Claire Saffitz on her new cookbook, ‘What’s for Dessert’

We chatted with recipe developer, author and host of the YouTube series dessert person about her recently 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 development and conceptualization go? What’s for dessert? compare to dessert person ?

It was a very different process for several 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 other kinds of desserts and preparations that I wanted to explore and delve into – so, in many ways, [this made the] development more difficult, because I simply tested the recipes more. It was also a learning process for me.

I also tried to push myself creatively. I’d have an idea for a recipe that felt like a really interesting, new idea, and then I’d start testing it, and I’d realize there’s a reason that thing doesn’t exist — it’s because it doesn’t really work. I actually had to let go of a lot of ideas. The production of ideas was always going on, so I think this book has changed a lot more during development than dessert person did. It’s a bit more dynamic and a bit more exploratory. I think this book really helped me [as a developer] because I was not only staying in this area which felt comfortable to me.

There is more emphasis on, perhaps not “easier” recipes, but recipes that require less equipment or are more streamlined. Did that make it more difficult to develop the recipes?

It really did. One of the motivations behind the book was to make everything simpler. You’re right to point out that “easy” wasn’t really the conceptual idea. It was more about simplicity and streamlined quality. I try to have recipes that feel very easy, but there is a range. So even if a recipe calls for a few different steps or two different components, there’s still, I hope, a streamlined quality. But that certainly made it harder – easy is hard! There are no components to hide behind. Every action and every ingredient has a role.

It’s so interesting, the tension between something that’s technical and something that’s simple, because I think it can be both. It depends on what your take on simplicity is. There’s 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 particularly fun or particularly challenging to develop?

In some ways, “extremely fun” and “extremely challenging” go hand in hand. If something is challenging, there is also a higher reward if you commit it. I had so much fun developing the refrigerated and frozen desserts chapter. I tried to bring a sense of whimsy to some of the desserts – I wanted them to be fun and festive, besides being bakeable and achievable. that chapter [has] so many possibilities to play with texture – everything from a silky, creamy panna cotta to a super fluffy mousse to ice-cold granitas. It was nice to be in that realm. Making desserts that aren’t necessarily baked, where the texture comes from egg not flour, gives you access to so many different textures.

The stovetop dessert section was a lot of fun and challenging to develop, but I love how it turned out. I’m quite a fan of the puddings in the book. I like the idea of ​​the chocolate sundaes because it’s so homey, chocolate pudding, but in a fancy glass. That’s exactly my best kind of dessert. I want to feel like 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 the name gives it an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy quality, but it’s really just a delicious, thickened custard. I feel the texture, when made right, becomes so silky and creamy and I love it. That was a nice 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 actually only cooked a handful of things, but she was very good at cooking those core recipes in her repertoire – mostly Jewish recipes. She made borscht, she made kasha varnish (the pasta dish with buckwheat and bow tie), and a few other things, but one of her specialties was blintzes. My mom talked about memories she has of helping her mom make blintzes on a small assembly line. My grandmother used to knock them on the counter, over a spread out paper bag, and my mother filled them and then stacked them in paper shoe boxes. Then they would freeze them so they always had blintzes.

I loved that memory, and I love that blintzes are such a delicious dessert on a stovetop. I also like that they do double duty as they can be a sweet breakfast or brunch dish too. The blintz recipe is actually not that sweet at all. The filling is only very lightly sweetened, so it is meant to be eaten with something sweet, such as 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 before. I did a lot of research and put 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 being able to share that with my mom. Besides being a personal recipe, I love them because they are so much fun and delicious to make.

What savory things do you eat when you’re developing so many dessert recipes?

I was alone for much of the development process. My husband and I bought this Hudson Valley cabin a few years ago and immediately had to rip out the kitchen because things were just crumbling and falling apart. He was in the cabin working on the house, but I had to be in town developing recipes. So I ate a colossal amount of frozen dumplings. I would just pan fry them and steam them, and that got me through. It’s so easy, five minutes to prepare. I usually went to H-Mart and bought some ingredients to test and bagged on bags of frozen dumplings. I’ve been dealing with that for months. Since I [wrapped] development of the book, which is clearly several months ago, it was such an incredible joy to start cooking for myself and my husband again. I like cooking for myself, and during those really intense periods of development, I don’t do it much.

Is there anything you’ve made a lot of or are drawn to?

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

You have such a huge following and I’m curious if growing such a large following has influenced the way you approach recipe development?

I always try to follow my gut feeling and my own standards of taste and quality because those are the only things I have. Those are my touchstones and I think it’s very important that the work I create meets my own standards. So there’s a way it hasn’t changed, and it probably won’t. But then there is part of the answer that is yes, because I am more aware of a community of people who have cooked from dessert person and watched the YouTube channel. What was so special about that is having a dialogue and getting feedback. I try to be curious about how people make recipes, and what recipes they make, 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 manufacturability to people [with the new book]. So in a way the answer is yes, it’s changed the way I approach recipes and development, but not stylistically – more in a procedural sense.

I always try to follow my gut feeling and my own standards of taste and quality because those are the only things I have.

Is there anything you would like to see more of in the world of food and food media?

In the video I make, I always try to add as much nuance as possible. I like to bring in a little vulnerability [my work]. Sometimes things don’t go quite right when I’m baking at home, or I was in a hurry, or I didn’t add the vanilla — that sort of thing. I think that vulnerability has always been a bit lacking in food media, and I understand why. People who are recipe developers and chefs and cookbook writers and chefs – the idea is that they should 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 think there should be more of that. Cooking and baking are difficult, and it takes a lot of practice to acquire skill. Not everything is always easy.

There is such an emphasis on convenience when it comes to food media, and [so I just] to admit the contrary. I think transparency is important. If I think something is a 45 minute recipe, that doesn’t mean it will take 45 minutes for everyone. I’d rather not promise than have a certain section of home bakers feel really frustrated that it took longer. I like to focus on delivering a quality recipe that does its best to deliver on my promise as a recipe developer, rather than making a promise that it won’t necessarily deliver.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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