One Smart Cookie: An Interview with Anita Chu

(Photo: Brian Lee)

Anita Chu knows cookies. The pastry chef, award-winning food blogger, and author of The Field Guide to Cookies: How to Identify and Bake Virtually Every Cookie Imaginable can tell you little-known facts about the sweet treats, from the origin of the oatmeal cookie (they evolved from Scottish and British oatcakes) to the date of National Chinese Almond Cookie Day (April 9)— all of which she documents in her new cookbook.

She recently gave Asia Society Online the inside scoop on her book, and shared her insights on Asian-influenced baking and dessert trends.

ASIA SOCIETY ONLINE: Was it hard to do the research for the history and origins of all the cookies for your book?

ANITA CHU: I don't think it was that difficult; when I started the book I knew it would be a bit of a research project. However, since I enjoy baking and learning as much about the art of pastry as I can, I figured knowing more about the history of cookies would be fun. And it was: a lot of the history of cookies is tied to the development of foods like sugar and vanilla, and the development of civilizations and trade routes across Asia and Europe. It was really fascinating. For some of the more modern cookies, it was interesting to research the rise of commercial manufacturing companies and how they developed their products and marketing to entice the public to buy their cookies. I also had a lot of fun looking up old cookbooks in the library and seeing how recipes evolved over time.

Was there a specific cookie that had a particularly interesting or surprising history?

I think that gingerbread, and gingerbread-related cookies like lebkuchen, speculaas, and pfeffernusse had a really interesting history because their development was connected to the introduction of ginger, pepper, and other precious spices from the East. Because the spices were originally difficult and expensive to procure, they were only used at special occasions like Christmas, which is why so many cookies are associated with Christmastime. Of course, the fortune cookie also has its own interesting story, especially to me since the cookie was invented in California where I live, and not in China. So many people think the fortune cookie comes from China, and I'm glad I got the chance to set the record straight in this book!

How did your Asian heritage influence your recipes and baking—in terms of flavors and techniques?

I've always been interested in integrating the flavors of Asia with my pastry training. My parents are from Hong Kong and I've been to Asia numerous times in my life—China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, to name a few. As a result, I feel a strong connection to my roots, and thanks to my parents, I've developed a deep love for the foods and flavors of my heritage.

My mother would always make black sesame or red bean soup for dessert at home, and from those memories I've enjoyed experimenting with using flavors like mango, green tea, sesame, and ginger in my baking. I also love going to Asia since I think they've done such a fantastic job in mixing classic Asian flavors with western and European style pastries, so seeing what they're making in the bakeries and restaurants is always an inspiration.

What Asian-influenced flavors or ingredients do you think work best for cookies or pastries?

Most Asian flavors translate well into desserts. For example, many fruit desserts like fruit tarts or berry shortcake can easily have fruits like mangos, papayas, bananas, and pineapple substituted. Another easy way to work flavors in is by infusing, or steeping a liquid ingredient with an ingredient so it absorbs the flavor. This works really well with teas—I like to infuse cream or milk with jasmine or green tea, and then use it in a cake or pudding. If you want to see more of my Asian-inspired recipes, you can go to Dessert First and check out the recipe archive.

It seems like fewer restaurants have pastry chefs, but I've also seen a lot of dessert-only restaurants opening. What does the future hold for pastry chefs?

I think pastry chefs as entrepreneurs are going to be the big thing in the future. While I think there will always be a demand for beautiful and delicious desserts in restaurants, many pastry chefs are looking for the next step and the freedom to fully explore their own ideas and interests. These pastry chefs are starting up their own restaurants, bakeries, or sweet shops to explore their own creative visions. Many times they choose to focus on a particular area of pastry, like cookies, ice creams, or chocolates. I'm seeing a lot of this specialization in the Bay Area, and it's really exciting because I think we'll be able to see more of the pastry chefs' personalities and quirks emerge.

Are there any interesting dessert trends these days?

A return to classic desserts forms and being creative with flavors - for example, cupcakes, donuts, and chocolates, but with unusual or local, perhaps underused ingredients like chai, salted caramel, or local fruit. In the Bay Area we have a variety of lemon called Meyer lemon which is sweeter and milder, similar to the Japanese yuzu—when it comes into season, everyone starts using it.

Check out Anita's recipes for Chinese Almond Cookies and Indonesian Pineapple Cookies.

Interview by Stephanie Valera, Asia Society Online