Q-and-A with St. Louis native and culinary author Claire Saffitz
You may know St. Louis native Claire Saffitz from her tenure at Bon Appétit and her YouTube show Gourmet Makes (filmed in the magazine’s test kitchen) in which she would reverse engineer popular snack foods. The show’s humor, Saffitz’s exhaustive trial and error and her pursuit of perfection garnered her over 300 million views. After a reckoning at Bon Appétit over the summer regarding the magazine’s treatment of employees of color, including several personalities from its popular YouTube channel, became public, Saffitz chose not to renew her contract. Instead, she’s stepped out on her own to publish her first book, Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking with Confidence. If you love Saffitz, you already know it’s full of detailed, beautiful recipes that are sure to be delicious.
As part of the annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, Saffitz will be featured in a virtual event at 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 6. Jo Firestone, a writer and comedian for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, is interviewing Saffitz, and the event also includes a bake-along with Saffitz’ almond butter-banana bread featured in her book, as well as cooking tips, tricks and fundamental knowledge. Tickets available online.
You say that this book is a defense of baking. Can you explain a little bit more about what you mean by that?
From years of working in a test kitchen at a food magazine, I sensed that there was this bias against baking and against sweet things. Just in the way that people would talk about it, like cooking was very creative and worthy and baking was more rigid and somehow less worthy. So, this book is at once a celebration and a defense of baking, because I think baking is every bit as fun and expressive and I wanted people to be proud to be bakers and to not feel like they had to be subordinate to cooks or chefs.
A lot of people don’t know that you’re from St. Louis.
I was born and raised in St. Louis and lived there until I was 18. Then I left for college and right at the time, my parents moved away, and I'm the youngest. … So that was really the end of my time in St. Louis. … But I very much feel an allegiance to St. Louis. I feel like this is where I'm from. Especially being in New York, I like to announce my Midwest roots a little bit. I love talking about all of the St. Louis food traditions that I grew up with. I love the character of St. Louis. I love … being able to educate people in New York about what is toasted ravioli and what is gooey butter cake and what is St. Louis-style pizza and the quirky things that you only know if you live in St. Louis.
The malted forever brownies sound perfect – I love that you created the brownie recipe you will always turn to in this book.
I made like, a million brownie recipes, but I hadn't had one that was like, “This is my brownie recipe.” My mom has a really great brownie recipe, but it's a cakey brownie, and I was sort of like, “No, I want a chewy brownie.” And there's a wonderful recipe – I think it's Alice Medrich – it’s a cookbook brownie that’s a classic, but I wanted one that felt like mine. It was a kind of crazy gap in my baking repertoire. That's an example of where I found different areas of inspiration or motivation for recipes in the book.
What is the recipe that in this book that you highly recommend for beginners?
I've touted the brownies and the blondies and chocolate chip cookies. All of those […] tend to be more approachable. But I want to throw out a different suggestion, the soft and crispy focaccia, which is obviously a yeasted recipe. That recipe achieved what I always hope a recipe will achieve: I think it over-delivers and it makes a beginner feel like a pro, because there's this magical transformation that happens. It goes into the oven and then comes out looking so different. It's very straightforward – yes, there are steps and there's a pretty specific order of operations, but it's actually hard to screw up. It starts with this incredibly wet dough; it’s almost batter-like. There are lots of notes in the recipe that are like, “Don't worry. This is right. Don't add more flour.” It’s a really fun recipe, the dough is really fun to work with. And you get these incredible, huge bubbles that form when you make the dimples in the dough.
In your book, you have a lot of built-in flexibility to allow people to make modifications; if a reader is going make a modification, you're providing successful options. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
The reason that cooks and bakers at home go wrong, or the reason that something doesn't turn out for them, is because they unwittingly make a substitution or a change to the recipe that introduces a critical error. So Dessert Person is trying to make the argument that baking can be flexible and improvisational and versatile, but you just have to know the rules and when you can break them. So, I really crafted the recipes around this idea of: Make exceptions here, make a substitution here, but don't skip this step because this thing will happen. It's very teaching-focused in that way.
What cookbooks inspired you? What are some of your favorites that helped you along in writing your own?
I have a core collection of a few books that I just find endlessly inspiring and are classics of the genre, in terms of baking. One of them is the Chez Panisse Desserts cookbook by Lindsey Shere. The recipes in that book are everything I aspire to, they are seasonal … and really rooted in classical European technique and flavors. But there's [also] something so fresh and modern about them, and ultimately they’re very simple.
Another one is The Last Course [The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern] by Claudia Fleming, a book I've admired for so many years. … What's amazing about that book is they’re restaurant recipes, but they are so approachable. Even if you don't want to make three components of this dessert, you could make one of them and you could serve it over ice cream. It's the way that she combines flavors and uses certain ingredients, it still feels so fresh to me and beautiful. She’s one of my pastry heroes. What these books have in common is that the recipes feel very soulful, that there is a real spirit behind them, that someone who really, really loved food and eating and baking and cooking created those recipes.
I know so many people were sad at the idea that there won’t be new episodes of Gourmet Makes. Are you going to be working on new video in the future?
I am starting to think about how I want to continue [having] a video presence. I've reached the conclusion that video is an integral part of teaching, especially when it's food and being able to demonstrate a process. I think video is really invaluable. So I do want to continue to work in that medium. I haven't quite decided in what form or on what kind of schedule. But I do hope to do it.
Were there any episodes of Gourmet Makes that failed so bad they didn’t air?
Everything aired, including the disastrous pop rocks episode. I tried to boycott and protest and they were like, “Get back to work!” But there was nothing that was left on the cutting room floor, at least to my knowledge.
Given what happened at Bon Appétit over the summer, which led to a lot of people stepping down including editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, and the current social and political climate, can you talk about your decision to leave Bon Appétit? Why you think it was the right time for you to move on?
I'd been contemplating the next step of my career for a while, and I knew that I had this contract with Conde Nast ending this past May. With the reckoning that happened over the summer, it did shift my thinking a little bit and made me realize that I wanted to be more in control of my professional decisions and of my career. And to get outside of this structure that felt very rigid and very hierarchical and to create something, hopefully for myself and for others in the future, that felt more equitable and less subject to this way of thinking that is very common of a big company where the justification, “This is just how it is,” is really prevalent. I don't have to be a part of something big. I can do something on my own and try to really create something for myself and establish a different kind of culture.
Whipped cream. Is it really your favorite food?
I mean, that was true for most of my life. I remember actually saying those words out loud, that whipped cream was my favorite food, when I was working at Spring. I remember one night during dinner service, I think we must have been cleaning up because I was eating leftover whipped cream, which was this incredible crème fleurette from Normandy. Just the most amazing dairy and I love dairy so much, it’s my favorite. I can't live without it. It's a miracle.
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