Bon Appétit's Claire Saffitz Will Teach You How to Bake a Cake

Photo: Condé Nast

If you were to go to YouTube and let the algorithm guide you towards some content, much of what it suggests will be complete shit, and this is especially true of food and cooking content. It will recommend videos of food ‘hacks’ teaching you to make an orange into a cube for some reason, or titles like “I Baked Lipstick Into A Cake.” Even videos of actual recipes tend towards the ridiculous: The Epic Meal Time genre of too-big, calorie-packed bullshit, or dishes that seem to be designed by a 7-year-old whose idea of dessert is All My Favorite Candy Bars At Once.

Amid this sea of garbage, there is a bright spot: Bon Appétit, and its wildly successful YouTube channel. Their stars have garnered a cult following online—one BuzzFeed headline read “Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen Chefs Are The Only YouTube Stars I Care About,” and there’s even a subreddit dedicated just to Brad Leone, the star of their “It’s Alive” series. According to Condé Nast, which owns Bon Appétit, the channel had 340 million views on YouTube last year.

What sets the channel apart is the test kitchen staff’s personalities. The top comments on most of their videos aren’t about pizza techniques or debating the best kind of cheese, but how much they love the hosts. The interactions between the hosts are so loved that fans have even made supercuts of their “best moments.” You really feel like you know them; there’s an atmosphere of easy, laid-back camaraderie which doesn’t feel forced.

But perhaps the most loved host is Claire Saffitz. “I’d watch Claire boil water,” reads the top comment on a video of Claire making birthday cake. “Can’t resist clicking on Claire,” reads another; just the comment itself got 3.4k upvotes.

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Claire’s series “Gourmet Makes” sees her recreating gourmet versions of beloved snack foods, from Oreos and Twinkies to Gushers and Skittles, and it’s easy to see why she’s so loved. Rarely do the recipes go off without a hitch; we usually see her fail at least a couple times before she finally nails it, which she always does. She frowns and sighs, and gives the camera conspiratorial looks as she claims to her colleagues that no, she doesn’t actually need to temper the chocolate for a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

Today, Bon Appétit will debut a new series hosted by Claire, sure to thrill her fans: “Bon Appétit’s Baking School,” where she’ll teach viewers how to bake. In this season, Claire will take on cakes. Each part of the five-episode season will go through a different aspect of cake-making, from baking the layers to frosting and decorating them. We spoke with Claire about being beloved by all, why she loves baking, and—of course—the Great British Bake Off.

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This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: So before we talk about the new show, I just want to talk a little bit about Gourmet Makes, because I love it.

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Claire Saffitz: Thanks!

It’s extremely satisfying to watch, and I want to talk about how that’s taken off. Why do you think people have responded to it so well?

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Well, my perspective on it has definitely shifted—in the beginning, I had no idea why anyone wanted to watch it. I was just sort of like, why do people want to sit in front of their computer and watch me spin my wheels and tear my hair out trying to figure this thing out. It didn’t make sense to me because I still had this notion that at Bon Appétit, our videos were meant to present us as experts, and that meant that we knew everything, and that everything we made always came out perfectly. And then it started to kind of make sense after the videos really took off—that’s actually that’s why people love to watch them, because they’re being brought inside the process, and they’re seeing that not everything that even a food professional makes comes out perfect.

So I think that that has a lot to do with it, so many food videos for so long were just about someone in their beautiful pristine kitchen making something that turned out perfectly. And at some point that’s not as interesting as watching someone kind of through a process of trial and error, really figure something out and to see that process happening in real time.

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From my perspective it is very fun to watch not because you’re failing, but because you are obviously such a good baker. So you’re watching someone kind of fail, and it is funny when you try and make a wafer four different times and it doesn’t work, because everyone has had those moments when they’re when they’re baking.

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Right. And I still have those moments. One of the reasons I love baking is because there’s endless opportunities to learn, and mastery is kind of an illusion, and stuff that’s worth doing and really investigating and throwing your heart into is like that. But that just means it’s pretty confounding a lot of the time, so I still have those moments. So I hope that that is what makes it relatable and that it doesn’t make me look like a fool—that sometimes even someone who bakes literally all the time and for a living still has issues and problems.

I’ve been thinking about the similarities to the Great British Bake Off because that’s the other big baking phenomenon. Obviously it’s not like other cooking shows because when people screw up you’re kind of supposed to be laughing at them, whereas on Bake Off you’re on their side always. Everyone is so nice and you love all of the bakers, and you really want them to figure it out.

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Right. I feel like I discovered it early as an American, before it really took off here, and it was such a refreshing antidote to the like intense baking competition shows where people are hyper-competitive. There was something so pure and good hearted about it.

