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Anna Olson's Filipino favorites

By Norma Olizon-Chikiamco, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 02, 2021 5:00 am

With her culinary shows on TV (Sugar, Bake, Kitchen Equipped, Fresh), and her YouTube channel Oh Yum, Anna Olson is one chef who certainly inspires her viewers.

Whether it’s an elaborate birthday cake, a mouthwatering casserole, or simple banana bread, Olson creates magical visions so tempting you’d want to rush to the kitchen and recreate what she created. Maybe it’s because her instructions are so clear, her demeanor so helpful, that it all seems so easy and doable.

A few years ago, however, it became Olson’s turn to be inspired. The Canadian chef embarked on a journey to Southeast Asia to meet with local chefs and learn their recipes. In Singapore, she met with restaurateur and Singapore’s food ambassador Violet Oon, who taught her how to cook chicken tempura.

In Bangkok, she tried Thailand’s iconic tom yum soup, which inspired her to create her own sweet and spicy carrot soup.

In the Philippines, Olson collaborated with chef Claude Tayag, who showed her how to make bulanglang (fish broth with guava purée), halo-halo, and sans rival. This later inspired her to create her own dishes of rosemary-roasted venison rack with blueberry balsamic sauce, sweet potato ice cream sundae with corn-nut brittle and maple spice reduction, and Eton mess torte.

For her part, chef Margarita Forés showed Olson her recipes for short-rib adobo, river prawn sinigang and achara. Back in her own kitchen in Toronto, Olson translated these dishes into coffee-braised beef on Canadian wild rice, roasted apple and garlic mussels, and pickled squash marmalade.

Anna’s 2016 visit to Manila, however, was not her first. She had been here five times. During one of her trips, she and her husband, chef Michael, explored the shopping arcade in Greenhills, where they marveled over the beautiful pearls being sold at very reasonable prices. They also had dinner in Dedet de la Fuente’s home, where the lechon diva served them a multi-course meal that culminated in her famous lechon stuffed with truffles.

In fact, lechon has become Michael’s favorite Filipino dish, while Anna says hers is the sans rival torte.

Anna Olson with husband Michael

Being a pastry chef wasn’t Olson’s first choice as a career. She majored in political science and sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston and worked for a time in a bank. But an epiphany while baking muffins made her consider being a pastry chef as an alternative career. She then took up culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island—and hasn’t looked back since.

A few months ago, I came upon Olson’s recipe for sticky cinnamon buns on the Asian Food Network. The timing was just right because at that time I was craving cinnamon buns but wasn’t sure where to order the best (I have since discovered that French Baker makes really good ones).

After gathering all the ingredients and equipment, I decided to give her recipe a try—after all, like most of her recipes, this looked doable.

Anna Olson at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel during one of her visits to Manila

And I wasn’t wrong. Although I have seldom worked with yeast (because it’s quite tricky. If the mixture is too hot or too cold, it won’t rise properly), I managed to make a batch of sweet, sticky cinnamon buns, following Olson’s recipe. The buns even earned the approval of my husband.

Here’s Olson’s recipe for sticky cinnamon buns. Don’t be intimidated by the use of yeast—just make sure the milk is at the right temperature.

According to Olson, this should be about body temperature. Normal body temperature is about 36ºC. For Olson, determining this was just a matter of feeling the temperature with her finger. But for lesser mortals like us who are less experienced, it’s best to measure the temperature using an instant-read kitchen thermometer.

Cinnamon buns
(Based on the recipe of Anna Olson)

For the soft dough:

1 1/4 cups 2 % milk (or use low-fat or skim milk)
1/4 cup melted butter
2 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
1 egg
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
Cooking oil (for brushing the bowl)

Heat the milk to about 36ºF (body temperature). Pour the milk into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the remaining ingredients into the bowl. Mix the ingredients, using the dough hook attachment of the mixer. The dough should come together. When it starts to climb up the hook, and the dough becomes stretchy, stop the mixer and remove the dough.

Knead the dough on a floured surface then shape it into a large ball. Brush a bowl with oil and put the dough into the bowl. Cover the bowl completely with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place. Let rise for 90 minutes to two hours — the dough should double in size. Meanwhile, make the sticky layer syrup.

Cinnamon buns, freshly baked just out of the oven

Sticky layer syrup

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup

Heat the butter in a saucepan until melted. Add the sugar and maple syrup. Let simmer and cook until it bubbles, stirring. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Pour the syrup into the pan. Set aside.

For the filling:

2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Combine the sugar and the cinnamon. Set aside.
To roll the dough: 3 tablespoons melted butter

After the dough has doubled in size, sprinkle it lightly with flour. Roll it on a floured surface into a rectangle. Brush the surface of the dough with 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Sprinkle the cinnamon/sugar filling on the dough. Roll the dough from one long end to the other (like a jelly roll).

Cut into 12 buns. Arrange the buns in the pan where you have poured the syrup (the cut side should be up). Put spaces in between the buns because they will rise up as they bake.

Cover the pan loosely with a tea towel. Let the buns rise for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (or 180ºC — this takes about 10 to 15 minutes). Bake the buns for 45 minutes, or until they turn a rich golden brown.

After taking the buns out of the oven, be sure to immediately remove them from the baking pan by running a palette knife or spatula around the edges of the buns. Then turn the pan upside down onto a wooden board or tray, and tap the bottom of the pan lightly to help release the buns. You must do this immediately, otherwise, the syrup will harden and it will be difficult to remove the buns from the pan.

Since the baking pan will be hot, use oven mitts to protect your hands. Let cool slightly before serving. Makes 12 sticky cinnamon buns.

Anna Olson’s shows are aired on the Asian Food Network. Check your local listings for the schedule. She also has a YouTube channel called “Oh Yum.”