All Things Dessert and Harvard with Claire Saffitz
We got a chance to sit down with Claire J. Saffitz ’09, YouTube sensation and author of the cookbook “Dessert Person,” to talk desserts, cats, and everything you would want to know about her experience at Harvard.
ESD/KZ: What House were you in, what did you study at Harvard, and what made you decide to become a pastry chef?
CJS: Pennypacker, and then I was in Adams House. I concentrated in History and Literature in the America field, but did a lot of interdisciplinary courses in Art History and Film Studies. Actually, I comped the [Crimson] Arts board. It wasn’t until I graduated that I decided to pursue cooking as a professional pursuit. I was living in New York and feeling kind of lost. I had an internship and all I wanted to do was to finish my work, go home and cook for me and my roommate.
KZ: We’d love to know about your time in Paris [for culinary school] and what that was like for you.
CJS: I did lots of travel [at Harvard] but I avoided France because I wanted to live there and really immerse myself in the culture. I was a Francophile without knowing anything about French culture. But I loved it. Loved living in Paris and never wanted to leave. In an alternate universe, I never left and I’m still living there. I moved to Montreal for a year to go to McGill, because I had this notion that I was going togoing to be an academic. I thought this is a way to combine my love of cooking and culinary knowledge with academic studies, but I ultimately missed cooking and that’s what I wanted to do.
ESD: Do you think all of your study abroad experiences informed your inspiration for cooking now?
CJS: I mean, I was always adventurous when it came to food. Food is something to be celebrated and is one of life’s pleasures and culturally significant. I think yes, because I learned other cultures through food. It became a priority to have traditional dishes from the place and going to markets. There’s very few foods I am not willing to try because if they are appreciated in another culture, then I imagine I’ll appreciate it as well.
KZ: Soooo, we were looking at the Crimson at some of your past articles...
CJS: [laughs] Oh no.
ESD: There was one entitled “Top Five Movies the Title Tricked You Into Seeing.”
KZ: Our favorite part of this was the, “She has even less purpose than Josh.” We were wondering who Josh was.
CJS: [laughs] I am confident I did not write that and that was a prank pulled on me in the publication of the article. There was a guy named Josh on the Arts board and I’m sure that was a reference to him but I have no idea what they’re talking about.
ESD: What would you say is your favorite Harvard tradition?
CJS: I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I do remember as a senior jumping off the [Weeks] Footbridge. It should definitely be discouraged… like, I was so dumb. Why did I do that? I would not call that my favorite. It was the most foolish one I did. I told my mom later and she was so mad at me.
ESD: Would you rather do River Run or temper chocolate?
CJS: Oh, I would rather temper chocolate, absolutely. I had literally no taste level in college. You know, we would drink André Champagne.
Not that this is the (un)official drink of Flyby or anything...
KZ: Was there any dessert in particular that you really liked at Harvard?
CJS: Umm, [laughs] I would do the froyo machines a lot. I also remember really enjoying an occasional bubble tea from the Science Center [rip random bubble tea shop]... Within the dining hall, I would eat their brownies and cookies stuff, and they weren’t the best but I just am someone, as the title of my book [“Dessert Person”] would imply, who doesn’t care if it’s bad if I get dessert. I’ll take a subpar brownie because they’re still pretty good.
ESD: Going off of that, what was your favorite dessert place in the Square or Boston in general?
CJS: Ice cream is not my number one dessert, but Boston and Cambridge have incredible ice cream. I don’t know how that became a thing; it’s clearly not related to the weather. Toscanini’s in Central, Lizzie’s which was in Inman. We would go to Berryline a lot, living in Adams. I think we thought it was healthy…. That was an illusion. Certainly enjoyed all sorts of ice cream and frozen yogurt from all over Cambridge.
KZ: If you had to describe Harvard as one HUDS dish, what would it be and why?
CJS: I guess this is more emotional rather than metaphorical but when I think of HUDS, I think of the waffles on Sunday with the waffle irons with the Harvard insignia. I just associate that dish so hard with Harvard dining. But to clarify! I’ve never actually made myself a waffle because I like savory breakfasts!
This obviously was a shock to us. The Veritaffles are iconic, but Claire Saffitz not enjoying a dessert-y breakfast when she’s labeled herself as a Dessert Person is surprising, yet understandable.
CJS: Well, I want dessert to follow a savory meal.
ESD: Do you think dessert has a time of the day? Because some people eat cake for breakfast and are 100 percent happy.
CJS: I feel like there is no particular time of the day for dessert, like you can have breakfast dessert, you can have lunch dessert, but it has to follow something savory. That’s why when I go out to breakfast, I’ll get usually eggs, but we’ll have a pancake for the table and I’ll have a couple bites as something sweet. It just can’t be the only thing that I eat. But I don’t think there is any wrong or right time of the day to have something sweet.
That, we agree with.
KZ: If you were a pastry, what pastry could you be?
