Claire Saffitz is the internet’s baking crush
YouTube sensation Claire Saffitz is a graduate of Harvard University who attended culinary school at École Grégoire-Ferrandi in Paris and holds a Master’s degree from McGill. These accolades aside, Saffitz is best known for her work as a recipe tester in Bon Appétit’s test kitchen. Specifically, she’s known for hosting the immensely popular segment Gourmet Makes, wherein she is tasked with replicating and improving upon junk-food classics (Twinkies, Pop-Tarts, Gushers, etc.).
More than just for her baking skills, Claire is adored for her public persona — equal parts best-friend-energy and the neurotic perfectionism of a mad genius. She’s endearing, inspiring and incredibly relatable but, overshadowed by her Gourmet Makes fame, is Claire Saffitz the culinary academic.
Saffitz is extremely knowledgeable, methodical and understands at a deep level what makes food good. She is also the author of a fantastic cookbook entitled Dessert Person, which was released in October 2020 by Clarkson Potter.
I wanted to know more about what the world’s most beloved baker thought about our city and our food culture and to hear her reflect on her time spent in Montreal. Earlier this week I caught up with Claire — we talked about Dessert Person and Canada’s Harvard and attempted to put an end to the Fairmount vs. St. Viateur debate.
Clay Sandhu: Obviously, when you were writing Dessert Person, you never could have imagined it being released at a time like this. Are there any unexpected silver linings of a pandemic book launch?
Claire Saffitz: Having the book come out when it did was a nice way to end the year, which was overall — for many reasons — very challenging. It also was good timing because it coincided with the weather getting colder and people not having a whole lot to do except stay home and bake. It was a happy event for a lot of reasons, and it’s been great to see people bake from it!
Sandhu: Cookbooks, in general, are having a bit of a renaissance, but a lot of cookbooks are really cooking-and-lifestyle or cooking-and-travel books. Dessert Person is really a true-to-form cookbook.
Claire Saffitz: It’s super teaching-focused. The subtitle is “recipes and guidance for baking with confidence.” I really wanted it to be a book that gave home bakers every advantage that it could. One of the messages implied in the book is that baking is hard. I think it’s a little disingenuous when so-called experts talk about how easy and effortless it is — it’s actually really hard. You have to work really hard at it to be even remotely good. The book is a lot about knowledge-sharing, setting people up for success and also managing expectations. If people aren’t baking from it, it’s like, what was the point of writing it?
Sandhu: Your book manages to achieve an incredible thing: capturing the joy of baking through recipes. What’s something you bake solely for the enjoyment of making and eating it?
Claire Saffitz: The most baking for pleasure that I do is sourdough baking and bread baking — and that’s because I like to eat it. Unlike a lot of my recipe tests, which are desserts or sweets, I’m tasting but not really consuming it. Bread baking is a practice I find both therapeutic and is something that is nourishing and that I really do like to eat. There’s something very restorative and soothing about putting my hands in flour.
Sandhu: There’s a common bias in the food world that says cooks don’t bake. In my experience, there’s some truth to that but there are a few categories of baking that all cooks seem to rally around: sourdough bread, anything en croûte and puff pastry. Why do you think these get a pass?
Claire Saffitz: I suppose because these are the things that have the most savoury applications within the pastry or bread world. Baking is a science but it can also be a practice of sorts and it can also be improvisational and creative. That’s the argument the book is making, but you have to follow a certain set of rules. I understand why people have this concept that baking and cooking are separate disciplines and don’t really meet, but of course there’s a ton of overlap. I wish that more cooks embraced pastry techniques and just saw it as an extension of what they’re already doing.
Sandhu: You lived in Montreal for a year while completing a Master’s degree in French Culinary History at McGill. As a Harvard graduate, do you think McGill’s reputation as the Harvard of Canada holds up?
Claire Saffitz: (Laughs) It’s really hard to say! An undergraduate experience is so different from a graduate experience. So… no comment, because I don’t really have any idea. I loved McGill! I thought that there was a real combination of rigour but also openness. I chose that program for a few reasons but one major reason was because of professor Brian Cowan. I admired his work and found it fascinating. Working with him, I was able to do the most fun projects and read incredible texts — like cookbooks from the early modern era. It was definitely my most satisfying and rich academic experience.
Sandhu: What’s a memory from your time in Montreal that stands out?
