You don’t have to be a big-time baker to be an unwavering Claire Saffitz devotee — the former Bon Appétit personality, chef, and cookbook author excels not only in baking but in teaching and translating the art of desserts with ease. Her first cookbook, Dessert Person, tackled treats as far-ranging as aged fruitcake, caramelized honey pie, and croquembouche, while her YouTube channel of the same name serves as a platform for Saffitz to demonstrate the transformative powers of a good dessert.
In her second book, What’s for Dessert, Saffitz goes even wider in the baking pantheon: frozen desserts, easy cakes, puddings, custards, cobblers, and more are all on the agenda. Saffitz wanted to focus on simpler and more accessible desserts that go beyond traditional in-the-oven baking — none of the recipes requires a stand mixer. Eater caught up with her about the book’s retro aesthetics, social media, and her new really, really good pie dough recipe.
Eater: Coming off of your first cookbook, was the idea for What’s for Dessert already in the hopper? How did you know that this was the next concept?
Claire Saffitz: I always knew I had to do a second book. But the concept really took shape after Dessert Person came out. Because Dessert Person came out in fall 2020, all the promotion was virtual, and a lot of [it was] recipe demos. At that point, I was getting a little tired of cooking and being in the kitchen. I started taking recipes from the book that were just super simple and kind of a lower-lift because I was a little tired of dishes and all of the prep. And I quickly ran out of those recipes. So I thought to myself, the next time I do this, I’m just gonna do simpler stuff. I love a kitchen project but, you know, I don’t want to make a croquembouche every time I get into the kitchen.
The other impulse I had after finishing Dessert Person was just about variety. I felt like there were so many categories of desserts that I didn’t even touch upon in Dessert Person because it’s so focused on my own style and point of view as a baker. I really thought about expanding my horizons and exploring frozen desserts, chilled desserts, stovetop desserts. In that way, it took shape as being kind of the inverse of Dessert Person. This book is all desserts but not all baked, while Dessert Person is all baked but not all desserts. Beyond that, it was about keeping things more approachable and streamlined. I was also really interested in what people were making from Dessert Person and how they were interpreting the recipes. I realized from watching a wide variety of people make [recipes from my first book] that just simpler overall was really what people wanted. This book doesn’t call for a stand mixer at all because some of the feedback that I got from the first book was like, “Well, I don’t have a stand mixer.”
That’s really interesting because stand mixers have begun to feel integral to baking in many ways, even though obviously they don’t always have to be. When you were developing these recipes, how did you strategize to eliminate the stand mixer?
I would think about the recipe and break it down in a way where I would think like, “Is this makeable without a stand mixer?” or “How much am I losing by not making this with a stand mixer?” In many cases, I felt like I didn’t need it. Sometimes it would be about adjusting servings. If I make this for four rather than eight, then I’m only beating this many egg whites, and then that’s doable with a hand mixer. Sometimes I say that you can make this with a hand mixer, but it’s going to be a little bit more work and it’s going to take a little bit longer. And I always also give a secondary instruction for people to make it in a stand mixer because obviously, if that’s the kind of thing that somebody has out on their countertop and it’s one of their preferred tools, then they can absolutely do that. I wouldn’t have thought about making the all-purpose meringue with a hand mixer before developing this book, but it’s very, very doable. It just takes a little bit longer. That’s really it.
Tell me about the aesthetics for this book — it has a much more retro sensibility than Dessert Person. Did you go into What’s for Dessert knowing it would have a more midcentury approach, both visually and in the recipes that you developed?
I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the book to have that feel to it, because I wanted that nostalgia. I did a lot of thinking around the ideas of taste memory and food as comfort, and I wanted something to be really familiar and recognizable about a lot of the recipes. During the pandemic, food became even more of a sense of comfort. I did a lot of researching community cookbooks and midcentury recipes and things that were kind of classic and nostalgic and a little bit retro. And I don’t exactly know how it happened but I had this really strong sense from the very beginning of how I wanted the visuals to look. 1970s food styling is wild and hilarious and fun. I think a big part of it was I kind of like color and I like maximalism; I wanted there to be lots of textures and fabrics and linens and glassware. I was over the idea of everything having to be so tasteful. I wanted to lean into the part of it that even seemed a little bit — I don’t want to say ugly.
Yes. Exactly. Obviously I wanted it to look modern and contemporary in a lot of ways. You know, it’s great to have white marble on a white linen napkin on a white platter, but I wanted it to be fun and whimsical and playful and colorful. That was really important to me. So taking that ’70s aesthetic and pulling the color palette and layering of textures and everything was so fun. And it really came together well.
It’s such a fun book to look through. Sometimes cookbooks can be too self-serious, but this one looks like you’d be going to a fun party if these were the dishes that were there.
