Chef Anna Olson Shares Her Baking Essentials & Signature Lemon Squares Recipe
Known as Canada’s baking sweetheart, Anna Olson is every bit as sweet in person as she is on screen. In addition to being an Iron Chef, hosting several TV shows and authoring countless cookbooks, Anna is rounding out her empire with a gorgeous line of bakeware available at Hudson’s Bay. We sat down with her to discuss her essentials from the collection, her signature flavor (hint: it’s BIG for spring) and how baking is a crucial part of wellness.
House & Home: Even for an experienced pastry chef like yourself, is there one thing that still challenges you in the kitchen?
Anna Olson: Every time I make my classic chocolate chip cookie — with its secret cornstarch addition to keep it soft in the center — I always ask myself questions: “Is there something I can do to change it, improve it, make it easier, make it tastier, or move with the trends a little bit?”
H&H: We know that lemon is one of your favorite flavors and creamy lemon squares are one of your signature desserts. What makes them signature?
AO: They’re distinctive because there’s a creaminess to it with a full-on pucker of lemon tartness that is just so balanced. It also means that when you’re making the square – and anyone who’s made a lemon square knows — what can trouble you is the lemon filling can sometimes seep under the crust, but with this recipe that won’t happen.
H&H: You’ve said that your grandmother was one of your main sources of inspiration growing up, so did she have a signature dish and have you tried to recreate it?
AO: I grew up baking with my grandmother, so I think most emblematic of her style and her cultural heritage would be her walnut rolls. My background is Slovak, so Easter is our time because it’s all about the eggy breads and yeast cakes. We would make these walnut rolls, which are a yeast roll with a walnut filling that you roll up and bake. We’d make them together in huge batches and then freeze them so we’d have them for a long time.
H&H: “Wellness” is obviously a big buzzword right now, along with “gluten-free” or “no refined sugar”. And yet, baking is cool again, with viral recipes such as “the cookies” and artisan bread baking. Where do you think baking fits in with the wellness movement?
AO: I think it’s a natural fit for two main reasons. When you bake from scratch, you’re controlling the ingredients and the process. If there are dietary or allergy sensitivities, then you can tailor and cater to them, which is ideal. Further to that, the revised Canada’s Food Guide just came out, and more than just the food recommendations, I think what really hits home to me is the encouragement to eat and cook together as a family. Baking allows you a great opportunity to do that cross-generationally with your friends or your sisters, and get in there and cook together. That to me is wellness in a nutshell, but not if you’re allergic to nuts.
H&H: A lot of the recipes on your Oh Yum YouTube channel, on your shows and in your cookbooks are cemented in classic techniques and really nailing down delicious basic recipes. But when you’re experimenting at home, do you ever try out new food trends that come up like shag cakes or other viral recipes?
AO: Oh sure! I like to see where trends are rooted in a classic tradition, like the mirror glazes you see on cakes right now. That’s a classic French technique that every pastry chef learns in school. Right now it’s hot because of colorful desserts — things like unicorn-anything. I think we’re going to see that wane a little bit in light of this further attention to natural ingredients, for example, how can we add pink color without adding pink food coloring? That’s a hot trend right now and I’m all over that.
H&H: On the flip side, what is one food or baking trend that you just can’t get behind?
AO: I’m not a unicorn girl. I think it’s because I’ve witnessed how much food coloring you have to put into things to get that color tone. I’m more about the pastels.
H&H: You’ve recently come out with an amazing line of bakeware that includes so many essential pieces. If you had to choose the five essential tools that every baker should own — even if they live in a tiny rental kitchen — what would they be?
AO: Number one, the offset spatula. It comes in two sizes, but in baking, it’s an extension of my hand whether it’s lifting hot cookies off the tray, lifting a perfect tart slice out of a pan or frosting swirls and swishes onto a cake.
AO: Number two, my digital scale because you’ll notice now how globally, the world bakes by measuring by weight. In North America, we still measure by volume, but we’re getting there. Once you start using a scale, you’ll realize, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I’ve been messing around with scoops and spoons all this time!”
AO: Number three, a good silicone spatula is invaluable because you need to be able to go from a hot pot to a mixing bowl. The slight bend in the spatula means that you can get really into the corners of the bowl. I like a spoon one for mixing cookie dough and a flat one for when I do sauces on the stove top.
AO: Number four, my French tapered rolling pin. When you have handles on the sides of a rolling pin, you’re not feeling where the dough is. With a single piece pin, your hands are on top of the dough so you can feel it. The taper also means you can work the dough into a circle or square and your pastry dough won’t crack as much.
AO: And number five, I love a good removable bottom tart pan. The fluted sides are there for aesthetics, but also for function. The crust adheres to the sides, so when you bake it, it doesn’t shrink down. It’s also just so pretty, you can go right from oven to table with it.
To finish off our chat, we asked Anna some rapid-fire questions:
H&H: Desserts: chocolatey or fruity?
H&H: Butter tarts: with or without raisins?
AO: WITH 100%
H&H: Chocolate chip cookies: crispy or chewy?
H&H: Pies: key lime or lemon meringue?
AO: Lemon meringue
H&H: Oreos: bite into or twist them apart?
AO: Bite into them