Claire Saffitz’s New Cookbook Is for Sweet Tooths Everywhere

We talked to Claire Saffitz about recipe development, the quest for simplicity, and why puddings are actually the best kind of dessert.

November  9, 2022

We chatted with recipe developer, author, and host of the YouTube series Dessert Person about her just-published cookbook, What's for Dessert. While you're here, don't forget to check out Claire's recipe for Sweet Cheese Blintzes With Lemony Apricot Compote!

How did the process of developing and conceptualizing What's for Dessert compare to Dessert Person ?

It was a very different process for a lot of reasons. Dessert Person is so focused on baking and on my particular style, so the development had me in a comfortable place. What’s for Dessert was really about getting out of that comfort zone. There were these other types of desserts and preparations that I wanted to investigate and delve into—so, in a lot of ways, [this made the] development trickier, because I just did more testing of the recipes. It was a learning process for me as well.

I also tried to push myself creatively. I would have an idea for a recipe that felt like a really interesting, new idea, and then I would go to test it, and I would realize that there’s a reason that thing didn’t exist—it’s because it doesn’t really work. I had to abandon a lot of ideas, actually. The production of ideas was always ongoing, so I think that this book changed a lot more throughout development than Dessert Person did. It’s a little more dynamic and a little bit more exploratory. I think that this book really propelled me forward [as a developer] because I wasn’t just staying in this area that felt comfortable for me.

There’s more of an emphasis on, maybe not "easier" recipes, but recipes that need less equipment or are more streamlined. Did that make it more challenging to develop the recipes?

It really did. A driving force of the book was to approach everything with more simplicity. You’re right to point out that “easy” wasn’t really the conceptual idea. It was more about simplicity and a streamlined quality. I do try to have recipes that feel very easy, but there’s a range. So even if a recipe does require a few different steps, or two different components, there’s still, I hope, a streamlined quality to it. But that definitely made it harder—simple is hard! There aren’t components you can hide behind. Every action and ingredient has a role.

It’s such an interesting thing, the tension between something being technical and something being simple, because I do think it can be both. It depends on what your perspective is on simplicity. There is a lot of technique in the book, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s complicated.

Were there any recipes, or types of recipes, that were especially fun or especially challenging to develop?

In some ways, “especially fun” and “especially challenging” go hand-in-hand. If something is challenging, there’s also a higher reward when you nail it. I had so much fun developing the chilled and frozen desserts chapter. I tried to bring in a sense of whimsy to some of the desserts—I wanted them to feel fun and celebratory, in addition to feeling bakeable and achievable. That chapter [has] so many opportunities to play around with texture—everything from a silky, creamy panna cotta to a super airy mousse to icy granitas. It was fun to be in that realm. When making desserts that are not necessarily baked, where the structure isn’t coming from flour but from egg, it opens you up to so many different textures.

The stovetop desserts chapter was a lot of fun and challenging to develop, but I love how it turned out. I’m quite partial to the puddings in the book. I love the idea of the chocolate coupes because it’s something so homestyle, chocolate pudding, but put in a fancy glass. That’s exactly my best kind of dessert. I want to feel fancy eating it, but I want it to be something very comforting at the same time.

Photo by Clarkson Potter

Puddings are so underrated!

I totally agree. I think that the name gives it an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy quality, but it’s really just a delicious, thickened custard. I feel like the texture, when it’s made properly, turns out so silky and creamy and I love it. That’s been a fun discovery through this book—I feel like such a pudding-lover.

Tell me more about the backstory behind the blintz recipe and how you developed it.

I love that recipe. My grandmother loved making and eating blintzes. She really only cooked a handful of things, but she was very good at cooking those core recipes in her repertoire—usually Jewish recipes. She made borscht, she made kasha varnishkes (the buckwheat and bowtie pasta dish), and a couple other things, but one of her specialties was blintzes. My mother had mentioned memories that she has of helping her mother make blintzes in a little assembly line. My grandmother used to bang them out on the countertop, over a spread-out paper bag, and my mom used to fill them and then stack them into paper shoeboxes. Then they would freeze them, so they always had blintzes.

