking from this. As I mentioned before, writing a book has been so lonely and I haven’t experienced it yet, so I can’t wait for the book to come out so I can start getting feedback and see what the people think. It’s very exciting to see people making your food. It’s annoying because you want everyone to have a good result, you want the recipes to work. But these recipes are more streamlined and simpler, so I feel pretty good about how successful people will be.
What advice do you have for students who might be interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?
CS: Start doing the job you want to do as soon as possible to start gaining experience. I think because of the internet and the availability of information, there is less access control than before, which is really a good thing. I went to culinary school, but I don’t think that’s a necessary step for people who want to work in food development or recipe development or cookbooks or anything like that. It’s very important to develop your writing skills and start cooking and writing about food in all possible ways, even if it’s just experimenting at home. And also consume a lot – if food media in particular is an area of interest, then start consuming food media and get a feel for the landscape. You’ll really have a head start if you can think critically and talk about it knowingly.
Now some fun questions! Which of your recipes do you recommend for bakers who are limited to a dorm kitchen?
CS: I have a whole chapter in the book on stovetop desserts. I was really thinking of college students when I wrote this chapter because I guess most college students living in a dorm or even a small apartment might not have access to an oven. So the stovetop dessert chapter is awesome because you could literally make them on a hot plate if that’s what you had. All the desserts on the stovetop are a great starting point for students, because part of the process is being able to observe everything happening right in front of you. So it’s very satisfying and quite easy.
What’s the best way for beginner bakers to gain confidence in the kitchen?
CS: In many ways, the best way for a newbie to gain confidence is to manage their own expectations, which isn’t a popular answer and people don’t really like to hear it, but it’s really important. I think the ubiquity of the food media is in many ways creating unrealistic expectations. I try never to present cooking or baking as something so easy that anyone can do it, because the truth is that it takes practice. I try to be very realistic in the expectations I set for myself. It’s like, it might be tricky or it might not turn out exactly the way you want, especially for something more elaborate, like puff pastry to make croissants. Failure is a normal part of the process. So I think the best thing anyone can do to become a better baker is to have a good attitude and not get discouraged.
The other advice I give is to do the same thing over and over again. I think there’s a temptation to always do something new, which is fun and exciting, but the way you really get better at something is to practice. Pick a few things you really like, do them over and over again, and that’s where you’ll learn the nuances of the recipe.
Finally, we recently published a reflection about cooking to relieve stress. What recipe do you look for when you need to brighten your day?
CS: I love making anything out of pastry, whether it’s a pie or a galette or a turnover, anything like that. I love seasonal fruits and I love baking, and I get so much satisfaction from putting my hands in the flour and smoothing the butter – the tactile sensation is really soothing to me. And I like things that can be a bit rote, where I’ve just done them over and over and muscle memory takes over. It can also be soothing. I also say very often that I don’t do yoga but I do bread, which can be very meditative. I love making sourdough, I think it just gives a kind of grounding and centering. And I love the process – just touching the dough is very soothing to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.