Anna Olson on Back to Baking

First aired on Fresh Air (18/12/11)

Baker and chef Anna Olson, who's the host of two different cooking shows on television and the author of six previous cookbooks, has a new title out just in time for the festive season. In a recent interview on Fresh Air, Anna Olson joined host Mary Ito to talk about her book, Back to Baking, and about the art of baking itself.

Though Olson is both an accomplished professional cook and baker, she describes cooking and baking as being distinct worlds. "In fact, you have to go to a different culinary program," Olson explained. "You work in different kitchens, it's a different organizational set, the kitchen's laid out differently. There's an altogether different functionality."

It's different even for a home cook, Olson pointed out. "Cooking to feed your family for dinner is about that element of the last minute, putting it together...adding ingredients, seasoning as you go, whereas baking is all about preparation ahead, the organization."

The two do compliment each other, though. "I studied cooking first, before I went into baking," Olson said. "And I found once I focused on baking, my cooking improved, because you really get your head wrapped around the science and how ingredients are behaving together."

When asked if cooking and baking fall along gender lines, Olson acknowledged that they seem to, but she feels that cultural differences come into play too. "In the professional world, it seems in North America that women gravitate toward the baking side...But in Europe, there are more male pastry chefs."

Olson was drawn to baking because of family experience. "My grandmother was my inspiration," she said. She made dessert every night of the week, took special pride in what she prepared and shared family recipes.

In our health-conscious era, it seems that dessert is more of an occasional treat than a regular indulgence. But Olson believes that denying yourself sweets usually ends up backfiring. "You'll go off the wagon, over-indulge," she said. Her solution? In the book, she adjusted her portions to make them smaller and thus less fattening.

Olson identified a couple of current trends in baking. One is recipes that "are leaning towards the allergy sensitivities. People can control what they put in their baked goods," she said. She added that it can be tricky determining "what to use in what proportion and what results to expect, because it's not simply a matter of substituting."

There's also renewed interest in traditional desserts. "These days, it's all about the classics," she said, citing chiffon cakes in particular. "I love chiffon cakes, they're light and airy, and they're beyond angel food cake."

When it comes to holiday baking, Olson has several mainstays. "I have to do butter tarts, but there are some family recipes that I rely on," she said. "It's not Christmas until I make my grandmother's cherry walnut icebox cookies." Olson also bakes a traditional Icelandic cake of cardamom-spiced shortbread in seven layers, with a cinnamon-cardamom-prune filling.

Anna Olson provided the following delicious recipe from Back to Baking for sampling.

Salted Orange Toffee Slices

These have become a household favorite — sophisticated and elegant, but ultimately a comfort-food style of cookie.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

¾ cup unsalted butter at room temperature

½ cup sugar

½ cup packed dark brown sugar

2 tsp finely grated orange zest

1 egg at room temperature

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ tsp baking soda

½ cup crunchy toffee bits such as Skor bits

Fine sea salt, for sprinkling

1. Beat the butter, sugar, brown sugar and orange zest together until smooth. Add the egg and beat until combined.

2. Sift in the flour and baking soda and stir until blended, then stir in the toffee bits.

3. Shape the dough into 2 logs about 9-inches long and 2-inches across and wrap in plastic wrap. Once wrapped, gently flatten the dough on 4 sides, to create a square shape. Chill the dough for at least 2 hours before baking.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 °F and line 3 baking trays with parchment paper.

5. Slice the logs into cookies that are ¼-inch wide and place them onto the prepared trays, leaving 2 inches between each cookie (these do spread as they bake). Sprinkle the top of each cookie with a little bit of sea salt.

6. Bake the cookies for about 13 minutes, until they have browned just lightly on the bottom. Cool the cookies on the tray and then store in an airtight container.

The cookies will keep for up to a week in an airtight container.


Back to Baking

by Anna Olson

Buy this book at:

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From the publisher:

"In this latest book from bestselling author and celebrity chef Anna Olson, the mystery of baking is revealed with 215 all-new recipes. Whether looking to bake a fundamental recipe like a basic shortbred cookie or brownie; or delving into a classic torte or an imaginative holiday dessert, Anna provides a reliable framework for all of your baking, with guaranteed success. With a section on baking troubleshooting or tips on accurate measuring, Anna helps novice bakers bypass any kitchen disaster and move right onto produce perfect baked goods every time..."

Read more at Whitecap Books.

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