I wanted it to feel like there was a celebration happening. And a lot of that came out of the pandemic, wanting people to be able to make these recipes to share with others. But it also kind of came out of my whole career working at Bon Appétit where there was so much focused around how the recipe looked and visuals. There was such an emphasis on everything being so incredibly tasteful and I was excited to be able to get away from that. So a lot of the recipes are a little bit plain-looking because they’re just very straightforward, and there isn’t an extra step about, you know, making a decoration. So in many ways I was also compensating a little with the props and the styling, because I wanted it to be about getting a feeling from the images.
That’s also baking, right? Sometimes you’re not gonna make a three-layer cake and have all these beautiful decorations. You might just be making brownies and brownies don’t have a lot of aesthetic appeal, really.
Right! Brownies are brown. A lot of a lot of food is brown.
Lately, there seems to be much more of an expectation for chefs with public followings to have a lot of social media engagement and to be sharing their recipes, posting photos, creating content. It seems like you keep it on the simpler side, limiting what you share with your following. Is that a conscious decision on your part?
It’s both conscious and unconscious. I still do all my own recipe testing myself — I don’t have a team that helps to produce recipe content. It’s just me for social media. So I am very conscious of being protective of my own bandwidth; my inclination is to be a little bit more private. So it’s better that, like, I still am kind of in a place where I post when I want to post. Also, for the past four years, so much of the rest of the content that I’m producing is for a book; it’s not to be shared, it is not to be social media. I don’t really want it to be something that becomes work and feels like a burden to me. And so I try to use it strategically, but I’m not letting that guide the work that I’m doing.
You recently started a Patreon, right? What was the motivation behind that decision?
I’m finally at this point where I’m not actively going to be writing a book in the near term and I’m also really excited about a return to more savory cooking, just in my own life now that I’m no longer solely focused on writing a dessert book. I’m still gonna be doing YouTube — that’s not going to change — but it’s important to me that I’m never doing the same thing over and over and over again. I want to be constantly trying to do something new and growing and pushing myself as a recipe developer. So Patreon is my place to do those things, to experiment, to have a little bit of a dialogue with home cooks and home bakers. Not using it as a means of community-building, as much as I think Patreon is kind of geared toward that. I’m also really interested at this point in my career in doing more research into people’s own home cooking and baking and having the recipe process not be just me giving a recipe and people making it, but having it be more of an exchange. I’m excited to be doing savory stuff and also to have it be a little bit more personal and a little bit less polished and produced.
When you say savory cooking, you’re talking not just quiches and pizza but going past baking and into cooking.
Yeah, right, like, dinner. What am I going to have for dinner tonight? In the months since I finished the book, I’ve been doing so much more of that. And I’ve been having so many kinds of ideas and inspiration around cooking, like cooking food for myself and my husband and for friends and family in a way that I haven’t been able to embrace over the past several years because of having to produce for the books. I consider myself a generalist when it comes to cooking. I obviously have this specialty in baking, but I still love to cook. And so I’m in many ways rediscovering that and it’s been so great.
Your pie dough recipe in Dessert Person is different from the recipe in What’s for Dessert. Can you walk me through what changed?
The ingredients and the proportions are basically the same. The recipe is the same but it’s a much different technique for bringing the dough together. And I have to say — I’m really proud of it. It’s such a good technique because it’s so forgiving. So often you’re making pie dough in a big bowl, and you’re using your hands and the bowl is kind of restrictive and your hands are warm and they’re warming the butter. But this method has you dump everything out onto your work surface, and then you use a bench scraper, or a bowl scraper or anything with a straight edge and you use that to cut in the butter and you’re constantly tossing it back into the center into a pile, and so it’s distributing the moisture really, really effectively but you’re hardly working it at all. And in so many ways it creates a tender pie dough that also is really flaky and has really, really even hydration. You don’t see a lot of cracking when you roll out the dough. Pie dough can be so tricky because that hydration is so crucial. And I do err on the side of a drier pie dough because the less water you use, the less gluten development, the flakier, more tender pie you’re going to get. The method is really effective in hydrating the dough just the right amount. I’m really excited about it. Is it different than Dessert Person? Yes. But it’s basically the same dough just brought together in a different way.
Now that both of these books are published, what do you see as next for you? Maybe in three years from now, where do you hope your career will be? Is there another book in the future?
I think there will be another book. I’m just not sure what that will be at the moment or when it will happen. I do love the process — I just need a little bit of a break. I actually asked myself a similar question recently and I don’t really know what the answer is, but in many ways, that’s very exciting. I’ve learned to tolerate uncertainty a lot more and so that maybe would have felt very, very scary to me at some point but now it just feels kind of exciting and like there are lots of possibilities. For the first time in my most of my professional life, I’m going to be figuring it out.
