A brand new Iron Chef has been announced for the holidays and it’s Canada’s baking sweetheart, Anna Olson. We sat down with Anna to talk everything from how she felt about competing for the first time to her favourite cookie this holiday season.
Read on for the full interview with Iron Chef Anna Olson and don’t forget to enter our draw to win one of five signed copies of Anna’s new holiday cookbook, Set for the Holidays. It’s chock-full of delicious recipes that will have your holiday entertaining sorted, from delicious comforting appetizers like Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese Squares, to sweet Canadian classics like Signature Butter Tart Squares. And of course, don’t forget the cookies for Santa, like Breton Sea Salt Shortbreads and Carrot Cake Sandwich Cookies,
Can you tell us about how you fell in love with food?
My love of food happened gradually out of love for spending time with my grandmother in the kitchen. She was the avid baker. For her, it was the passion for cooking, but most especially baking to share. I think over the years when I look at what I love about baking most is that sense of sharing that comes with it. So it all started there, even though it took me a while to come about it professionally.
How did you begin to transition that into your career?
For a lot of people, baking is a stress reliever. When I was in university and early in my career in banking, it was my way to relieve stress at the end of the day. And I really did have what I call my ‘muffin epiphany’ where after a very stressful day I found myself up at two in the morning making banana muffins just to relax. And it was at that moment the light went off and I said, “Okay, I need to cook”.
Within three months I quit and went to cooking school. It was a need. I needed to make cooking and baking my full-time occupation. Originally, I didn’t plan on working in restaurants. I thought that recipe development for a company would be the way I went. But I actually got hooked on the adrenaline of working in restaurants.
How do you feel Canadian cuisine has influenced you— because you have a very strong identity as a Canadian chef and baker.
When I found myself living in the Niagara Region, I was drawn to the type of cuisine with four distinct menus based on four distinct seasons with produce that came from close by. In Canada, we embrace that, whether it’s cooking with the seafood of the East Coast, the produce and dairy we have in Ontario, Quebec beef, or the fish on the West Coast. That is Canadian cuisine and we don’t need to rely on a dish or a specific menu to call it Canadian. You can cook globally so long as you shop locally. And that too, I think is very Canadian, bringing the global influence.
How did it feel to compete on Iron Chef Canada?
When the opportunity came to be an Iron Chef, I thought long and hard about it. I was petrified. Can I do this? Can I stand up against a challenger and can I deliver a five-course menu [that is] all baking in an hour? And even though this is an all baking episode, the rules are still exactly the same as if it was a traditional Iron Chef [challenge].
I decided one of my life philosophies is you never regret the things you try and fail. And I thought if I say no to this, I’ll always wonder ‘what if?’ So I just jumped right in.
So once you did decide you were going for it, how did you start to prepare?
There is really only so much you can do because you have to wait until the [secret] ingredient is revealed. But knowing that you have to prepare a certain amount of dishes, I had to look at techniques. People know me from Bake where I really focus on the technique behind something. So I knew I needed to find recipes that could draw on that and [we] could mix, bake, set, and cook within an hour, which can be a challenge.
What I didn’t want the judges to do was walk away with sugar shock, [that] they didn’t have a great experience because I didn’t give them a balanced menu. That was already in my head. So when the ingredients [are] revealed, you simply apply it.
How did you go about showcasing Canadian flavours in your Iron Chef Canada menu?
I feel showcasing Canadian flavours and preparations is just inherent to my style, so I didn’t feel like I had to reach or be something different than [what] I was. I think that would have created a challenge that I didn’t need. We do what we know and we do what we love. Just like a home cook preparing Christmas dinner, if you make something you’ve never made, it’s going to go sideways. The home cook at holiday time is kind of their own Iron Chef!
What’s your favourite holiday food event—from cookie swaps to brunch to the big Christmas dinner?
The Christmas Day brunch is my favourite meal. I love how it’s relaxed and casual, but still elegant. We do the big ham and lots of side salads. I’ll do things like a raspberry Danish pastry wreath and scones with fruit to start the meal, but then you still get to have dessert. Brunch is done is [by] 2 or 3 p.m. and the kitchen is cleaned up and you still have the rest of the day to snack. And the best is that little leftover ham sandwich or turkey sandwich later on in the evening.
What’s your ‘it’ cookie of the season?
I do have a collection of three cookies from my latest cookbook called Crinkles and Twinkles. So I do a Chocolate Crinkle, a Gingerbread Crinkle, and a Lemon Twinkle. They’re rolled in granulated sugar and sparkles. Those, together on a plate, look lovely because they all relate, but they each have their own flavour.
The other cookie that I like to make every year is a Vinarterta Linzer cookie. It’s a mix of tradition and reinvention. I’ve adopted what is a really quite difficult and time intensive [recipe] to make into a simpler cookie. It’s very much a Canadian prairie recipe. When Icelanders emigrated [to Canada] they treasured and kept onto these heritage recipes. That’s a big part of Canadian cooking too. We cherish our cultural heritage and hold onto these recipes, but also share them with each other.
That is, to me, what a cookie exchange should be. You can always assign people to make you make the shortbread or make the chocolate cookie, but everyone should be invited to make one that’s part of their family tradition.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Watch Anna Olson on Iron Chef Canada: Battle Nutcracker ‘Sweet’ on December 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT