Jolly time baking with Anna Olson

  • Food News
  • Monday, 14 Dec 2015

Forget calories. If there’s one time in the year you make this exception, it’s now. By necessity. What is Christmas without a yulelog or two? Or some fruity candies. The good news is Anna Olson is sharing some gluten-free, flourless confections. The bad news is these sweeties are not necessarily low calorie.

And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Olson – whose shoulder-length bob and saccharine-sweet smile has been garnering more press than the cronut of late – is the bona fide queen of sweets. Her cookbooks have won awards and her series, Bake With Anna Olson, Sugar and Fresh With Anna Olson, have made countless drool with their idiot-proof recipes.

It’s hard to believe, then, that Olson has spent a better part of her career in the shadows. A graduate of political studies and sociology, the lovable chef worked in banking for a few years before single-mindedly devoting her time to desserts. (“I would sneak out on my lunch break to go to the local market to buy ingredients for my next dinner party!” she quips.)

However, Olson received what she called her “muffin epiphany” one evening when, after a stressful day at work, she found herself not being able to sleep.

She recounts the moment with great clarity: “I was in the kitchen making banana muffins at 2am, not to eat them, but because the baking relaxed me. It was at that moment I realised that cooking and baking is what makes me happy.”

They don't call this Canadian pastry chef the Queen of Sweets for nothing. Photo: AFC
They don't call this Canadian pastry chef the Queen of Sweets for nothing. Photo: AFC

She promptly enrolled herself into a culinary programme at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, United States.

Her sudden trajectory into celebrity-dom, however, was more of an accident. It happened in 2002, when the Food Network had just launched in Canada and were on the lookout for a host for their upcoming dessert show. Olson, who had by then co-written a cookbook with her husband chef Michael Olson, was a natural candidate with her fresh look and laid-back girl-next-door qualities.

“I was terribly nervous,” Olson says of her audition. “It would have been easy to say ‘no thank you’ but one never regrets things tried and failed, so I went for and got the job!”

Enter her first – and enormously popular – series, Sugar, a 165-episode whopper that ran for five seasons, from 2002 right up to 2007. For half an hour every week, viewers in Canada – and eventually, around the world – would sit back and watch, en-tranced, as Olson demonstrated her finesse with pastry, working backwards, starting with the ingredients and effortlessly transforming them into sweet sensations.

Fans have followed her latest series, Bake With Anna Olson, with the same fervour since it debuted in 2012. Now in its second season on the Asian Food Channel, the show reveals Olson’s most decadent recipes and tricks to making her delicious baked treats.

“I had such fun with season two of Bake. I feel that while I still focused on classic pastry preparations, I could be a little more playful with my recipes – things like my Coconut Marsh-mallows and Glazed Petits Fours are perfect examples,” she says in an email interview with Star2, adding that she will also tackle kaya in one episode.

“I could just eat kaya on its on by the spoonful!”

As for her fame, Olson says she doesn’t really dwell on it. “I try to remain true to myself, and focus on my credibility. That way, if celebrity fades away, I will always have my credibility.”

My culinary philosophy is simple...

It’s all about respect. To me, this means respect for ingredients (knowing how to best prepare an ingredient), respect for technique (this is especially important in baking – honouring a particular method to achieve the best result), and most importantly, respect for people (for whom I am cooking).

As a chef this could be your customers and as a TV host and author, it means respect for my viewers and readers, providing clear, concise recipes that will lead to successful results and a sense of accomplishment about what they’ve made.

My desserts have definitely evolved over the years...

I am constantly challenging myself, working with new ingredients and learning new techniques. An important part of teaching is to always continue learning – I just took an intensive chocolate course last month, to improve my skills so that I can better share these tips with viewers.

Since we have four distinct seasons here in Canada...

We also have desserts and dishes that work with each season, so I tend to always want to cook with what’s at its peak in terms of freshness and flavour. I do love fruit desserts, so right now I am enjoying cooking with cranberries, apples and pumpkin.

My ultimate indulgent treat is...

Believe it or not, not something sweet...cheese! A deliciously rich French Brie is an absolute favourite, especially with a nice, warm baguette.

The hardest dessert I’ve had to perfect is...

Definitely macarons! Such simple ingredients (ground almonds, icing sugar and egg whites) but yet they are immensely complex to make.

Make these desserts from Anna Olson (click for recipes)

Flourless Black Forest Roulade. Photos: AFC
Chocolate Dipped Orange Peel
Meringue Mushrooms.

If I were to sum up Anna Olson in one dessert or pastry, it would be...

Apple Tarte Tatin! It was the recipe I made to audition for TV for the very first time, and it is still my go-to dessert when I’m not sure what to make for dessert at home.

I can’t wait to see the new generation of pastry chefs...

Shake up our industry. Because my husband teaches at a culinary school, I get to meet a lot of apprentice pastry chefs and I love the enthusiasm and sense of innovation they have. With the popularity of modernist and molecular cuisine, there is a new respect for technique that will skyrocket the new generation of pastry chefs to such heights!

My next project is...

A Bake With Anna Olson cookbook launching in autumn 2016.

Catch Bake With Anna Olson every Friday at 9pm on the Asian Food Channel (Astro Ch 703).

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