I feel like in general there has been a little bit of a shift in food media and food writing, and even just in recipes—it used to be almost paternalistic, like, this is the expert telling you the expert way to do it. And one of the things I love about Bon Appétit recipes in general but also the videos is it kind of puts that stuff aside. One of my favorite recipes is the cast-iron pizza and you just buy your own dough for that—it’s not a big deal if you just buy the dough from the supermarket.

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I think it kind of it brings up the idea of where do you draw a line between sort of snobbery and concern for quality. One of the things all the test kitchen editors, and frankly all the editors at Bon Appétit, have in common is that just because we love food and we love to cook doesn’t mean that we’re snobs about it. We’re not going to say like, oh if you can’t make your own puff pastry then don’t even bother, because we don’t want the food to be elitist.

We’re not in it to be snobs about food because that’s just so boring. Just because you love food and you love to cook it doesn’t mean you have to only have very high-minded ideals about what you will and won’t eat. We all love to eat a bag of potato chips just as much as anybody else. And I think that that comes through in the videos too. We like to eat potato chips but we’re also going to yell and argue with each other about what is the best potato chip and why, which is one of the reasons why it’s fun to go to work there every day.

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That’s one of the things that makes the Gourmet Makes series so great, because you’re making these junk foods better or whatever, but at the same time I feel like every episode you’re like, oh is so good. Because yes, Snickers is great, an Oreo is delicious.

There is such a nostalgia factor for so many of the “Gourmet Makes” subjects. So it’s a really funny experience to try a lot of these things now as an adult that I haven’t tried since I was a kid, because the memory of the taste certainly does not match up to what the experience of eating it is now. I don’t categorically love everything that I make. The Twinkie, which is the first episode, that’s something you think is really good, and it’s actually pretty terrible. And then Oreos the other end of spectrum, where it’s like, God, I love an Oreo, they’re so good. I think that so many of the “Gourmet Makes” subjects are things people can relate to because of that nostalgia factor. And that makes it really fun to really dive into each and every one and kind of pull it apart and dissect it and read the ingredients and figure it out. Most American snack foods, the first ingredient is corn syrup—that’s been my big takeaway from “Gourmet Makes,” like oh wow, there’s corn syrup in everything, and it’s usually in the top three ingredients.

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What is the premise of your new show?

Claire Saffitz: So “BA Baking School” is a lot more about the hows and whys of baking recipes, so Season 1 is all about layer cakes. It’s a lot more geared toward the home baker, so it still a little bit has some of the spirit of “Gourmet Makes” where the show is still going to have some of those moments where it’s like, oh, this didn’t quite turn out or I’m going to deliberately show you what happens when you do the stuff that I tell you not to do, so you can kind of see. Rather than just having everything turn out perfectly, it’s a lot about showing where you can trip up and what it actually looks like when you mess up, to really explain why people always talk about this technique, why you need to have your ingredients at room temperature, and then what to do to correct course.

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So I think it’s just a lot more helpful to have a show about baking structured that way because you learn so much more about a process when you mess it up than when you just see someone make it perfectly. [In the first episode] I did a thing where I did the math wrong, and I ended up making absolutely massive carrot cake layers —I was like, no one should make a cake this size, I made it too big, so that’s all on camera. We couldn’t reshoot it because we didn’t have time, so it’s like, well, that’s just going to be in there and I kind of told you what not to do by example. I hope that it’s entertaining but also very practical for people that have maybe never made a layer cake before and are a little intimidated to try, and this kind of breaks it down.

That’s the thing: People find baking very intimidating because it’s not like with cooking, where you can kind of adjust as you go. It’s more of a little leap of faith where you put all of these sort of weird gloopy ingredients together, and it looks nothing like a cake, and then you put it in the oven, and it might turn out as a cake, or it might be just this horrible rock or some disgusting icky mess, speaking from experience.

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You hear that all the time, I’m a cook but I’m not a baker. And I kind of want to challenge that idea because they’re not fundamentally different. Of course baking is the things people say it is, it is more of a technical science. But part of the project of “BA Baking School” is to demystify it a little bit and to explain, there are certain markers and there’s a roadmap. There is that fear of sunken costs for people, like you’re going to spend that time and money on ingredients and it might not turn out. So I really hope that this show helps people feel more confident about baking, because it’s really fun and rewarding, and totally worth doing and I hope that it kind of convinces someone to try it and to learn a little about it.

