Celebrity Chef and St. Louis Native Claire Saffitz Asks 'What's For Dessert'

In her latest cookbook, the celebrated pastry chef has recipes and advice for cooks of all levels

Nov 18, 2022 at 1:36 pm
click to enlarge St. Louis native Claire Saffitz. - Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
St. Louis native Claire Saffitz.

My fandom of Claire Saffitz began much like everyone else’s.

It was early 2020, right before everything went downhill. My biggest concerns at the time were finishing my last semester of college and getting to Webster University's library cafe before someone swiped the last banana-nut muffin.

Then disaster hit. The harshest days of the pandemic put an end to most in-person activities and my communications were mostly reduced to texts and vacant small talk with professors over Zoom. But I, along with millions of others, found comfort in YouTube videos — specifically a series created by Bon Appétit magazine called Gourmet Makes where, in video after video, pastry chef and St. Louis native Claire Saffitz attempted to recreate cheap candies and desserts, such as Twinkies, into gourmet creations.

In her latest cookbook What’s For Dessert, Saffitz builds upon what she began in the Gourmet Makes series, offering her trademark encouraging advice throughout this collection of one hundred recipes designed for aspiring pastry chefs of all skill levels. The cookbook, released November 8 by Penguin Random House, follows her debut book, October 2020’s Dessert Person, which turned Saffitz into a bonafide pastry phenomenon.

Like thousands of wannabe bakers, I found comfort in Saffitz’s Gourmet Makes videos, taking it all in as she dedicated herself to an often arduous trial-and-error process. Even as an admitted novice in the kitchen – most of my dinners consist of Pasta Roni garnished with little more than bargain parmesan cheese – Saffitz had me baking garlic and rosemary focaccia, salted halvah blondies and kouign-amman — a delectable French pastry that took a seven-hour commitment of love to make.

Even after Saffitz left the Bon Appétit staff following the uproar of several of the magazine’s employees of color who said they were treated differently than their white counterparts, I continued to follow her work and gleefully scooped up a copy of Dessert Person when it hit shelves that first pandemic October.

Several more did the same. Dessert Person quickly became a New York Times bestseller and Saffitz’s personal YouTube channel, where she started to demonstrate recipes in the book, now has over a million subscribers. I could not help but beam with civic pride when she included a recipe for a hometown staple, gooey butter cake, which, no offense to your mom, beats any home recipe using yellow cake mix as a base.

click to enlarge Salty cashew Blondies are one of the recipes featured in Claire Saffitz's latest cookbook, What's for Dessert? - Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Salty cashew Blondies are one of the recipes featured in Claire Saffitz's latest cookbook, What's for Dessert?

In What’s for Dessert, Saffitz tells the RFT that she was inspired to go in a different direction.

“My first book was all about baking, so I didn’t get to explore so many other realms of desserts that I enjoy eating but was less familiar with making, like frozen and child desserts and stovetop desserts,” Saffitz says.

While Dessert Person provided her a route to expand her own horizons as a dessert person and provide more variety for home bakers, Saffitz notes that What’s for Dessert features more simpler recipes than her cookbook debut. While developing her recipes for her latest effort, Saffitz focused on streamlining various techniques and processes to minimize steps, dishes and equipment wherever possible.

“As a recipe developer, I definitely place more of an emphasis on creating simpler recipes now than I have in the past,” Saffitz says. “I still enjoy a baking project, but I know that a recipe does not have to be complicated to be delicious, so I try my best to provide low-lift recipes that make a big impact.”

Like in her debut cookbook, Saffitz included several family recipes in What’s For Dessert. Food was always a topic of conversation in her family and a locus for enjoyment and sociability, she says. Both of her parents are good cooks — her mom, in particular, is an experienced baker.

That childhood, as well as her St. Louis upbringing, influenced her work. A graduate of Clayton High School, Saffitz has many fond memories of family outings to Ted Drewes in the summertime. Pumpkin muffies from the early days of St. Louis Bread Company and gooey butter cake from Lake Forest Bakery also created taste memories that almost certainly influenced her palate today, she says.

Now a New Yorker, Saffitz says she fends questions about St. Louis-style pizza, “which, in New York, is difficult to defend but I try my best.”

Though readers of What’s for Dessert will not see a recipe for Provel-covered cracker crust, Saffitz says she did take inspiration from classic American mid-century desserts, many of which have a “pretty Midwest feel,” even if none speak directly to her St. Louis roots.

“I turned to community cookbooks from all over the country, which are so fun and interesting to read and give such a specific look into the local cuisines of a particular place and design,” she adds.

When asked why she feels such a strong sense of duty to help people around their amateur pastry kitchens, Saffitz says she tries to channel her earliest experiences as a baker and the anxiety she felt when trying a new recipe.

Throughout her career, Saffitz has often purported that baking gets a bad rap; that it’s difficult, frigid and leaves little room for expression. To her, though, dessert is just as important as the main course. Every evening after dinner, she turns to her husband, chef Harris Mayer-Selinger, and asks, “What’s for dessert?” She poses it as a question, but there’s no question mark at the end of her newest cookbook.

Dessert, for Saffitz, is more of an expectation.

“[It’s] part of my routine, and posing the question/statement is a way that I make time to treat myself on a daily basis,” Saffitz says.

And thank God she does, because she’s taught me, and so many others, to do the same.

What’s For Dessert is available wherever you buy your books, including local sellers such as Left Bank Books in the Central West End.

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