Claire Saffitz: (Laughs) Well — one thing that stands out in my memory was a week where it didn’t get above -27 C for the entire week. I had to stop wearing eye makeup. I would be walking to class, which took maybe 15 minutes, and my eyes would water and the tears would freeze on my eyelashes and then as soon as I went into a hot building, it would melt and run down my face. It was just something I’d never experienced before. I did a lot of travelling around the city — mostly visiting markets and butcher shops — I cooked a ton that year. I basically made three meals a day for myself. Visiting Jean-Talon Market at least once a week, having a coffee in Little Italy on my way there. It became clear to me from the very beginning that Montreal is a city that takes food, and particularly ingredients, very seriously. For me, it was a really nice transition back to North America when I finished culinary school in Paris. I moved from New York to Paris and then Paris to Montreal — and then Montreal back to New York. It was a fantastic experience all around.
Sandhu: There’s this inside joke we have in Montreal about how often New Yorkers (Americans in general, really) compare Montreal to Paris — or at least comment on it having a certain European feel. As someone who has lived in all three cities, what’s your opinion?
Claire Saffitz: I mean, I wonder if that’s because people are spending time, first and foremost, in Old Montreal, which has that look. I don’t think of it that way. Going from Europe to Montreal, it’s very much its own place. At least to me. (Montreal) is unique, culturally, from anywhere that I’ve been. To me they’re all very different food towns. Paris, it goes without saying, is in many ways unrivalled, but it’s a town that is very assured of its own supremacy when it comes to food and is not terribly adventurous. In culinary school, we had a wine instructor named Agnès who loved to talk about how the French carried tradition around like a ball and chain. I think there’s a lot of truth to that — it’s a place very beholden to its traditions and food history. New York is, in so many ways, the opposite. It’s a place of innovation and experimentation and incredible diversity. I love living in New York and it’s my city of choice for many reasons — one of them is because it’s incredible to have so many different types of cuisines that are so accessible. Montreal, I think, is somewhere in between and is a really interesting fusion of different cultures and cuisines. I love Montreal because it felt very approachable and friendly and welcoming. And also very proud of its food traditions and past but not in a way that they’re so limited by it.
Sandhu: There’s another pastry chef and baker making waves in New York — a friend of yours, Natasha Pickowicz, who also has roots in Montreal. Natasha, of course, started her baking career at Lawrence. Do you think it’s merely a coincidence that two of New York’s most celebrated pastry chefs spent time in Montreal?
Claire Saffitz: Natasha and I have spoken about it. I think there’s probably something there (laughs) — I don’t exactly know what to say about it. She and I are going to have to talk about it further maybe. One thing I love about Montreal cuisine is that it’s very unapologetic — there’s such a sense of pleasure around food. I think being in Montreal helps develop that.
Sandhu: Are there any places — bakeries or restaurants — that are significant to your time in Montreal?
Claire Saffitz: I would go to Beauty’s a lot — which was so dear and I loved so much. I was sad to hear about the owner. I felt so at home at that place. I had a couple of extremely memorable meals at Joe Beef, one with a very good friend of mine — we were in culinary school together in Paris. She had stayed in Paris for quite a while after culinary school and I had already moved to Montreal. She was moving back to L.A. and came to visit me on her way back to the West Coast and her chef in Paris was friends with the Joe Beef guys and told them we were coming. That was the first time I had ever really been blown-out at a restaurant. I could not believe how much we ate as two people. It was summer and we were sitting outside at one of the picnic tables. I had never experienced anything like that. I think that was also one of my first times drinking natural wine, which I got into in Montreal.
Saffitz makes New York-style bagels for the New York Times Test Kitchen
Sandhu: I’m not going to ask you to compare Montreal and New York bagels but I would like you to weigh in on a long-standing debate: Fairmount or St. Viateur?
Claire Saffitz: I am afraid that I’m going to give an extremely unsatisfactory answer to this question. I think generally, my answer was Fairmount — but I didn’t really care. I just went to the one that had the shortest line. Because you know what? To me, the singular pleasure of a Montreal bagel is that every time I went there, it was warm. There is no more delicious baked good than a warm baked good — no matter what it is. Even if that baked good, when it cools off, is terrible. So, I have to say, I wasn’t approaching it with a level of connoisseurship, I was just approaching it like, “Oh my God, I get to eat this warm bagel with cream cheese.” So I’m afraid the nuances of what separates them were lost on me.
Sandhu: I’ve noticed that, in many contemporary restaurants, dessert is often the first corner cut. A lot of times you either see some over-intellectualized vegetables-as-dessert thing or just a puddle of custard with some crispy bits on top. Do you think we’re poised to see a return to classic desserts?
Claire Saffitz: I get disappointed and frustrated often by those kinds of dishes because rarely do I find something so intellectual to be as delicious as something like a piece of lemon tart — or even a brownie. First and foremost, something has to be delicious. I don’t think it has to be a return to nostalgic desserts or only layer-cakes and pies, but I think that the pendulum is always going to swing back to deliciousness. ■
This feature was originally published in the February issue of Cult MTL. Dessert Person is available locally at Appetite for Books (388 Victoria). Check out the official website here.
For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.
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