Olsen's latest cookbook reveals her secrets for baking success—and it starts before you even preheat your oven.
For pastry chef Anna Olson, the beauty of desserts lies in the ingredients—the humble beginnings that, through the craft of baking, come together to make something that's more than the sum of its parts. When looked at as simply flour, sugar, butter and eggs, even the most magnificent cake or pastry is achievable for novice bakers. Perhaps it's that simplified approach, in combination with her stunning confections, that makes Olson so widely appealing. In her latest cookbook, Bake With Anna Olson, she shares more than 125 recipes from her popular Food Network Canada series of the same name—and she doesn't stop there: The Atlanta native, who spent her childhood in Toronto and now lives in Welland, Ont., also gives readers the know-how needed to truly hone their baking skills. After testing out a few desserts from the book (find the recipe for one of our favourites, Chocolate Peanut Butter Whoopie Pies), we caught up with Canada's baking sweetheart to talk ingredients, kitchen tools and technique.
Jennifer Bartoli: When it comes to selecting baking ingredients, what items are worth splurging on?
Anna Olson: Good-quality vanilla extract and chocolate. Vanilla is a flavour builder; you notice it in your baking if the quality is there. I find that you need less of the good quality than the cheap and cheerful, so you're not actually spending more money. Good-quality chocolate is also really worth it; your desserts will only taste as good as the chocolate you're using, and good cocoa powder counts just as much.
JB: One ingredient that bakers use time and time again is butter. What are your tips for working with this must-have?
AO: To soften butter, cut it into small pieces and scatter them on a plate. They will come to room temperature within half an hour. If a recipe calls for room-temperature butter, your eggs should be at room temperature as well. To bring eggs to room temperature quickly, immerse them in a cup of hot tap water for two minutes per egg. If you need three eggs, for instance, immerse them for six minutes, changing the water halfway through, and the eggs will be ready.
JB: Baking can be finicky. What's one mistake novice bakers tend to make at home?
AO: People think that when they set their oven to 350°F and it beeps, the oven is at 350°F. An oven thermometer costs about $7, and that's money well spent, as you'll know for sure what temperature your oven runs at; if it's off by more than 10 to 14 degrees, call someone to calibrate it.
JB: What other baking tools do you use regularly?
AO: One is an offset spatula; mine is an extension of my hand, and I'd be lost without it. I use it for anything from lifting warm cookies off of a baking sheet to frosting and decorating cakes. The second tool would be a plastic bowl scraper; I use it to fold cream into melted chocolate when I'm making mousse, and to incorporate egg whites into cake batter, but you can also use it to scrape out batter [from a mixing bowl] so you don't waste a single drop.
JB: Many home cooks shy away from rolling out dough. What's your best tip for working with pastry dough?
AO: If you're rolling out pie pastry that has no sugar, pull it out of the fridge 30 minutes before you want to roll it. You're often told to avoid letting the dough warm up, but if it's ice cold, the butter inside will be solid and the dough will crack. If it's a dough that contains sugar, you can knead it a little bit to soften it. A wooden work surface, like a cutting board, usually works best for rolling out dough; it holds an even temperature.
An avid locavore, Anna Olson shares a few of her favourite food destinations in Ontario's Niagara Region, where she resides with her husband and fellow chef, Michael.
Bremfield's, Port Colborne, Ont. "This family-run bakery and café offers fantastic baked goods, as well as wholesome lunch offerings that erase any guilt about eating that lemon square or butter tart," says Olson. "Fruit pies abound, but you have to get there early, before they sell out!"
The Kitchen, Ridgeway, Ont. "This little gem is located in a quaint hip town between Port Colborne and Fort Erie. It's the best place for a super sandwich on rustic homemade bread or for sweets and treats made using local fruit. The owner, Jenn Wilkinson, even carries on her grandfather's tradition of making pulled saltwater taffy."
Welland Farmers' Market, Welland, Ont. "This market runs year-round, and I rely on it for my local fruit and vegetables," says Olson. "In the wintertime, root vegetables and apples are predominant, but be patient; asparagus season is only a few months away! You can also rely on the market for fresh eggs—hen, duck or quail—as well as meats and cheeses."