I think it’s unlike other shows about cakes, because I’m very clear in the episodes that like I am demonstrating cakes that I would make at home for my family members or friends for a celebration. I’m not making the seven-tiered wedding cake with the sugar flowers and all the things, so they are very home-styled. There’s just so much cake content out there, a lot of stuff on Instagram with very decorated, very professional looking cakes, and then there’s also those things that feel a little bit more gimmicky, like, I don’t know the term for them, there’s the cakes where you cut into them and all this candy spills out. So this show is really being deliberate about not going in that direction, and showing people recipes like, this is something that you can make at home.

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I’m 100 percent on board with that because it drives me crazy when I see people making cakes that, you know—frankly, it kind of happens a bit on Bake Off as well. They spend so much time doing stuff for aesthetic purposes and I’m like, this doesn’t add any flavor, like adding this really intricate sugar construction of the Houses of Parliament or whatever. It is not actually going to taste any better than if you just made a really good lemon drizzle cake.

Right, rule number one is always taste is first. It has to be delicious no matter what. And then any ways within that, with that direction in mind, any way you can make it look beautiful. I mean the point of decoration for me is to make it look more delicious because it tastes really great. So the decoration is there to entice someone to eat it, so that’s sort of the philosophy that I took. And that sort of established the approach for “BA Baking School” and not something that was a trend-driven, just because it’s a thing on Instagram.

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So obviously the hope with this is that is that people get into baking. How did you become such a good baker?

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I baked a lot as an adolescent. It was just something that I did with my friends, most of them were from box mixes that we got at the grocery store and it was just an activity that we did at home because we weren’t particularly cool and didn’t really go out a whole lot. It was always a fun activity. And my mom is a great baker and always was. I have great memories of being a kid and my mom making a lot of her own bread and coming home and she made dinner and it would be a delicious pot of soup and her homemade bread that was still warm, so cooking was always a central activity for my family.

But I never took it seriously as a potential career until after I graduated from college. That was when I started to get really serious about cooking and baking, but baking was really just a lifelong hobby, and at some point it took over and it was the only thing I wanted to do with my time. That was in my early 20s after I graduated from college, and at that point I decided to go to culinary school. I actually did culinary school for general cuisine and there was a pastry component to that program, but it wasn’t dedicated only to pastry.

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The baking part is in a lot of ways kind of self-taught just from doing it a lot as a hobby first. I looked back on the time that I spent in my 20s basically as a hobbyist baker as being some of the most important and really formative, because that’s when I messed up a lot. That’s when I would get an idea that I wanted to make something, and I’d go home and do it. It’s sort of only as an adult now looking back in retrospect that it totally makes sense that baking is what I chose to really devote my time to because it’s sort of all the things that I love. It’s creative, I love eating it, it’s delicious—I’m a sweet person, I’m a dessert person. But there’s a technical aspect to it which I really respond positively to, and it’s a pursuit that you can never really master. So it’s endlessly rewarding in that way, you get from it what you put in.

I like the idea that it’s hard work, and that’s actually a message that I try to tell people about cooking and baking. I sort of respond negatively to representations of cooking like in media that show, oh, it’s so easy and it’s just so simple, and I threw this together and I’m like—No you didn’t! There is no way you threw that together, you’re not telling the whole story. Cooking and baking are actually kind of challenging and it doesn’t always work out that well and you kind of have to work at it. There’s no easy answer.

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That’s my idle dream—in the socialist utopia if we didn’t have to work anymore what I’d be doing is just like making ice cream all day, because it’s just the best thing to do, it’s so much fun, and you get ice cream at the end of it, so it’s like the perfect hobby.

Yeah, exactly right. It’s this really rewarding thing and then you get to eat it. What’s better than that?

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You can’t eat woodwork, can you. So, last question: What is your absolute favorite thing to bake? If you have endless time, endless resources.

I love that question. I immediately think pie—I would say pie with the added detail of like a seasonal fruit pie. So I love first and foremost desserts that use produce, because to me it’s sort of like that’s the answer to cooking, I think people think of cooking as like that’s very seasonal but baking is sort of season-less. And I love to bake with the seasons and go to the farmer’s market, and you know in September there’s all the apple variety, and that gets me really excited, that gets me into the kitchen. So I would probably make a sour cherry pie because sour cherries to me are like the ultimate seasonal fruit, there’s such a small window. And I love pie. I think for me making a pie takes on a meditative quality because I’ve done it so many times and yet every single pie comes out differently and there’s always something, some little detail to think about that I overlooked. I love the process. I also love pastry—I love pie dough, I love puff pastry, anything that’s like flaky buttery, so I would say a sour cherry pie to me is the summation of everything that I love about baking.

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About the author

Libby Watson

Splinter politics writer. libby.watson@splinternews.com