It’s possible that if you bought a ceramic rooster at Sur La Table on the Upper East Side in 2011, you were rung up by a young cashier named Claire Saffitz. It’s also possible that if you came back to return an immersion blender someone gave you for Christmas, Saffitz kept it for herself.
That store policy stocked the twentysomething’s kitchen with all the essentials. At the time, Saffitz had just graduated from Harvard with a humanities degree, and all she really wanted to do was cook. So the next year, she shipped off to culinary school in France, where tuition was cheaper than in the U.S. Today, Saffitz is a YouTube star, a best-selling cookbook author, and the owner of a fluffy, black chicken named Tina. She still has that immersion blender.
Her new cookbook, What’s for Dessert, publishing next week, takes it easier than her first. Dessert Person (2020) is full of aspirational recipes, such as those for croissants and a holiday fruitcake that fans on Reddit remind each other to make every October, and was actually profitable—rare for cookbooks that aren’t by Ina Garten.
The recipes in What’s for Dessert require fewer specialty tools, and many are stovetop-only. Saffitz’s much-loved French desserts sidle up to dishes from her St. Louis childhood, such as buckwheat crêpes Suzette and marbled grocery store–style sheet cake. Inventive, modern desserts give way to nostalgic throwbacks. There’s even a recipe for floating islands, the dish Katharine Hepburn makes for Spencer Tracy in 1957’s Desk Set.
“That recipe is definitely dated,” Saffitz, 36, tells me from her apartment on the Upper West Side. “And it is a tough sell, a poached meringue on a bed of crème anglaise. I think most people would be like, ‘I don’t even know what half of those words mean.’” But to Saffitz, who has a master’s degree in culinary history, it represents the apex of French cooking in America and midcentury glamour. She used a 1,500-page French culinary textbook for reference for that recipe, and American community cookbooks purchased on eBay for inspiration for others.
“I’m really not looking to innovate, to create something that’s never been created before,” Saffitz says. “I’m much more interested in taking things that exist and looking inward, trying to develop them into the best version that they could be.” You won’t find a better oatmeal cookie than the one in Dessert Person.
Saffitz points to Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Dorie Greenspan, and pastry chef David Lebovitz as influences on her baking—and her teaching instinct. Saffitz was never destined for the hectic bustle of restaurants, but instead for the intimacy—and stage—of the home kitchen.
After graduating from the École Grégoire-Ferrandi, in 2012, Saffitz spent a few months doing an externship at Spring, the Paris restaurant run by Daniel Rose, now the chef at New York’s Le Coucou. Rose immediately saw that she was “interested in the mechanics of cooking,” he tells me, where other new cooks were on a path from line cook to sous-chef to hopefully, one day, owning a restaurant. “It’s very difficult to find chefs and cooks who know when to ask questions, when to stop, when to start, when to recalibrate.”
Through a recommendation from Rose and an American journalist in Paris, Saffitz got a test-kitchen job at Bon Appétit magazine when she returned to New York in 2013. (I met her when I joined the staff two years later.) Her first recipe was for salted-peanut-butter-and-jelly blondies.
“She was very modest, very shy, and very nervous,” says Christine Muhlke, who was the magazine’s deputy editor at the time. Saffitz became the person who got assigned to develop “project” recipes, such as cassoulet, because she’d make it her life’s work for months on end, says Muhlke, and then really nail it. “She wasn’t trying to be the cool one, just the best possible one.”
“I’m really not looking to innovate.... I’m much more interested in taking things that exist and … trying to develop them into the best version that they could be.”
A few years later, Saffitz and other test-kitchen editors catapulted into Internet fame through video series run by Condé Nast Entertainment. In Saffitz’s show, Gourmet Makes, she re-created famous candy, cookies, and snacks from scratch. When experiments failed, her heart would break on-screen, and then she’d buckle down to try dehydrating those marshmallows for Lucky Charms again and again.
“Claire becoming a star was the best story of talent getting what it deserves,” said Muhlke. “And Gourmet Makes was exactly the right vehicle for her. It capitalized on her wonkiness and tireless perfectionism, with genuine charm.”
The series was so successful—some episodes have more than 11 million views—that there were super-fan accounts clinging to Saffitz’s every Instagram post (which are rare; she’s an extremely reluctant user), with fans dressing up as her for Halloween and transforming her quotes into memes.
The production of Gourmet Makes stopped during the pandemic. The last episode was Choco Tacos, and later that year Saffitz terminated her contract after video contributors of color accused Condé Nast of unequal pay. All of her time went into writing her cookbook Dessert Person.
“I’m not a particularly online person,” says Saffitz, but in the year 2022, you can’t be a food professional and not be. She returned to YouTube to teach her recipes in careful detail, helping to fuel book sales, brand partnerships, and revenue from YouTube ads. “If I could never be on a platform again, it would be O.K.,” she says. “But I would still want to find a way to be actively teaching. That, to me, is the biggest benefit of being on YouTube.”
Some of her videos take place at the cabin in the Hudson Valley where she and her husband, Harris Mayer-Selinger, chef of New York’s Creamline, have settled into “unexpected domestic bliss,” she tells me. Still, most of her life is kept offline. When I ask if she thinks Julia Child would have been on Instagram, she immediately says, “No. Because I think Julia was so focused on what it means to live well, and I don’t feel like social media is really a part of that.”
She’s gotten into gardening, home projects, and tending to her chickens. “Oh, I can’t talk about the chickens,” she sighed. “We literally had a bear attack. The bear had flipped over the chickens’ fenced enclosure, flipped over the coop, and ate seven chickens. I was so upset. That bear had a seven-course meal on our property.” The only remaining chicken is Tina.
In the background, I could hear the clanging of dishes and water sloshing. “Sorry, I am a stubborn and hopeless multi-tasker,” she said. I took it as a sign I should let Saffitz get back to domestic bliss, or something close to it.
What’s for Dessert: Simple Recipes for Dessert People—A Baking Book, by Claire Saffitz, will be published on November 8 by Clarkson Potter
Alex Beggs is a former senior staff writer at Bon Appétit. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker, among other publications