Claire Saffitz knows how to mess up.
There are YouTube compilations of all the times the pastry chef and former Bon Appétit food editor had to hit pause on the Promethean task of reverse engineering commercially produced junk food, only to try again: “Claire Saffitz questioning her life decisions.” “Claire Saffitz kinda failing.” And yet, by the end of almost every challenge, she had reached her goal.
The St. Louis native — and proud alum of a Bemidji summer camp — rapidly rose to stardom in “Gourmet Makes,” a habit-forming online video series from Bon Appétit’s test kitchen. In the videos, Saffitz committed, with scientific rigor and dazzling creativity, to nailing the powdered seasoning on a Dorito, the color of the sprinkles on a Pop Tart, or the texture of the hard candy shell on a Peanut M&M.
Now, she is out with her first cookbook, “Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking With Confidence” (Clarkson Potter), and much like the show that made her famous, the book allows for the possibility of failure while setting the groundwork for success.
Saffitz’s recipes are written very thoroughly — some span four pages — to prepare home bakers for every possible outcome and every path one could take down a flowchart of decisions that stand between you and a good dessert. Choosing a metal or a glass pan will have one effect; buying grocery store or farmers market apples will have another. How to account for the differences, and whether or not you can live with them once the timer goes off, is Saffitz’s brand of baking therapy.
“In my experience, people have a lot of anxiety about baking even more than cooking, because something goes in an oven and you can’t see the transformation happen,” Saffitz said in an interview. “There’s just so much questioning of like, ‘I hope I did it right. I hope I didn’t overfill the pan. I hope it comes out. I hope I can unmold it.’ I tried to write a book that addressed people’s anxieties.”
The simplest way to overcome the emotional torment of baking, according to Saffitz? Screw up, get over it and start over.
Which is why I felt comfortable tossing a whole pan of brownies into the trash.
“I’m vulnerable to the same pitfalls as any home baker,” Saffitz said in generous solidarity when I explained how my brownies came out formless and mushy. “I can’t even remember what I was making the other day, but I was like, ‘I know I shouldn’t be doing this,’ but I did it anyway. And of course it didn’t quite turn out the way that I wanted it to. A lot of it is kind of like a gut check, and listening to that inner voice.”
A Minnesota inspiration
Saffitz, 34, has trusted her inner voice at many turns that took her to unexpected places, from Ivy League education to culinary school in Paris, from writing and recipe development to video stardom, and from a wildly popular platform at Bon Appétit to her recent announcement that she would be setting out on her own.
A student journalist and humanities major at Harvard University, and a graduate student of history at McGill University, her career radar never included YouTube chef. Certainly not a YouTube chef who made Snickers and Cheetos.
Saffitz studied pastry in Paris, and “Dessert Person” luxuriates in the greatest hits of French baking (think croissant, tarte Tatin, kouign amann), while also highlighting sweets from her personal background (St. Louis gooey butter cake, a Jewish babka-challah mashup).
You won’t find a recipe for Twinkies, nor the myriad snacks that Saffitz would buy from the canteen during summers at Camp Thunderbird in Bemidji, which inspired some episodes of “Gourmet Makes.”
“I particularly remember Combos from summer camp,” she said. “We would go to the camp store in the evening and get snacks and buy your Thunderbird sticker to put on your backpack. I had kind of forgotten how good they are.”
Though much of her audience might associate her with junk food, Saffitz didn’t go there in “Dessert Person.”
“I really wanted everything in the book to be something that I would truly make from home, and for whatever reason, Pop Tarts doesn’t make that list,” she said.
Not that she’s looking down on junk food. It’s just not what she’s about.
“For me, the focus is always on teaching and problem-solving for the home baker, and ‘Gourmet Makes’ is not something that I see having practical applications. Even the simplest thing requires some kind of special piece of equipment and I live in an apartment. I don’t have room for a Twinkie pan in my kitchen. I don’t have room for a pizzelle maker for a Choco Taco shell.”
Besides, plenty of fans weren’t watching for the baking tips anyway. They tuned in to unwind, veg out and disengage from the news cycle.
“In the beginning, I just didn’t understand the appeal,” she said. “To me, it’s like, what’s the point of ‘Gourmet Makes’ if I’m not providing practical recipes? To know that it was providing some other form of service, just as a stress relief or pure enjoyment, is wonderful and very, very gratifying.”