I loved that memory, and I love that blintzes are such a wonderful stovetop dessert. I also like that they pull double duty, because they can be a sweet breakfast or brunch dish as well. The blintz recipe is really not very sweet at all. The filling is only very lightly sweetened, so it’s meant to be eaten with something sweet, like jam. In the book, I serve it with that compote, but you could really have it with any kind of fruit topping.

I actually developed the blintz recipe with my mom, because my grandma had never written anything down. I did a lot of research and pulled together a recipe based on what my mom had said. Then, we made it together, and my mom said they tasted pretty close. So I felt like I had a stamp of approval there. I loved that I got to share that with my mom. In addition to just being a personal recipe, I love them because they’re so fun to make and delicious.

What savory things do you eat when you’re in the process of developing so many dessert recipes?

I was alone for a lot of the development process. My husband and I bought this cabin in the Hudson Valley a couple years ago and immediately had to rip out the kitchen because things were just crumbling and falling apart. He was at the cabin, working on the house, but I had to be in the city for recipe development. So, I ate a colossal amount of frozen dumplings. I would just pan-fry and steam them, and that got me through. It’s such an easy, five-minute thing to prepare. I would usually go to H-Mart and buy some ingredients for testing and bags upon bags of frozen dumplings. I subsisted on that for months. Since I [wrapped] development of the book, which was obviously several months ago, it has been such an incredible joy to get back into cooking for myself and my husband. I love cooking for myself, and during those really intense development periods, I’m not doing it a whole lot.

Is there anything you’ve been making a lot or gravitating towards?

I picked my sourdough bread practice back up, which has been so wonderful. It’s very grounding for me, actually. It just makes me feel connected to my being. This week I made a big pot of French onion soup, which was delicious. Especially now that the weather is getting colder, I love those kinds of dishes that just bubble away on the stove for an afternoon. That was so satisfying to make. I make onion soup at least once a year, when the weather turns cold.

You have such a huge following and I’m curious if growing such a large following has impacted the way you approach developing recipes?

I try to always follow my gut and my own measures of taste and quality, because they’re the only things I have. Those are my touchstones, and it’s very important to me that the work that I produce measures up to my own standards. So there’s a way in which it hasn’t changed, and it probably won’t change. But then there’s part of the answer that’s yes, it has, because I am more aware of a community of people who have cooked from Dessert Person and watched the YouTube channel. What’s been so special about that is getting to have a dialogue and getting feedback. I try to be curious about how people are making recipes, and which recipes they’re making, and which ones seem to resonate, and then incorporate that into my development process. A lot of What’s for Dessert took shape based on how I saw people receive Dessert Person. I wanted to give more of that makeability to people [with the new book]. So in a sense, the answer is yes, it has changed the way that I approach recipes and development, but not stylistically—more in a procedural sense.

I try to always follow my gut and my own measures of taste and quality, because they’re the only things I have.

Is there anything you’d like to see more of in the food and food media worlds?

In the video that I do, I always try to bring in as much nuance as I can. I like to bring a little bit of vulnerability into [my work]. Sometimes things don’t go totally right when I’m baking at home, or I was rushed, or I didn’t add the vanilla—that kind of thing. I think that vulnerability has always kind of been missing from food media, and I understand why. People who are recipe developers and cooks and cookbook authors and chefs—the idea is that they’re supposed to be the expert. I understand that, but I think managing people’s expectations is so important. I try to emphasize the process more than the end result, and I just think there should be more of that. Cooking and baking are hard, and it takes a lot of practice to gain skill. Not everything is always so easy.

There’s such an emphasis on ease when it comes to food media, and [so I just] want to acknowledge the opposite. I think that transparency is important. If I think something is a 45-minute recipe, that doesn’t mean it’s going to take 45 minutes for everyone. I would rather not make the promise than have a certain slice of home bakers feel really frustrated that it took them longer. I like to focus on delivering a quality recipe that does the best job it can at holding up my end of the bargain as a recipe developer, rather than promise something that it won’t necessarily deliver.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Anabelle Doliner

Written by: Anabelle Doliner

Staff Editor