Cross Country Checkup·Ask Me Anything

Flaky pies & perfectly baked cookies: Pastry chef Anna Olson shares her tips

It’s the time of year where kitchens across the country are filled with the smells of cookies and pies. But if you’re new to baking — or looking for some expert tricks — celebrity pastry chef Anna Olson has some tips to share.

The celebrity chef answered questions as part of Checkup's Ask Me Anything call-in

Pastry chef Anna Olson is the host of Bake with Anna Olson and a judge on Junior Chef Showdown. (Mike McColl)

It's the time of year where kitchens across the country are filled with the smells of cookies and pies.

But if you're new to baking — or looking for some expert tricks — celebrity pastry chef Anna Olson has some tips to share.

Olson, author of cookbook Baking Day and host of the Food Network Canada show Bake with Anna Olson, joined Cross Country Checkup as part of the show's regular Ask Me Anything series to answer callers' questions — and offer a few recipes.

Essential tools for home baking

When it comes to getting your kitchen ready for a marathon of holiday baking, Olson says you only need a few things — and, no, a high-end stand mixer is not necessary.

"You can put the stand mixer on your Christmas wish list if you want, but you don't need it to start baking, especially those holiday cookies," she said.

Olson says a good set of bowls and a "heavyweight" baking pan are crucial. "Trustworthy" measuring tools are also a must. 

"Sometimes you get those cute Christmas ones that have Santa's reindeer on the handles. They're not always the most accurate," Olson explained.

To mix, the pastry chef suggests silicone spatulas rather than a wooden spoon that might absorb flavours when cooking. An electric hand mixer can also come in handy for more serious cookies, like whipped shortbreads.

But her secret weapon for baking? "My favourite tool for portioning cookies is a mechanical ice cream scoop, because that way you get every cookie the exact same size."

Pastry chef Anna Olson discusses shortbread varieties and shares her favourite shortbread cookie recipe.

How to avoid burning your gingerbread cookies

If you find your Christmas cookies a little darker than you hoped, Olson says you're not alone.

"You do have to get to know your oven a little bit," she told Checkup. Ovens, she explains, are not uniform and may be cooler than the set temperature, while others may be hotter.

Many ovens, she adds, will have a hot spot — usually in a back corner —  and suggests turning the cookies 180 degrees halfway through the cooking time for a uniform bake.

When baking cookies, pastry chef Anna Olson suggests rotating them 180 degrees halfway through cooking. (Anamaria Mejia/Shutterstock)

For those with convection ovens, things can get trickier.

"The convection fan in an oven is circulating warm air around whatever is in the oven, and that is fantastic if you're roasting a chicken or you want crispy potatoes," she said. "It is not ideal when you're making delicate cookies, or cookies with molasses in them like your gingerbread cookies, and it can over-brown them."

Her suggestion? Use the convection bake option, or turn off the convection fan. If neither are options for you, consider lowering your oven temperature by 15 to 25 F, she says.

Baking a flaky, tender pie crust

Pie crust recipes often come with a lot of negatives, and that can make them feel a bit unapproachable, Olson says.

"Don't add too much liquid. Don't over-mix. Don't let your butter get warm…. We become so fearful and afraid that we either don't make it or we end up overcompensating and going the opposite direction," she said.

The trick to a tender, flaky crust, Olson says, is to coat the flour in vegetable oil before combining the ingredients.

"So measure your vegetable oil, pour it into that dry mixture, give it a good stir," she said.

"That helps protect the flour from absorbing water, [which is] what makes it tough or stretchy and not flaky pie dough."

Struggling with your pie crust? Anna Olson says her trick to a delicious dough is to coat the flour in vegetable oil. She shares her recipe.

Once your ingredients are mixed, and you're getting the dough ready for the pan, Olson suggests letting your dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes so it's easier to roll.

"Every time you work your dough, you're exercising those proteins and that toughens up your dough. So when it's slightly softened, it rolls easier, it rolls without cracking, and then you'll find you'll have an easier time with it — and it's flaky and delicious," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Kirthana Sasitharan.

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