Back to Baking – Review

The ABCs of Cookbook Writing

“Eighty percent of being a pastry chef is to save a disaster from happening,” Anna Olson says. I have known such disasters, so I hope Back to Baking will help me avoid future ones.

I am at a fundraiser of the KidSafe Project Society, “Writing about Food: Speaking of Taste Buds,” on the Vancouver UBC campus, and where Anna Olson talks about what she does best—bake and write recipes.

Something About Anna Olson

Of Slavic origin, Anna Olson was born in Georgia (USA) and grew up in Ontario (Canada). Kindly assertive, yet self-defined as shy, she could be one of your friends although few of them, if any, might be TV hosts, or authors, but some might be chefs.

Olson became a pastry chef to relax. The more stressed she was, the more she baked. She even baked her way through Political Sciences and Law and became a broker until a doomed day in the stock market sent her home with the irrepressible urge to handle kitchen tools and baking ingredients. Then began a weigh, whisk, and whip marathon.  

Six baking books later, Olson shares only original recipes in Back to Baking. Writing them was about testing and re-testing new combinations of flavors while scribbling and editing. This demands integrity and, for 200 recipes developed over ten years, passion.

Recipe for Writing a Baking Book

Olson begins by choosing a theme, and then creates an outline, keeping in mind that the project must appeal as much to home bakers as to her publisher’s business vision. Only then can she let inspiration flow. When it’s done, holding the book for the first time is a delicious gratification, like perfect meringue melting in your mouth.

The book cover is a calming eye-pleaser of pastels, a blue sky standing as background to the cloud-white icing of a perfect cake, and Olson’s lilac blouse. Don’t let her smile fool you into believing that baking is a piece of cake. The inoffensive-looking spatula she holds might be a hint to her comment in Taste magazine, “A kitchen is not a democracy.”

The first pages serve as the sometimes-overlooked introduction, but clusters of small banners catch the attention: Dairy-FREE, egg-FREE, gluten-FREE, LOW-fat, LOW-sugar, and foundation RECIPE. The message is clear: all recipes consider diet restrictions and preferences. Furthermore, the book is a guide for all levels of skills, including your first-ever batch of brownies.

Olson shares new baking techniques and judicious tips to make life in the kitchen easier. She insists that precise measurements are essential in baking. She recommends checking the accuracy of your scale, and the volume of your measuring cups. As for to-freeze-or-not-to-freeze baked goods, it depends on their sugar content—sugar gets wet even when refrigerated.

The Battle of the Yield and the Bane of the Baking Time

Anna Olson hosts the TV show Fresh on the Food Network, but how does she operate in the privacy of her home kitchen? Like any creative process, baking is a matter of focus.

The discussion continues in the reminiscing mode of a typical day. “So… today, shall I create a cake, muffins, or a tiramisu?” Playing the part, she then recites a basic recipe: five egg yolks, one cup of cream, half a cup of sugar, a quarter cup of brandy… and the interest of the audience rises like a soufflé.

She has a way to make you salivate with more questions. Will it be sticky or creamy? Should vanilla enhance the taste? How about incorporating fruit? Cranberries? Ah, beware of cranberries because they float; fruit compote might be a better idea. As the inflections of her voice go up and down and her hands twirl in and out, her face expresses what she says.

Olson explains that her recipes improved from her mishaps, and from questions she received. ‘Between 12 and 18 cookies’ is no acceptable entry in a cookbook. Then comes the unavoidable baking time bane, ignoring oven issues greatly endangers the fate of a recipe. An additional clue is music to my ears: an ‘overly thin’ batter might be just right.

Women as Professional Chefs

Anna Olson learned culinary arts in Vail, Colorado, at Johnson and Wales University, and practiced for 15 years at restaurants in the United States. At the time, it was the duty of the line cooks to make desserts. Since she already had a personal collection of recipes, she took the opportunity, to do what she liked while getting away from the notorious kitchen conflicts.

In 1995, she returned to Ontario to work at the Inn on the Twenty, where she met and married her future business partner, Executive Chef Michael Olson.

As a pastry chef, she learned the hard way. First, it’s physical work, bowls holding up to 60 quarts, and pastry-work starting early morning. Second is psychologically challenging, culinary arts operating in an industry in which women must be resilient and driven.

 “Baking may be regarded as a science, but it’s the chemistry between the ingredients and the cook that gives desserts life. Baking is done out of love, to share with family and friends, to see them smile,” she writes in her book. Let’s get baking!

First published 2012

The Back to Baking Book The ABCs of Cookbook Writing
Photo Credit: MCArnott