Q&A with pastry chef Claire Saffitz
Saffitz discussed her newest cookbook, which she visited Norwich to promote yesterday, as well as kitchen tips for college bakers.
A recipe developer, New York Times Cooking contributor and video host, Claire Saffitz is not just any pastry chef. After reaching internet stardom through Bon Appétit’s “Gourmet Makes” YouTube series, Saffitz started her own channel, “Dessert Person,” to reach home bakers with approachable recipes. Her latest cookbook “What’s for Dessert” comes out this week, and Saffitz visited Norwich for a book event on Nov. 10. The Dartmouth sat down with Saffitz to discuss her newest project, careers in food media and baking in a dorm kitchen.
When did you discover your passion for baking, and when did you realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career?
CS: It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I started to think that I wanted to pursue food as a career. It wasn’t a career option that I had really considered or knew very much about. I’ve always loved cooking and baking, and I come from a family where that’s just a part of our family culture, but I became really serious about it after college. I had an internship, but all I wanted to do was cook and bake and look at recipes and browse cookbooks. I started to think, “this is the only thing that I have a real sustained interest in right now, I should probably consider it as a career.” I was lucky enough to get a job at Bon Appétit after a year of culinary school and a master’s degree in food history, and then it just took off from there.
You attended Harvard University and got a master’s degree in food history from McGill University. How has your education impacted 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 look for the answer. I love doing casual histories with old cookbooks and community cookbooks and that kind of thing, so looking at cookbooks as historical documents was important background. 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 for writing a cookbook different from writing an article?
CS: A cookbook is such a multilayered, complicated and long process that has a lot more considerations than the work I was doing at a magazine, where I was working in the test kitchen, developing recipes and writing articles. It’s a more solitary process. I pretty much just write on my own. Not to say I don’t have lots of help — I have a wonderful editor and agent and family members, and my husband, of course. But it’s a fairly solitary process, and I miss having colleagues in the test kitchen where we could workshop each other’s dishes and taste each other’s food and help troubleshoot. But I also really like having this prolonged period where I can work on a cookbook and the work is just mine, and I’m not putting it out for public consumption until I feel like it’s totally complete.
There are also so many moving parts to a cookbook. I’m always taking into consideration things like, do I have a certain variety of recipes? Are they in the order that I like? Do they work together? Do I have a certain number of seasonal recipes? Do I have a certain number of recipes that are evergreen? It’s like an enormous jigsaw puzzle. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love the process. I feel very lucky that I get to work on something that is this major creative pursuit. I love that my work 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 to cook from it. As I mentioned before, writing a book has been so solitary and I haven’t yet experienced the reception of it, so I’m excited for the book to come out so I can start to get feedback and see what people think. It’s very exciting to see people make your food. It’s nerve-racking because you want everyone to have a great result, you want the recipes to work. But these recipes are more streamlined and simpler, so I’m feeling pretty good about the success people will experience.
What advice do you have for students who might be interested in pursuing a career path similar to yours?
CS: Start doing the work that you want to do as soon as possible to start gaining experience. I think that because of the internet and the availability of information, there’s less gatekeeping than there used to be, 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 or recipe development or cookbooks or anything like that. Developing your writing skills is really important, and starting to cook and write about food in any way you can, 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 sense of the landscape. You’ll really have a leg up if you can think critically and speak knowledgeably about that.
Now for some fun questions! Which of your recipes do you recommend for bakers who are limited to a dorm kitchen?
CS: I have an entire chapter in the book on stovetop desserts. I really was thinking about college students when I wrote this chapter because I presume that most college students living in a dorm or even a small apartment maybe don’t have access to an oven. So the stovetop desserts chapter is great because you could literally make them on a hot plate if that’s what you had. Any of the stovetop desserts are a great place to start for college students, because part of the process is being able to observe everything that’s happening right in front of you. So it’s very satisfying and pretty easy.
What’s the best way for novice bakers to gain confidence in the kitchen?
CS: In a lot of ways the best way for a novice to gain confidence is to manage their own expectations, which is not a popular answer and people don’t really like hearing it, but it is really important. I think the ubiquity of food media creates in many ways unrealistic expectations. I try never to present cooking or baking as something that’s just so easy that anybody can do, because the truth is that it takes practice. I try to be very realistic in the expectations that I set. It’s like, this might be tricky or this might not turn out exactly how you want to, especially for something more elaborate, like a laminated pastry for making croissants. Failure is a normal part of the process. So I think the best thing that someone can do to become a better baker is to have a good attitude and to not get discouraged.
The other piece of advice I give is to make the same thing over and over again. I think there’s a temptation to always make something new, which is fun and exciting, but the way that you really get better at something is to practice. Pick a couple things that you really love, make them over and over again, and that’s where you learn the nuances of the recipe.
Finally, we recently published a reflection about baking to alleviate stress. What recipe do you reach for when you need to brighten your day?
CS: I love making something pastry based, whether it’s a pie or a galette or a turnover, anything like that. I love seasonal fruit and I love pastry, and I get so much satisfaction from putting my hands in flour and smooshing butter — the tactile sensation is really soothing to me. And I like things that can be a little bit rote, where I’ve just done them over and over again and muscle memory takes over. That can also be soothing. I also very often say that I don’t do yoga but I bake bread, which can be very meditative. I love making sourdough, I think it just feels sort of grounding and centering. And I love the process — just touching dough is very soothing to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.