Mediaplanet:  Why did you pursue a career in culinary arts and how did you break into the industry?

Anna Olson: It took me a little while to figure out that I could turn what was a passionate hobby into a professional career. Upon completing an Arts degree in Political Studies and Sociology, I began working in banking and was feeling unfulfilled.  After an especially frustrating day at work I found myself up at 2 a.m. baking banana muffins, not because I wanted to eat them, but it soothed me.  At that moment I realized all I wanted to do was cook and bake, so I quit and went to cooking school.  Having worked in restaurants as a student, I was pretty comfortable jumping into the business with clear expectations of how much work it was. What has surprised me over the years is how many career avenues you can explore as a chef — it's a diverse and complex industry.

MP: What should you look for when buying fruit?

AO: When buying fruit, consider how you will be consuming it.  If you are making smoothies or perhaps a batch of jam then buy super-ripe fruit that is ready to be used within a day.  If you are doing your shopping just once or twice a week then buy fruits that store well — apples, pears, grapes.  Also, look to see what is in peak season and grown as close to you as possible — you'll get maximum nutrient content and the best flavour possible.  

"My favourite fruits tend to be what’s in season, and I'll eat them daily to the point that I'm almost sick of them, so that I don't crave them until next year!"

MP: Why is cooking with fresh fruit important?

AO: Cooking with fruits that are in their peak season is key to the best flavour and results.  When you make an apple pie with fresh, local apples, then the effort is rewarded. I also find that the treat is more fulfilling, and a little slice is satisfying. I'm fine with baking using frozen fruits, since ultimately they were frozen just after picking — but I read my labels and try to buy frozen fruits that are Canadian grown.

MP: What advice do you have for families looking to cook and bake together?

AO: If you are cooking and baking together as a family then you are already fulfilling my top tip! We have to work harder these days to eat our meals together, and meeting in the kitchen to also participate together in a meal's preparation is important.  Kids are more engaged at the table, and willing to try more food, if they are a part of the preparing process.  I can appreciate how busy our schedules can get, so even if it's an hour or two spent in the kitchen on the weekend it's valuable time well-spent.

MP: Do you have any tips for busy families who are looking to enjoy fresh and healthy food?

AO: Planning weekday lunches for both parents and kids can be a real issue, and even more so now with the additional mandate of boomerang lunches (leaving no packaging or waste at school). I’m not a dietician, but I do observe that barriers to eating a truly healthy diet exist in the form of hidden salts and sugars found in processed foods that we incorrectly assume are good for us.  As busy as we are (and tired at the end of a long day), if we take that extra 10 minutes to make our own fruited yogurt, or a salad that we (or the kids) assemble later, then we set ourselves up for success.

MP: What are your favourite fruits to prepare?

AO: My favourite fruits tend to be what’s in season, and I'll eat them daily to the point that I'm almost sick of them, so that I don't crave them until next year!  Strawberries are a perfect example. I eat strawberries from June through August, but I'll be so "over them" by the end of the summer when they go out of season. And then by the time I'm sick of strawberries, it's apple and pear season!

But when it comes to baking, I think the plum is my favourite fruit, and is too often overlooked — intensely flavoured and with that rich colour, plums are so fulfilling — I use plums in tarts, cakes and even make plum sorbet.  Every September I preserve what I call "breakfast plums": Italian prune plums simmered in a lightly spiced syrup that I then use on my oatmeal all winter long.

MP:  What fruits keep their sweetness when baking?

AO:  When it comes to baking, you're actually not just looking for just sweetness, but a balance with acidity, too.  Take a strawberry  for example: a fruit pie baked with just strawberries would taste flat, even though the berries are lovely and sweet.  But add the tartness of rhubarb and ta-da! The pie is balanced and you can actually taste the strawberries more. Fruits picked at peak season inherently have that ideal sweet-tart balance.  

"Look to see what is in peak season and grown as close to you as possible — you'll get maximum nutrient content and the best flavour possible."

MP: With fall and winter around the corner, what advice do you have for seasonal baking?

AO: Our cravings change with the season and the way we cook changes with the weather - that's what I love about Canadian cuisine! We switch not just the ingredients we use in fall, but the way we treat them.  We grill less and use the oven more, so baking in the fall is more prevalent.  This is when the spice cupboard gets opened and out comes the cinnamon, but now we get more exotic in our spices (cardamom, star anise) but our fruit stays local.  Even though it's not a fruit, I'm all over pumpkin in baking, as well as apples.  I've got a healthy, low-fat pumpkin muffin that I always have on hand in fall.

MP: What is your favourite recipe when baking with fresh fruit?

AO: I tend to favour the classics and you can't beat a really good apple pie! My secret to a truly spectacular apple pie? Use more than one apple variety, three if you can!  You want an apple with body, such as a Russet or Mutsu so that you're pie filling doesn't collapse, a tart apple such as a Spartan for balance, and a textbook sweet apple like a Honey Crisp to bump up the flavour.  I've judged my fair share of apple pie contests, and the winning pie always has multiple apple varieties.

MP:  You’ve already accomplished so much in your career – what’s next for you?

AO: With a new season of "Bake with Anna Olson" having launched, I'm reminding myself that in order to keep teaching, I also need to keep learning! I’m taking an intensive chocolate class this fall, so that I can then improve my recipe development and share what I learn with everyone.  I'm also a big believer that opportunity does not wait for convenience, so while I've got my head down working on what makes me happy today I try and always keep looking up to see what I might want to explore next.