CJS: Ooh, this is a fun one! I hope that I would be a flaky buttery pastry of some kind. Something like a... Cherry Cheese Danish, or something flaky and not too sweet that has a combination of sweet and savory ingredients. Something with fruit. Mostly describing the kinds of pastries I like to eat most. There are tons of versions of not good Cherry Cheese Danishes, but a good one is unbelievably good.
ESD: Another fun question! We wanted to ask about your cats because they’re so cute!! Felix and Maya?
CJS: Oh my god… How much time do you have?
KZ: You said that Felix is your right hand man, right?
CJS: If I spend 30 minutes talking about the cats, please stop me. Growing up, I never had pets… or at least not mammals — mammal pets...The cats were my husband’s cats and I became, over time, a cat person, and I didn’t really realize how much of a cat person I am until I had them. Especially during Covid, I appreciate pets so much because they are a source of comfort and joy. About three months ago, we found a little stray kitten on the side of the road and adopted him. His name is Archie. And he’s got some health issues, and he’s mostly blind but he’s, like, the happiest, sweetest cat and now I’m just obsessed with him and spend all my time playing with him.
KZ: We at Flyby love Trader Joe’s, and we were wondering if you do too, and if so, do you have a favorite Trader Joe’s snack?
CJS: I am not a Trader Joe’s devotee because I usually cannot deal with a line. In New York...on average the line to get into a Trader Joe’s is about one block long. There’s one near me and I walk past it and I just think ‘not dealing with that,’ you know? On the rare occasion that I do find myself inside, I usually stock up on a lot of the dried fruits and nuts which are roughly inexpensive. I know that for a while Trader Joe’s was the only place you could find Cookie Butter, which was sort of special. In general, it’s not an objection to Trader Joe’s itself, it’s an objection to the line to get in.
ESD: Have you tried their Soft and Juicy Mango™, which are a select Flyby snack?
CJS: Dried mango is like my favorite snack ever. Throughout the pandemic I’ve been placing orders at Nuts.com...cause I need the ingredients for recipe testing and it’s a lot cheaper. I had purchased multiple 5-pound bags of dried mango and I’ve basically eaten the entire thing. Now I might have to wait in the line.
ESD: What is your nut of choice?
CJS: I love walnuts; I love pecans; I love almond flavored things, but as far as the nut to eat, I don’t go for almonds first. As a snacky nut, I do love cashews that are really well toasted. And, pistachios for baking. In general, I’d say it’s pecans.
And FYI: Claire Saffitz, queen of dessert, does indeed say pe-cahn.
ESD: Going back to the photoshoot [and] cookbooks and development, what was the weirdest behind-the-scenes fun fact that no one would ever guess?
CJS: Food styling is an entire area of the industry that I was unfamiliar with. I think that’s something that’s sort of a hidden part of food media, all the food styling that happens, for magazines and cookbooks. A very good friend of mine [Sue Li] is a food stylist and she did styling in my cookbook.
CJS: One thing people may be surprised to hear on a cookbook set — like the set for “Dessert Person” — is that the food is all the real food. Of course there’s styling tricks and maybe a certain brand of heavy cream makes the best-looking whipped cream, but the food on set generally is exactly the recipe as written, and we eat it afterwards. Food that tastes good also looks good, which I’m proud of.
KZ: To wrap it up — thank you again, so much — what advice would you give to your college self?
CJS: If my future self could speak to my college self, I would encourage myself to trust myself more and not put pressure on myself to have everything figured out. There’s a weird misconception that when you graduate from college you are an adult, and I did not feel like an adult at 22. I didn’t feel like an adult, I don’t know, until I turned 30. I think that the 20s are a life period in and of itself that doesn’t get recognized enough, and I think it’s completely acceptable to be confused or lost. There’s a pressure to, straight out of college, enter an industry that you want to spend the rest of your life in, and that is not the case and you don’t have to do that… It’s ok to get experiences and decide that something isn’t for you. So, that’s what I mean when I say I would tell myself to relax.
CJS: As someone in my early to mid twenties, there was such a gap between the life I wanted to be living and the life that I was living. And it’s okay to embrace yourself where you are and to not feel like — I kept feeling like I have to be an adult, and do what adults are doing — you don’t have to be anyone else. Especially at a place like Harvard where there’s this pressure to succeed, which is crazy and unrealistic. So you have to try to balance it out with reasonable expectations for yourself.
Hearing Claire’s worries mirroring our own troubles is a bit reassuring. At a time of such uncertainty, we can all afford to be a bit more confident in our curiosity and realize that we don’t actually need to have everything figured out right now, contrary to all the LinkedIn posts we see!
We can’t be more grateful to Claire for taking the time to talk to us and answer all our baking questions (thank you for diagnosing our enriched dough issues) and giving us a glimpse into her time at Harvard. (Now, we need to get back to watching her latest Claire Saffitz x Dessert Person video.)