Interview with Chef Anna Olson
Celebrity baker discusses holiday treats and treating yourself with self-care
Riding the tail feathers of a festive Thanksgiving season, industry bakers are now poised to serve up delectable yuletide sweet Christmas treats. And none is more excited for the season than celebrity baker, chef, and self-admitted “Christmas nerd” Anna Olson, whose nostalgic holiday memories continue to inspire her culinary journey to this day.
“I’ve always loved Christmas and some of my best baking memories are being in the kitchen at seven or eight-years-old making cherry walnut cookies and ice box cookies with my grandma,” she said, smiling as she recalls how friends and family would come together to enjoy the wonderful traditions of her Slovak Christmas Eve dinner, “with no shortage of desserts of cookies.”
As one of the country’s most recognizable television and online food media chefs, most recently hosting the Food Network’s “Inspired with Anna Olson”, she’s also appeared on and is currently launching a series of holiday cooking and baking videos on the Oh Yum YouTube Channel. In between, Anna juggles her time between personal appearances promoting Canadian food culture, developing community partnerships, travelling domestically and abroad, and life at home in the Niagara Region with her chef husband Michael Olson.
Understanding all too well the toll the holidays can take on industry bakers, Anna encourages taking time for self-care. “I learned first as a restaurateur, and later with my retail stores, that at Christmas time everyone just puts their heads down and works non-stop until January,” she said, adding that it really is vital to “take time out to enjoy a hot bath and some personal time to rediscover your festive spirit to see you through the season.”
With the launch of her newest cookbook “Set for the Holidays with Anna Olson”, she shares preparation hints, including a tip to make-ahead dough, pre-scoop and label it. “It saves time, doesn’t take up as much freezer room and thawing and baking gives much better results than baking off and freezing the finished product,” Anna said.
Working closely with her editor, the process of recipe development, writing, taking photos, editing and printing, has culminated in the publication of Anna’s ninth cookbook. “It takes about two years to develop a cookbook,” she said, “so it is always a bit of a gamble, speculating that what you identify as a trend 24 months out will still be relevant at the time of publication.”
“Healthy eating, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free considerations are really main stream now and integrated into my thought process to offer a balance and variety of traditional and innovative choices,” she said.
Acknowledging that North Americans are on the constant lookout for new culinary trends, she thinks at Christmas time we “still look to old world, time-honored, European traditions like shortbread, fruitcake and gingerbread,” rationalizing that “during the pre-industrialized times, many of the classics were ‘invented’ purely by using ingredients at hand during winter solstice.”
But by simply adding the exotic essence of cloves, nutmeg or allspice, Anna says a basic recipe takes on the flavour overtures consumers come to expect of holiday classics. Being an innovative baker by nature, she is always eager to experiment and is “constantly reworking and rethinking recipes, and incorporating new tools and methods to make the job easier and better,” as evidenced by her original macaron creations in three new flavors: candy cane, eggnog, and chocolate orange.
Paying homage to the classics, Anna says that Pannetone, classic sweet almond bread with origins in Milan, seems to be a gaining popularity in Canadian homes. And while gingerbread is a North American mainstay, she points to the European version of ‘speculoos’, a spiced biscuit using honey instead of molasses as another import now trending here. “The recipe also includes cardamom, ground anise, and of course cinnamon and nutmeg, which offers a subtle elegant spice flavor with the honey really coming through,” she said.
“Commodity pricing issues can also drive flavour trends,” Anna said, explaining that vanilla bean prices have soared due to a shortage in Madagascar. “Vanilla is a key element to everything, and last year’s typhoons decimated the crops. So now industry bakers are facing hard decisions that affect their bottom line, like whether to cut back, use artificial flavoring, or wait out the supply/demand cycle,” Anna said. “Supply and demand,” she said. “There’s been a spike in global demand with people wanting this natural ingredient in everything from lattes to candles.” She explained the low supply and high demand ratio compromises the crops with greater risk of rampant vanilla bean theft.
“So, clearly, flavour trends are affected by economics. The popularity of speculoos, which uses less vanilla as a background note against the high citrus flavour, is not surprising. Orange is also a great holiday flavor which is at its peak in the winter months,” she said.
In keeping with ‘green’ stewardship trends, Anna identifies homemade granola as “another really hot food trend” especially for individual bakery owners who find the food cost manageable. “By charging a small deposit for reusable glass jars it addresses important environmental issues of packaging, limiting plastics, and biodegradable goods,” she said, reminiscing about her bakery protocol of selling her home baked pies in for-deposit glass pie plates.
Much different from her days of retail ownership is the impact computers have on marketing. “The online resources available to today’s bakery owners and manufacturers are phenomenal,” she said, adding that “technology breeds so many privileges,” including finding information to help address dietary issues and adapt recipes or menus to meet demands and find marketing opportunities.
“In my day, we had to pay out money to buy an advertisement,” she laughed, suggesting the trade off in today’s wired world is translated to investing the time required to participate in “must-have” marketing social media platforms.
“It’s the only way you can be heard in this noisy world,” she said, urging bakers to take full advantage of selling themselves on websites, paying attention to comment boards, sharing tips, photos, and blogs on other social media sites, and using statistics for optimal posting times, in order to expand their holiday selling season for the full six weeks following Thanksgiving.
Whether a novice or seasoned professional, Anna thinks the best advice she can offer industry bakers is to “just stay true and authentic to themselves. If you follow whatever trend is flowing on Pinterest and social media, you’re just copying someone else. I’m a true believer that opportunity doesn’t wait for convenience. We need to move beyond our comfort zones, learn from our mistakes and not be afraid to step outside the box.” /BJ
Karen Marazzo has a passion for writing, photography, and communications. As a graduate of Niagara College (Journalism Print), and Athabasca University (Bachelor of Arts with Distinction - Communications) she has written extensively in the Niagara Region as a photo-journalist, columnist, blogger, and magazine freelance writer.
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