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Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source image: Chris Bernabeo

Alison Roman has not only become a household name, but has cultivated a wide-ranging cookbook career mostly by seeming like a household member.

She enters our homes from her home, in a YouTube series she calls “Home Movies,” and with her online newsletter, A Newsletter (she is very literal). On YouTube, she spends her time earnestly encouraging her viewers, and often even her in-house camera crew, to try out a recipe for themselves. After breaking down the ingredients, she’s not afraid to tell you the bits she herself finds deeply annoying (the threat of cuts from tin cans), as well the bits she finds deeply satisfying (aioli from scratch), and most often, ends the video encouraging you to find something really special and meaningful in the process. Other times, she takes a bite of her own creation, closes her eyes and says, “It’s so good. What else can I say?”

This spring, Roman will launch a much-anticipated third cookbook, Sweet Enough. This time, she focuses on the daunting world of baking (while still slipping in the occasional anchovy-based savoury treat).

Her fans are still in her DMs, more so than her critics. Roman was, in her own words, “cancelled” for comments made about Asian-American influencers in a May, 2020, interview with The New Consumer. Readers were unhappy with Roman’s critique of Marie Kondo and Chrissy Tiegen. Her response to the backlash was to openly acknowledge and address her criticism, inciting many of her followers to appreciate her forthrightness and willingness to participate in a dialogue.

As she embarks on her latest tour, she looks forward to engaging with fans: “The tour part is the fun part, especially meeting people who share really intimate stories about cooking. ... People have formed these really deep relationships with my recipes and cookbooks and it feels really nice to be a part of people’s lives.”

Why the jump from savoury-oriented cookbooks to dessert?

Even though I was a professional pastry chef, I sort of was like, “Oh, I’m not really a dessert person.” But when it came time to do a third book, it did feel exciting to me. It felt like a really good refresh to take a totally different subject that I don’t normally focus on.

Have you eaten all the sugar these past few years in recipe tasting? And if so, are you okay?

I’m not okay, and I have been eating a lot of sugar. But I think the nice thing about desserts is that you can really easily give them away. I don’t even give [people] the option. I just say, “This is yours now.” I always found a place to put the desserts. I didn’t eat them all and I didn’t throw them away.

Thoughts on licorice flavour?

Don’t care for it. But I love fennel. People that don’t like licorice often don’t like fennel, but I love fennel. People will ask, “What about salty licorice?” Still no.

When is maple syrup right and when is it wrong?

I think it’s always right. I genuinely love it. I actually just went to a maple syrup facility – a very small farm up in the Catskills. I think the fact that you can put a little hose in a tree, and then get this beautiful, glorious, intensely flavoured, perfectly sweet and beautifully textured ingredient, all on its own, while at the same time, feeling like it was concocted in a lab to be delicious? I just think that’s so special. I dip rather than drizzle, though.

After a few years of absence, and having stirred some sort of media debate in the past few years, how are you feeling about getting back on tour and talking directly to audiences again?

I would say people now are 98.99 per cent nice and kind, generous and complimentary. Inquisitive, too. The nice thing about going on tour and being with people is that almost nobody will say anything to your face [laughs]. People feel really comfortable tweeting at you or leaving you with a comment, when hiding behind something. The tour part is the fun part – meeting people who share really personal and intimate stories about cooking.

Are desserts an inherently nostalgic food?

I think so, because we live in a culture where we see sweets as treats. Sweets are to be treated as rewards, or gifts on a special occasion. I feel like every culture has their version of something sweet that signifies this is different. This is a different day, different holidays and a different moment.

I think that our earliest memories of something positive, be it a birthday or holiday, are often linked with something like cake. It triggers our joy receptors. We’re conditioned to feel warmly towards dessert.

Do you ever expand outside of typically Western desserts in the book? Growing up in a Southeast Asian household and watching my mother make desserts, they looked so daunting. How did you approach selecting accessible recipes in this book?

Well, I think it’s like any of my books, or any of my recipes, in that I am an American cookbook author and so, as far as my background, that’s what I know. When I was a professional pastry chef, we definitely did a lot of really complicated things. And I learned that that’s not really for me. If it’s tough to make in a restaurant-style kitchen, imagine trying to do that at home. There are plenty of home-cook bakers and dessert makers who really embrace a project, an all-day task or 48-hour task – something that’s going to take the utmost focus, concentration, specialty store ingredients – and that’s their passion. But that’s not for me.

Do you think there’s been a resurgence of the dinner party?

I don’t know if it ever left. I think that the pandemic certainly helped, because people were forced either to cultivate a love for cooking or realize that, if they weren’t going to see people, then they had to do it in their own home.

I think we’re in a favourable period of people being excited to invest in their home with furniture and decor and pantry, and cooking for people and being proud of that. Restaurants will never go out of style, but I do think it’s nice to have the alternative.

What’s the equivalent of ‘one lucky rigatoni’ (in reference to your notable Home Movie idiom, in which you pluck one out of the pot to test) in dessert preparation?

[Laughs] I know this is going to sound weird, and it honestly is just what came to me, but I feel like the swoosh on any pie or cake or tart or pudding, when you’re using the back of your spoons to like, make little peaks and valleys? The last swoosh. When you’re like, oh, this is the one I’m ending on. That’s the Lucky Peak. That’s the swoosh that I’m putting my spoon down for. It feels like a defining little moment.

What about those befuddling people who just ‘don’t have a sweet tooth’?

I don’t believe that those people exist because I am that person. I’m the person that says, “I don’t eat dessert.” I’m the person who says no thank you to dessert. And not to say that I’m lying. It’s just that it takes the right dessert. There are some that are just undeniably good. It’s like people who say they don’t like Doritos.

I think you have to find the right dessert for the right person. Maybe you don’t like cake. Maybe you like pudding. There are ways to unlock the thing that is for you.

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