Canada's baking sweetheart shares how she got started in the industry, her secrets for baking success, and more!
With multiple Food Network Canada shows and eight bestselling cookbooks under her belt, Anna Olson has become a household name across Canada. Although she is trained as a classical pastry chef, Anna's goal, in her own words, is always "to teach, empower, inspire, and instil confidence in the home cook," and she does so with a wide range of delicious, approachable meals (including her Strawberry Rhubarb Sticky Buns, which we've shared below). We recently had the chance to chat with Anna about her favourite ingredients, whether Canada has a national food identity, and much more.
Canadian Living: You have a degree in political studies and sociology, and you were working at a bank when you started out in the professional world, so how did you end up baking and cooking for a living?
Anna Olson: I had what I call my 'muffin epiphany.' While cooking and baking had always been a hobby, it wasn’t until a particularly stressful day at work that had me up at night unable to sleep. To distract and calm myself, I went into the kitchen to make a batch of banana muffins and it was at that moment I realized that I needed to do what made me happy if I wanted to feel fulfilled, and cooking and baking was it. And off to cooking school I went!
My plan wasn’t always to go into television; it was simply to cook and to do what was making me happy. But when Food Network Canada was debuting, I had the opportunity to audition for [the baking show] Sugar. Thankfully, I didn’t have the time to be nervous—it was Thanksgiving at the time and I was really busy with work, with hundreds of pumpkin pies to make—but the opportunity was something new, and I just thought: “What’s the worst that could happen?”
CL: If you had to choose between baking sweets or cooking something savoury, which would you choose and why?
AO: I tend to bake or cook depending on my mood and what I feel like making, not what I feel like eating, so it can truly vary. Ultimately, I get the most satisfaction out of baking, because I really get my head into technique.
CL: What is a recipe that you would bake or cook after a long day when you want something fresh and delicious, but also easy and quick? Is there a trick to achieving meals like this on a regular basis?
AO: I definitely love to cook with the seasons, and what's fresh and local tends to be the easiest to cook. With spring here, it’s all about asparagus for me—I eat so much of it that by the end of the season, I don’t need to see it again until next year! I’m a fiend for fresh salads, so now I love blanched asparagus with grated hard boiled egg (when I served it with grilled salmon or steak), or with an avocado, Greek yogurt and herb dressing, or a rhubarb vinaigrette, or with soba noodles and miso dressing. All are quick and can be ready in the time it takes to cook asparagus…under 5 minutes!
CL: What are your words of wisdom for someone who wants to start baking but is just getting started in the kitchen, or has had bad luck with baking in the past?
AO: Baking is about patience and trust, in both yourself and your recipe, which is why I find baking such an empowering task, especially for young people ready to jump into it. My advice is to give yourself time to work through the dish you are making and enjoy that process without rushing—a hurried recipe results in preventable mistakes, such as mis-measuring, or frosting a cake when still too warm.
The trust aspect really highlights how different baking is than cooking. When cooking something like a pot of soup, you can tweak as you go, adding flavours, seasonings, cooking longer, etc. When baking, once everything is combined in a particular way, you have to relinquish control when it goes into the oven—that's where the trust in yourself and the recipe kicks in.
So, to back this up with some essential advice: read the recipe through completely before you start.
CL: Do you have a favourite ingredient that you like to cook with?
AO: Being a seasonally motivated cook, I like to work with what's in season, and I've found that what grows together, goes together. So in spring I love asparagus, snap peas, spinach and greens with fresh and delicate herbs like chives and mint, in summer it's all about the tomatoes, eggplant and corn with basil, and in fall it's time for squash and apples with thyme and sage.
When it comes to baking, I prefer baking with unsalted butter—this way I'm in charge of the salt (which varies recipe to recipe).
CL: Do you have any tricks or cheats that you would recommend for someone trying to make baking a little easier for themselves?
AO: Using store-bought puff pastry and phyllo is an easy way to get faster results without compromising quality. I use these items all the time at home, and I don't consider it a cheat at all. If I'm pressed for time, then I look to a simpler recipe or flavour combination. A bowl of fresh strawberries and whipped cream is a thing of beauty, after all!
CL: With all the cooking information available through the internet, do you think the gap between home cooks and professional ones is getting smaller?
AO: While cooking and baking is a passion for both professional and home cooks, the difference lies in the business and organizational aspect, since a restaurant kitchen needs to run as a business, and a home kitchen needs to fuel a household of people. Both need to offer fulfillment, and as the cook in the kitchen you want to offer the best you can to your paying guests, or in the case at home, your friends and family. With that common motivation I see a mutual challenging of each other which our high-speed media and communications allows. Professional cooks need to step up their game because there is an articulate and engaged audience looking to be inspired, and that very motivation then allows the home cook to get more adventurous in the kitchen.
CL: With more and more people turning to social media and quick internet videos for cooking tutorials and inspiration, how do you think this will affect the future of more traditional television shows like the ones on the Food Network?
AO: I think all media platforms are adapting and changing to the way we take in our information about food, and it's an exciting time to be in the midst of it. What I do feel is that I have to be ready to change and adapt quickly—no time for navel-gazing! If anything, spending this much time in the food business has taught me that you are only as good as your last meal or recipe, so onward I go.
CL: Do you think that there is a cohesive Canadian national food identity? And if so, has it changed at all in the past decade? Where do you see it heading in the future?
AO: I don't think you can create a national culinary identity—it has to evolve naturally. That said, it took my traveling over recent years, to understand how the world perceives Canadian cuisine. And while you can't go to Paris or Singapore and go to a "Canadian restaurant" like we can dine on global cuisines here, there is an understanding that we cook with the seasons here, and the method shapes our dishes as much as the ingredients do. That said, salmon, lobster, and maple syrup are cornerstone ingredients that the world sees us eating, but they can be cooked using techniques from around the world—we should embrace that.
CL: What’s something we should know about you that’s never come up on your shows or in your books?
AO: Oooh, that's a good question! Hmmm...I can't sing (seriously, you never want me to sing for you) and my secret indulgence is movie theatre popcorn, extra butter (which is why I only go to the movies once or twice a year—I can eat a large bag of popcorn before the previews have even ended).
Also, on my Wikipedia page, whoever was entering information about me seems to have gotten me confused with another Anna Olson, because it says that I am an accomplished violinist, but that is flatly untrue!
STRAWBERRY RHUBARB STICKY BUNS
By Anna Olson
Makes 12 sticky buns
Love a good cinnamon bun? Love the colourful combination of strawberry and rhubarb? Well, you may have met your match with these sticky buns.
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
2 ¼ tsp instant dry yeast
1/2 tsp salt
½ tsp ground nutmeg
¾ cup 1% or 2% milk, warmed to just above body temperature
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 cup unsalted butter cut into pieces, at room temperature
1/2 cup cream cheese cut into pieces, at room temperature
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
1 cup diced fresh rhubarb
1 cup hulled and sliced fresh strawberries
1. Measure the flour, sugar, yeast, salt and nutmeg into a mixing bowl fitted with the hook attachment, or a large bowl if making by hand, and stir to combine. Add the milk and egg and start mixing on low speed (or with a large wooden spoon if by hand) until the liquid is almost absorbed and then add butter and cream cheese. Mix this until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes in the mixer, or 6 minutes by hand (the dough will be quite soft). Transfer the dough to an ungreased bowl, cover the bowl and set aside for an hour, or until the dough almost doubles in size.
2. For the filling, stir together the butter, sugar, maple syrup and cinnamon. Spoon 2 teaspoons of filling into bottom of each cup of a greased muffin tin.
3. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a 12-x-18-inch (30-x-45-cm) rectangle about 1/2-inch (12 mm) thick. Spread the remaining filling over the dough and sprinkle the rhubarb and strawberries overtop. Roll the dough up from the long size, slice it into 12 equal portions and place one piece into each muffin cup. Cover the tin loosely with a tea towel or plastic wrap and let this rise for 30 minutes. Place the tin on a baking tray (to catch any excess drips) and bake 30 minutes, until browned and bubbling. Let the buns cool for 5 minutes before turning out onto a tray.
The sticky buns are best enjoyed warm and freshly baked.
- That little bit of nutmeg is my secret to a great sticky bun dough—it adds a familiar “doughnut” flavour element that takes these to the next level.
- To make these for breakfast or brunch without waking at 5 a.m., make the dough and assemble the sticky buns, filled and in the pan, and pop the covered pan in the fridge the night before. In the morning, pull them out of the fridge while you preheat the oven and get the coffee going, and before you know it, the buns are baking.
- Don’t limit the fruit filling to rhubarb and strawberries. Raspberries, sliced peaches, blueberries, apples or even fresh or frozen cranberries make these sticky buns seasonal and delectable.