Lessons outside the kitchen
Saffitz was already thinking about moving on when Bon Appétit underwent what she called a “reckoning” earlier this year. After photos circulated of then-editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport in a culturally insensitive Halloween costume, several people of color on staff went public about being under-compensated for their work. Big names on the video team, including Saffitz, distanced themselves from the Condé Nast title and its entertainment wing. Saffitz’s show took a hiatus, and earlier this month she announced she was leaving permanently.
A freelancer at the time, Saffitz thought there was little she could do to rectify her colleagues’ mistreatment. “I had leverage, but I didn’t quite have power, and that was a really instructive thing for me to learn,” she said.
It’s something for which she later apologized to her colleagues of color.
“As an employee, I was, of course, to some degree aware of the toxic, racist, secretive and ultracompetitive environment we worked in ‘together’ ...,” she wrote in a June Instagram post. “I should have seen it earlier and used my platform and clout to push back against the leadership.”
The revelations about indignities and inequalities at the company were indicative of larger conversations happening in professional kitchens and editorial offices — and in workplaces and wider communities — after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Saffitz said.
“What we experienced at Bon Appétit is in some ways a little microcosm of the conversations and debates happening in the food world at large, about representation and what is tokenism and how does one person with one cultural background or one heritage cook the food from another, and if and when that can be done successfully and responsibly.”
Those conversations “absolutely figured into my decision” to seek greater independence over her work, she said.
Wherever she goes next, she intends to do better.
“Going forward this really informs so much of how I will approach building anything on my own,” she said. “I’m going to keep all of these lessons in mind about what it means to be inclusive, about what it means to share a platform, all of that.”
Just as she did in her most challenging “Gourmet Makes” episodes, she is starting over, with far more knowledge and experience to steer her.
Saffitz said she’s ready for the “next stage of my career,” though “I haven’t really laid down solid plans for what that looks like.” Video will likely be part of those plans, but with an “ethos toward teaching and guidance, which is what I really love doing.”
Saffitz is already a teacher, and “Dessert Person” is her textbook. And I, with my failed brownies, was her student, learning her signature lesson: It’s OK to mess up.
“Oh, no!” Saffitz said when I told her what happened. I assured her it wasn’t her fault.
She went into detail about how oven temperatures vary, and explained how properly chilling the brownies could have firmed them up. “Even a couple days in the refrigerator will really transform it,” she said. “Just so you know, for next time.”
The homework assignment was implied. I got out the flour and the cocoa and tried again.
Malted ‘Forever’ Brownies
Makes 16 brownies.
From “Dessert Person,” by Claire Saffitz ($35, Clarkson Potter).
• 1/4 c. Dutch process cocoa powder
• 5 oz. semisweet chocolate (preferably 64-68% cacao), coarsely chopped
• 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
• 1/4 c. neutral oil, such as vegetable or grapeseed
• 1/2 c. sugar
• 1/2 c. packed dark brown sugar
• 1 large egg
• 2 large egg yolks
• 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 3/4 c. flour
• 2 tbsp. malted milk powder, optional
• 1 tsp. kosher salt
• 6 oz. milk chocolate, coarsely chopped
Arrange an oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with 2 sheets of foil, crossing one over the other and pressing the foil into the corners and up the sides. Lightly butter the foil and set aside.
In a large heatproof bowl, whisk the cocoa powder and 1/4 c. boiling water until smooth (this will bring out the flavor of the cocoa).
Add the semisweet chocolate, butter and oil to the bowl with the cocoa mixture and set it over a medium saucepan filled with about 1 inch of simmering (not boiling) water (make sure the bottom of the bowl isn’t touching the water). Warm the mixture gently, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the heat and let cool until lukewarm.
Whisk the granulated and brown sugars into the chocolate mixture. It will look grainy and you might see some of the fat start to separate from the rest of the mixture, which is normal. Add the whole egg, egg yolks and vanilla and whisk vigorously until the mixture comes back together and looks very thick, smooth and glossy.
Add the flour, malted milk powder and salt and whisk slowly until everything is combined, then whisk more vigorously until the batter is very thick, a full 45 seconds.
Add the milk chocolate to the batter and fold with a flexible spatula to distribute. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, spreading in an even layer all the way to the corners. Bake the brownies until the surface is shiny and puffed and the center is dry to the touch but still soft when pressed, 25 to 30 minutes.
Allow the brownies to cool in the pan until they are no longer hot, about 1 hour, then refrigerate until the bottom of the pan feels cold, about 1 hour longer (this results in a chewier texture). Use the ends of the foil to lift the brownies out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Slice the brownies into 16 squares.
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853