Banoffee Pudding Recipe
Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 9 hours (includes 8 hours for chilling)
For the pudding:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (3 ounces/85 grams), divided
1 large overripe banana (8.8 ounces/250 grams), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2¼ cups whole milk (19 ounces/540 grams)
2⁄3 cup dulce de leche (7.4 ounces/210 grams)
1½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt or ¾ teaspoon Morton kosher salt
¼ cup cornstarch (1.1 ounces/32 grams)
2 tablespoons sugar
4 large egg yolks (2.1 ounces/60 grams), at room temperature
1 large egg (1.8 ounces/50 grams), at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ cups heavy cream (12.7 ounces/360 grams), chilled
½ cup sour cream (4.2 ounces/120 grams), chilled
6 ounces (170 grams) digestive biscuits (about 12 cookies) or graham crackers (about 11 sheets)
4 tablespoons dulce de leche (2.8 ounces/79 grams), divided
Step 1: Caramelize the banana for the pudding. In a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. (Refrigerate the remaining butter for whisking into the finished pudding.) When the butter is foaming, add the banana and cook, occasionally stirring and mashing the pieces with the back of a heatproof flexible spatula or wooden spoon, until the banana is browned in spots and very soft and mushy, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.
Step 2: Blend and heat the milk mixture. Add the milk, dulce de leche, and salt to the saucepan and blend with a handheld blender on high until the mixture is completely smooth. (Alternatively, scrape the banana mixture into a standard blender, add the milk, dulce de leche, and salt, and blend until smooth, then return to the saucepan.) Heat the milk mixture over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until it’s steaming and just starting to ripple beneath the surface, about 5 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.
Step 3: Blanch and temper the eggs. In a medium bowl, combine the cornstarch and sugar and whisk until combined and free of lumps. Add the yolks and whole egg and whisk to combine, then whisk vigorously until the mixture is slightly pale, thickened, and light, about 2 minutes. Whisking the egg mixture constantly, slowly pour about two-thirds of the hot milk mixture into the bowl, to temper the egg mixture, then whisk the warmed contents of the bowl back into the saucepan with the remaining milk mixture.
Step 4: Cook the pudding. Have a clean medium bowl nearby for transferring the hot pudding. Set the saucepan back over medium heat and cook the mixture, whisking constantly and scraping around the sides and bottom of the saucepan, until the pudding is thickened, the foam on the surface has subsided, and it holds the marks of the whisk, about 4 minutes. Stop whisking for a few seconds and check for slow bubbling beneath the surface, indicating the mixture is at a boil, then continue to whisk vigorously for another 15 seconds. Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the pudding into the reserved medium bowl.
Potential Pitfall: When transferring the pudding, don’t scrape the bottom of the saucepan where you might have a bit of curdling, since it will mar the smooth texture. If some curdled pudding gets into the bowl, it’s okay — you’re going to whisk in the butter, which will help smooth it out.
Step 5: Whisk in the cold butter and vanilla, then chill. Cut the reserved 4 tablespoons (2 ounces/57 grams) chilled butter into ½-inch pieces, then whisk the butter into the pudding a few pieces at a time, waiting for the pieces to disappear before adding more, until all the butter is incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the vanilla. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pudding and refrigerate until it’s cold and set, at least 4 hours.
Step 6: Whip the sour cream. In a large bowl, with a hand mixer, whip the heavy cream and sour cream on low speed to start and gradually increase the speed to medium-high as the mixture thickens, until you have a firmly whipped cream that holds a stiff peak.
Step 7: Assemble. Remove the pudding from the refrigerator and stir to loosen the consistency. Spread about one-quarter of the pudding in an even layer in the bottom of a 2-quart glass dish or serving bowl, then spread about one-quarter of the whipped sour cream over the top. Top with one-third of the digestive biscuits, breaking them into pieces as needed to fit in an even layer, and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the dulce de leche. Repeat the layering process two more times with the same quantities of pudding, cream, biscuits, and dulce de leche (you’ll use all the biscuits but have more of the pudding, whipped sour cream, and dulce de leche). Spread the remaining pudding over the final layer of biscuits, then scrape the remaining cream mixture on top and smooth almost to the edges. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoon dulce de leche over the top, then use the back of a spoon to swirl the dulce de leche into the cream. Loosely cover the dish and refrigerate for at least 4 hours to allow the biscuits to soften before scooping into bowls and serving.
Make it ahead? Yes. The assembled dish, covered and refrigerated, will keep for up to three days (the biscuits will continue to soften as they sit). The pudding, stored tightly covered or in an airtight container in the refrigerator, will keep for up to one week.
Halve the recipe? Yes and no. Making the full amount of pudding is recommended, as decreasing the quantities will increase the likelihood of overcooking and curdling, but feel free to halve the quantities of cream, sour cream, digestive biscuits, and dulce de leche and layer everything in a 1-quart vessel, using half of the pudding to serve 4.
Use a stand mixer instead of a hand mixer? Yes. Combine the heavy cream and sour cream in a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and follow the recipe as written, taking care not to overwhip the cream.
Reprinted with permission from What’s For Dessert by Claire Saffitz, copyright © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter.
Photography by Jenny Huang, copyright © 2022.