by Malcolm Jolley
I am in trouble with Anna Olson. It has a little bit to do with the interview she sat down with me for a few weeks ago. I met her to discuss her new Food Network show Bake With Anna Olson. She suggested La Cigogne in Leaside, a charming Alsatian patisserie near to where she grew up. “See,” she said pointing diminished stock on the shelves behind the counter, “they’re running out of things: that means they bake fresh every morning and don’t use frozen dough.” I had seen Olson and her husband, the equally renown Niagara-based chef and food industry innovator, Michael Olson at the annual Ontario Hostelry Institute’s Gold Awards dinner earlier in the spring. There, to Anna my wife Apple confessed that there was not a lot of baking going on in our house; there’s lots of cooking but neither of us seem to have the patience, temperament or knack for pastry. But, puzzled Anna Olson, surely we could manage something as simple as banana bread? My wife and I looked downward to avoid eye contact, and one of us mumbled something or other about how delicious the banana bread is at All The Best. Ms. Olson would hear none of it, and undertook us as a kind of flour, butter and sugar charity case: she would teach us to bake a loaf of banana bread.
By the time Food Network Canada was getting ready to launch Bake With Anna Olson, and I secured an interview through their publicists, Canada’s most famous baker had taken matters into her own hands. Before I so much as got my notebook out, Anna Olson presented me with a bag, or really a collection of bags. In each bag was a carefully measured ingredient slip of paper with a number that corresponded to step in a recipe for banana bread. It was a homemade kit for homemade banana bread. Touched by the kind gesture, I blushed and promised to send her photos of the banana bread we would bake en famille. Two weeks went by and Anna Olson sent me an email asking what happened to the photos I was supposed to send? Uh oh.
The banana bread kit is entirely in character for Anna Olson, who (full disclosure) I consider a friend. Not just the generosity of spirit, but the drive to teach and share her passion for cooking. She is something of a throw back, in this age of reality TV and quick shot shows featuring food trucks or cheese burgers made of grilled cheese sandwiches. Through six published cookboks and seven television shows, Olson carries the torch first lit by pioneers like Julia Child. There’s no gimmicks to her work, it’s simply about teaching people to cook. Or bake: when I asked Anna the rationale for the new show, she replied that it was prompted by her audience: as she traveled around to promote projects like ‘Fresh’, she always got more questions about baking than anything else.
The association with baking suits Olson just fine. “Instead of doing sports after school, I cam home to make cookies,” she confessed, adding, “Baking for me is like kitchen yoga: it’s what I do to relax”. Still, when there’s so much baking to be bought, why bother making your own? “For one thing, you know exactly what goes into what you make yourself,” she explained.
Olson describes Bake With Anna Olson as her attempt to convey the experience of being a baker’s apprentice. In each episode, she demonstrates a simple technique, like chocolate ganache. Then she builds on the basic recipe, showing three increasingly complicated iterations.
But what about the baking-challenged like me? What are the most important things I should know before attempting to bake? “It’s like any other kind of cooking, you have to start with really good ingredients,” she explained. Like in her new show, she recommends going slowly, working out the basics and practicing them before trying to replicate the pros. “You have to mistakes to learn from them,” she says matter of factly. Then, she describes her first attempt, as a culinary student, to make croquembouche: “I burnt the sugar three times in a row.”
Back to the banana bread: in the end it was our eight year old son who coaxed us (guided us really) to open Anna Olson’s Kit for the Baking Challenged™. The kid read out the steps and followed Anna’s instructions, with a little parental supervision and help. An hour later, we were snacking on warm banana bread with chocolate chips: photographic evidence below. (I hope this gets me out of trouble.)
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the non-profit organization that publishes GFR. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley. Photo: John Gundy.