We've all been there. Stepping into the kitchen when something yummy is baking in the oven. Having those smells waft through the home as you eagerly await sampling the goodies as soon as that oven door springs open. Anna Olson’s childhood was no
The 48-year-old professionally trained Canadian chef was in Brussels when we chatted.
She recalls: “I think for a lot of people who are interested in baking, there’s a family influence. For me, it was my grandmother who was my key influencer. She was a home-maker and loved cooking. But that sparkle came in her eye when it was time to bake.
“She made dessert every day of the week. And yet somehow I never saw leftovers. If you wanted to visit grandma, that meant you had to work in the kitchen. It was at a young age where, like most kids do, I learnt how to crack eggs and stir things.”
While her first memory of baking involved cherry walnut cookies, which was influenced by her grandmother’s Eastern European lineage, the first time she baked something all by herself was as a teenager.
“I think it was bread pudding. I remember it was a case of my mum giving me all the ingredients she had on hand – bread, milk, sugar
and eggs – and that is what I made,” she reveals.
Olson is a firm believer in sharing recipes and sharing the journey. However, her foray into this profession took a little longer for her to decide on.
She shares: “I am one of those 2am problem-solvers. So I found myself in the kitchen making banana muffins simply so I could clear my head and relax before going back to sleep. All through university, baking was my stress reliever around exam time or when I had assignments due.”
Eventually, she, of course, had to make a decision about what she wanted to do. It was after that 2am baking session that it dawned on her – that was what made her happiest.
Olson laughs: “Within three months I quit (she was working at a bank in downtown Toronto) and signed up to go to cooking school.”
She studied at the College of Cullinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, Colorado, and also has a degree in political
studies and sociology from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Throughout her career, she has written and co-authored myriad cooking books and also opened a few eateries.
So what’s her signature sweet treat?
After mulling over it for a few seconds, she says: “The desserts that have a special place in my heart are all the different types of
fruit tarts. When I was growing as a professional pastry chef, that’s where I really put my identifying stamp.
“Living where we do in the Niagara region, just outside of Toronto, it’s a bit of an agritourism area. So we have this seasonality to our fruit and it would be a challenge to always come up with a new way to present a fruit tart. It also took putting your ego in check as a chef. To know when to leave a beautiful fruit alone and to not over-process it.
“Little strawberry tarts and rhubarb tart at this time of year would be accepted. When the fruits really start coming in the summer time, I would have a menu that would have five or six different types of fruit tart and, to this day, it’s what I love to make. I love the elegance of a fruit tart. A delicate pastry crust that is flavoured one way or the other. Is it superbuttery? Is it crispy or flaky? “You have the filling; the pastry creams... is it lemon curd? Is it a mascarpone filling or does it have a rich chocolate component to it? Then there’s the fruit. You have to make it look beautiful but it needs to, most importantly, taste as good as it looks. I know my dad, whenever he comes to visit, I have a baker’s corner in my kitchen, that’s where he goes to first, expecting a fruit tart.”
Like any pastry chef worth her salt (or sugar in this case), she becomes a sponge when travelling, seeking out different methods and
ingredients that she can infuse and experiment with. In case you are wondering, she also caters for the health-conscious palate on the show, looking at substituting butter with almond butter, as well as using virgin coconut oil in her recipes.
As for the desserts that appeal to her, she admits: “I’m definitely a salty-sweet person. A recipe from season three that I really enjoyed, as did the crew, was my sea salt caramel.”
She adds, “There’s also a soufflé episode, looking at a cheese as well as a classic hot chocolate soufflé.”
Before dashing off, she shares a crucial ingredient when baking – patience. Olson cautions, “That is the single most important skill you need in the kitchen. Rushing is the easiest way to make a mistake. And patience is how you find the joy in it; I call it kitchen yoga.
“Focus on the ingredients and find joy in them. You will discover it’s not about getting to the delicious end result, that’s just the
bonus. But it is the journey getting there where the true joy lies.”
● Anna Olson Bake season three airs on Mondays at 5pm on Food Network (DStv Channel 175).
SUMMER BERRY PUDDINGS (makes 6 individual desserts)
½ cup red currant (or raspberry) jelly
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp 30ml water
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup diced fresh strawberries
15-20 slices white sandwich bread, crusts
crème fraiche, whipped cream or Greek
yoghurt, for serving
1. Bring the jelly, sugar and water up to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking until the sugar has dissolved, the jelly has melted and it has begun to simmer. Add the raspberries, blackberries and blueberries (but not the
strawberries) and simmer while stirring for about two minutes, until the berries soften and let out juices (but don’t turn mushy). Place the strawberries in a strainer placed over a bowl and pour the hot berry mixture over top. Gently press the fruit to extract the juices (reserve the juices for dipping the bread into).
2. Prepare the bread by first cutting out 12 circles that are the same diameter as six five-ounce (150ml) ramekins – these will be the
tops and bottoms of the puddings. Dip a circle of bread into the juice for a second and place this in the bottom of each ramekin. Cut slices of bread to line the sides of each ramekin, and dip them before arranging (the syrup will help to keep the bread in place on the sides of each ramekin). Now spoon the berries into each ramekin, pressing down gently to ensure there are no gaps. Dip the last
six circles of bread into the syrup and place this on top of the fruit, pressing gently. Wrap each ramekin in plastic wrap and chill for at least two hours before serving.
3. To serve, unwrap each ramekin and invert the pudding on to a plate. Serve with a dollop of crème fraiche, sweetened whipped cream or sweetened Greek yoghurt.