Celebrity chef Anna Olson talks about the science of baking
Time is a precious commodity these days, which means eating on the go is a way of life for many of us. This increasingly fast-paced life means we have less time for more traditional pastimes – especially when it comes to our escapades in the kitchen. Baking in particular is a skill that has fallen by the wayside, which is why Time Out resolved to try its hand at the lost art.
Before we rolled up our sleeves and started kneading, we enlisted the help of Canadian celebrity chef Anna Olson, who is in town for the Gulfood Conference. Anna has been gracing Canadian small screens for nine years and, while she shares all manner of recipes with her audience, her primary passion is baking.
‘There’s a completely different atmosphere working in a baker’s kitchen,’ she tells Time Out. ‘My husband is a chef as well, and he’ll tell you it’s the same as the difference between rock music and classical music. [In a chef’s kitchen] the atmosphere is noisy, frenzied and chaotic, and it’s all about the moment. A pastry kitchen focuses on being organised, ahead of schedule. It has a nice rhythm and cadence to it as you move along from task to task. There’s a real sense of serenity to a baker’s kitchen.’
Anna makes no secret of the fact that baking is a commitment, which might explain why it’s fallen by the wayside in these non-committal times. ‘Some people play golf, some people bake bread or make cookies. It’s taking time out of your day that is the real investment.’
There’s also a sense that baking is difficult to master. While cooking depends largely on experimentation and tinkering with ingredients, there’s an exact science to baking that has to be adhered to. But for Anna, this is part of the attraction. ‘It’s less about the end result. It’s less about the indulgence and the eating of the desserts; whether you’re a professional or a home-baker, it’s that gratification of the task. You have to have trust and faith in the blending of the ingredients and the way in which you blend them, so when it comes out of the oven it has that desired effect – and it doesn’t always!’
So what baking tips and tidbits does Anna have to share? ‘On the personal side you have to give yourself a break – have a bit of self confidence. Baking is an esteem-building task; you have to throw your faith into a recipe.’
Anna also explains that one of the biggest problems encountered by bakers – amateurs and professionals alike – is the oven they use. Many domestic ovens are off-temperature: even though you set the oven to a certain temperature, this may not reflect the actual temperature inside. The solution, she says, is to use a thermometer to keep track of the temperature inside the oven. Baking is an exact science and even a few degrees could ruin what’s set to be a perfectly good cake.
Any final tips? If at first you don’t succeed, try again. ‘Like everything, to get better at baking takes practice. But remember, even if the end results don’t look pretty, most of the time they are quite delicious!’
Best breads in town
Don’t want to make your own bread? Get the fresh-baked taste at these Dubai venues Al Reef Lebanese Bakery Manakish, spinach fatayer, date biscuits – Al Reef stocks a glorious array of Arabic baked goods, all of which are available around the clock, meaning the bakery is as popular with sweet-toothed kids as it is with bleary-eyed late-night revellers. Al Wasl Road, Jumeirah (04 394 5200)
Eric Kayser This French brand has set up shop in The Dubai Mall, bringing with it the tradition of using natural leaven. We love the bread platter, complete with tasty pestos and spreads. The Dubai Mall (04 339 9375)
Le Succès French Bakery & Pastry Breads, macaroons, tarts, cakes, patisseries – if you can bake it, you’ll find it here. To add to the authenticity, the kitchen even features two French chefs. While Motor City dwellers use Succès for a café as much they do a bakery, we’re just as happy to drop by to pick up some freshly baked loaves. Motor City, www.lesucces.ae (04 447 4163)
Club sandwich roll ‘This is a personal favourite of mine,’ explains Anna. ‘It’s a focaccia-style bread recipe, which means it contains olive oil, making it tender and delicate – the oil also makes the dough easier to handle. What I’ve done is to take all the fillings of a club sandwich: instead of baking the bread first and then assembling the sandwich, I put it into the bread before it goes into the oven. The loaf is a complete sandwich on its own.’
Ingredients (for one loaf; serves six to eight people) Dough 2 cups warm water (just above body temperature) 1 tbsp instant yeast 1 tbsp honey or sugar 2 tbsp cornmeal 4 cups all-purpose flour 2 tsp salt 1/3 cup olive oil
Method 1 For the dough, mix water, yeast, honey or sugar and cornmeal and let sit for five minutes.
2 Stir in 31/2 cups of flour, plus the salt and olive oil, and mix on a low speed using a stand-up mixer with a dough hook, until the dough comes together. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour if the dough is sticky and clings to the side of the bowl.
3 Continue kneading on low speed in a mixer or knead by hand on a lightly floured surface.
4 Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, then cover and let it sit in a draught-free place for an hour.
5 Once the dough has doubled in size, place on a floured surface and roll out into a sheet, just over 1cm thick, and 46cm by 23cm in size.
6 Arrange the turkey bacon slices lengthwise across the dough, sprinkle with shredded chicken and top with grated cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.
7 Preheat the oven to 191°C (375°F). Roll the dough up by the short end and place in a greased loaf pan. Cover dough with a tea towel and leave to rest for 30 minutes.
8 Bake the club sandwich roll for 20 minutes at 191°C, then reduce oven temperature to 177°C (350°F) and bake for another 25 minutes.
9 Let the bread cool for 15 minutes, then turn out of pan to cool for a further 30 minutes.
10 Slice and serve immediately, or chill and serve cold.
Top tip ‘To make this recipe work, I found I had to use sun-dried tomatoes, instead of the fresh ones you’d expect on a club sandwich. Sun-dried tomatoes offer a concentrated tomato flavour without the soggy impact of ripe tomatoes if they sit on a sandwich for more than an hour.’
Spelt-crust pizza with artichokes and mushrooms ‘I opted for a pizza recipe because we take pizza crust for granted. But it’s actually a variety of bread. I like using alternative flours in place of traditional wheat flour, and spelt has a nice earthy, muddy taste to it – it works beautifully in a pizza crust because it has a lower gluten content. When you’re working with yeast, you need gluten to hold in the carbon dioxide that the yeast produces. But in a pizza crust you’re rolling that air out, and low gluten makes for a super-crispy crust that is easy to roll thinly.’
Ingredients (for two nine-inch pizzas) Spelt pizza dough 3/4 cup tepid water (heated to 105°F) 21/4 tsp instant dry yeast 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 cup spelt flour 1 tsp salt 3 tbsp olive oil
Method 1 For the dough, stir the water and yeast together, then stir in the flours, salt and olive oil until the dough becomes hard to work with a wooden spoon.
2 Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for one minute, until the dough feels elastic. Place it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 30 minutes.
3 While the dough is resting, prepare the toppings. Place the oil in a large sauté pan on a medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté for five minutes, until tender, then add the garlic and stir. Add the artichokes and lemon zest to warm them, and season to taste. Stir the pesto and sour cream together.
4 Preheat oven to 260°C (500°F) and place a baking tray or pizza stone in the oven.
5 Divide the dough in two and, on a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece as thinly as possible, to about 23cm across.
6 Remove heating pan or stone from the oven and sprinkle lightly with cornmeal.
7 Place the rolled crust on pan or stone and spread a thin layer of the pesto mixture all over. Spoon the mushroom filling over the top and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the pizza is golden at the edges.
8 Grate parmesan over the pizza with a vegetable peeler. Top with basil leaves and arugula immediately before serving.
Top tip ‘It’s my little trick to stir a bit of sour cream into the pesto as the sauce for the pizza. I find that sometimes pesto on its own is either too dry or too oily. The sour cream holds the pesto in place and adds a nice bit of moisture.’