Claire Saffitz On Gooey Butter Cake And How St. Louis Made Her A ‘Dessert Person’
Claire Saffitz made her name as the star of “Gourmet Makes,” the Bon Appétit YouTube series that shows her replicating junk food (Twinkies, Pop Tarts, even Sour Patch Kids) using gourmet ingredients. The wildly popular series has notched more than 300 million views.
But for Saffitz, some guilty pleasures don’t need a BA Test Kitchen upgrade. Returning to St. Louis last year, the pastry chef posted an Instagram photo of Ted Drewes with just one word: “Home.”
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Saffitz explained that she meant the word not just for St. Louis, but also for the iconic frozen custard stand. She grew up in University City and then Clayton, graduating from Clayton High School before heading to Harvard (and then France, where she enrolled in culinary school).
“It still feels like home for me,” she said of St. Louis. “I haven’t lived there for many, many years. But it’s such a wonderful city, with wonderful food traditions. Places like Ted Drewes, or Blueberry Hill in the Loop, those are places that really feel like home for me — and I still crave food from there.”
Saffitz’s new book, “Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking with Confidence,” even includes a recipe for gooey butter cake. After growing up making hers in the way common to St. Louis home bakers (think: yellow cake mix and cream cheese), she experimented à la Gourmet Makes, ultimately landing on a yeasted coffee cake base.
“It really does feel like a different recipe than the box mix with the cream cheese frosting,” she said. “I guess I like to think of it as being closer to the original, or the spirit of the original. … From what I could find, the origin came from German bakers working in St. Louis. And so a yeasted coffee cake base is really a classic German recipe.”
Saffitz said she never intended to become a YouTube star. In fact, just getting her on camera took “a bit of convincing,” she said. “It was incredibly intimidating. I didn’t know how to present on camera.”
But perhaps because she seemed like a normal person — albeit one who’s really, really good at baking — she quickly became a fan favorite. Now she has to contend with people recognizing her on the subway (although she hastens to add her fame is largely generational; older New Yorkers don’t seem to know who she is). “I never even thought I’d do video hosting, so the whole thing is incredibly surprising,” she said.
She credited her St. Louisness in part for her appeal.
“I’m very particular,” she said. “I have strong opinions about food, and other things. But I’m not a snob, and I think there’s a difference. I’m happy to let people have the things that they love. You don’t have to only like things that are gourmet. In St. Louis, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ll defend St. Louis-style pizza in New York, to New Yorkers who love their New York-style pizza.'
“There’s such a nostalgia factor with food,” she continued. “You just like what you like. I always defend my Midwest roots.”
The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen that made Saffitz a viral sensation came under fire earlier this year for treating people of color differently than their white colleagues, and this month, Saffitz joined colleagues in announcing her departure. In a statement, Saffitz said she was grateful to Bon Appétit and Condé Nast Entertainment for building her career on their platform, but, she added, “This opportunity was not granted equally to all.”
“It is a big part of why I left,” she acknowledged on St. Louis on the Air. ”I also wanted to be more in control of my career path and my choices going forward.”
Now that she’s walked away from the platform that made her name, she hopes to focus on her true passion: teaching and guiding home bakers.
“There wasn’t anything too practical or actionable in Gourmet Makes,” she said. “I’m happy to just be with people in their home kitchens, making things that they can enjoy with their friends and family.”
What: Claire Saffitz interview with Jo Firestone of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”
When: 11 a.m. Nov. 6, 2020
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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