By Sharyn Jackson Star Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Sharyn Jackson reports, Claire Saffitz "rapidly rose to stardom in "Gourmet Makes," a habit-forming online video series from Bon Appetit'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."
Claire Saffitz knows how to mess up.
There are YouTube compilations of all the times the pastry chef and former Bon Appetit 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 Appetit'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 Appetit 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 Appetit 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 Conde 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 Appetit 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."