Though she’s often referred to as Canada’s baking sweetheart, I think of chef Anna Olson as more of a fairy godmother – kind and reassuring, there to help you navigate through the most complex baking projects while making you feel like you did it all yourself.
Olson became a much-loved kitchen mentor back in 2002 as the host of Sugar, the then brand-new Food Network’s first show dedicated to baking and desserts. While she still appears on the network’s competition showdowns, her cheerful, calming kitchen presence and chocolate fountain of knowledge now lives largely online. Her popular YouTube channel, Oh Yum, has more than 900,000 subscribers and is filmed in her own kitchen in Niagara’s wine country, where she lives with her husband, fellow chef Michael Olson, and has a fridge drawer (she calls it her “dairy bin”) dedicated entirely to butter. Globe Books talked with Olson about what she learned during the past year about baking and launching a new cookbook – all through a pandemic.
I just wrapped production on a 30-part series for my YouTube channel, called Anna’s Occasions, which will start airing in mid-October. We were supposed to shoot it in the spring, but the pandemic pushed filming into the heat and humidity of a Toronto summer – our start times had to get earlier and earlier so we could manage the meringues and Swiss buttercream.
We bubbled as a crew of 10, and I had a Zoom call each morning with my makeup artist, whom I’ve been using for years. She’ll tell me I need a little more here and there, like a paint by numbers. Then I go to set with full makeup. It’s a bit like decorating a cake, actually.
What people discovered when they were quarantine baking is that when you make a lovely tray of cinnamon buns, if there are three of you in the house, you can’t eat them all yourself, so you do the door drop. I think we’re feeling more comfortable with it – sharing food is not a concern, it seems.
My husband’s daughter was supposed to get married in June. That didn’t happen, so she’s having a much smaller version in their backyard. And they’re prepared for things to change – our group of 25 could go down to six. If I get cut, I’ll just drop off the wedding cake and wave as I drive by.
Early in the pandemic, there were a lot of new bakers interested in learning a new skill. It’s soothing, with a productive outcome – there’s something to say for it at the end. I mean you could do a puzzle – I love puzzles – but when it’s done you just break it apart and put it back into the box.
Coming up with an outline for a new book is like coming up with a 120-item dessert menu – you make sure you’re not overlapping techniques and flavours, and have a range of difficulty levels and time commitments. Of course, you have a base of foundation recipes – I may want to make a biscuit, but decide I need to make it more buttery or cheesy. The first may be a disaster, but I tweak and tweak. When I’m happy with it, I have two recipe testers who test them in their own kitchens, without pictures or guidance.
I tend to reach most often for The Cuisines of India: The Art and Tradition of Regional Indian Cooking by Smita Chandra – it’s a lovely geographic cookbook written by a cooking instructor. I trust the recipes, it helps me make authentic South Asian dishes.
My book tour this fall is going to be virtual – I’m not getting on a plane. I’m creating a video podcast, Baking Day, which is going to come out on my YouTube channel first. A guest will choose a recipe from the book, and we’ll each bake it in our respective kitchens. This has, wonderfully, allowed me to access guests from around the world, so I’m recording episodes with vegan cookbook author Lauren Toyota and Malaysian chef Ili Sulaiman, who happens to be celiac, so we’re making my gluten-free potato bread.
Phoning it in has the opposite meaning than before COVID-19 – I want to phone in everything now. The thought of driving to Toronto to film a TV segment? What? We have a pretty good camera setup here, and I give full credit to Michael, who is often the director of photography or sound guy. These episodes will be longer, about 45 minutes. When editing for television, the producer really has to pick and choose. Now, the real moments – the earnest conversations, the mistakes – they all make the cut, because we want to see how it really plays out, not just the perfect moments. I can work on a recipe until I think it’s absolutely flawless, but I can still mess it up.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.