Portrait of Madame Claire
Waxing poetic on Bon Appétit’s YouTube sensation Claire Saffitz whose Gourmet Makes series has a cult following.
Claire Saffitz is teaching me to make cakes.
She’s not in my kitchen; she’s on screen, working out of the Bon Appétit test kitchen, high in the big, phallic spire of One World Trade Center.
Her skin has the luminous pallor of a woman in a John Singer Sargent painting, and in her black hair there is a single, evocative streak of grey. On someone whose face was less perfect, it might look like Cruella De Vil chic; on Saffitz, it looks less like an affectation and more an acknowledgement of the ways nature has been kind to her. She looks at the camera with guileless hazel eyes, a soft pink flush clinging to her high cheekbones. Her hands are always deftly working at one of many culinary errands, and she speaks in a deepish voice with a see-sawing, rhythmic quality to it. When her hands pause – which is rare, between the gesticulation and the chopping, stirring and sauteeing that take up much of her time on camera – they’re small and delicate, without polish, to match her bare, lovely face. When she tastes her creations, her bites are perfect, feminine without pretension, never messy. She reminds me of Hestia, Roman goddess of the hearth; of Degas’ “Woman Combing Her Hair”; of Rodin’s sculpted kiss in marble. She could be a milkmaid in a 17th-century portrait, or a queen sitting in her regal chair, so self-possessed is she, so lovely. And all of this is available on YouTube for free.
What I’m saying is I’ve fallen in love with Claire Saffitz, without ever having met her, or having the opportunity to interview her for this essay, although Condé Nast offered promotional photos and recipes to run alongside this narrow column of text. If Condé Nast had offered me a locket with a snippet of Claire Saffitz’s hair within it, wrought of the most delicate silver, or a painted likeness meant to be carried close to the bearer’s heart, this would perhaps begin to be appropriate. Claire makes me want to write courtly odes. To hoist my fat ass onto a destrier and knock knights around until I win her favor, perhaps a used wooden spoon, or a whisk. I would duel for her if I knew how to duel.
In the meantime, I will make do with the skills she is imparting: how to bake a cake. How to layer it. Frost it. To whisk egg yolks, smear softened butter over a metal pan, how to froth flour with buttermilk into a soft and liquid batter. She urges me to beat the batter until it is light, to brown my cake around the edges, to smear icing in perfect spatula figure-eights. They say if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a night. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. But no amount of sheet cake could cure the hunger Claire Saffitz has awakened in me.
I first fell in love with a girl in my sophomore year of high school; she was also luminously pale, with dark hair that fell in one dark sheet past her shoulders. She did lights for the school play, I was on stage, and when she turned the hot gaze of the machine on me I imagined it was her fingers on my shoulders, on my lips. I dated men, married one, divorced one, dated more men, and a few women here and there. But what I felt, toward the girl in high school, and with Claire, was more than just the earthy lust that saw me half-prone in backseats and narrow dorm beds. It was a longing that went beyond longing, a longing to the grace I saw embodied in them, in that delicacy of movement, in that timid, crumbless bite, instead of swarthy, stumpy, hairy, clumsy me.
The earth has existed for so very long – the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic, the Mesoarchean. I could have been born a trilobite, a stegosaurus, a goose, a redwood, a Viking. Instead I was born human, and in the right era to watch Claire Saffitz attempt to recreate a Gusher. Words cannot describe such luck as this. Nor is it easy to describe her valiant, multi-day effort to recreate Gushers outside a factory. I pine for her; she makes hexagonal molds and freezes and unfreezes and refreezes her proto-Gushers; I swoon for her; she recreates Doritos, crunchy, spicy, sweet. It’s a one-way relationship, but I can abide that; after all, so is my relationship with God.
She first went viral with her series, in which she attempted to recreate factory-made junk-food classics, from Pringles to Sno-balls. Absent potassium citrate, maltodextrin and the other polysyllabic chemicals that make a Gusher a Gusher (or a Cheez-It a Cheez-It), Claire is forced to resort to guesswork and cunning, measuring her “gourmet” Cheez-its with a ruler, peering at their lamination between long black lashes. I long for her to achieve her goals – a perfect Cheez-It, a snappy Kit-Kat, a crisply sugared mallow Peep. I long for her. She works meticulously at these quixotic tasks, occasionally accepting the input of her Bon Appétit coworkers, although their presence on screen inevitably palls compared to her sheer presence. (Brad Leone, star of the massively popular “It’s Alive With Brad” series, has a playful, platonic banter with Claire, and although he is a star in his own right, every second he is on screen speaking instead of her is an absolute waste of my time.)
Now, for the most part, she’s moved on from the Gourmet Makes series, trading recreation for invention. Currently, she is making cakes, her nimble wrists assembling tiers with breathtaking precision. To fill them, she makes whipped ganache, toasted-coconut caramel, vanilla-pineapple compote. She is a poet in sugar and flour, an earthbound angel sent to lull me into tuning out the news, the inevitable gloom of long and hidebound days, the dour, grimy realities of this century. For as long as she wields her spoon, for as long as her dark eyes shine through the screen with delight at a mix or a batter, I know I am alive, for only a living being could yearn as I yearn. I watch her and the bad world melts away into the bowl, until all that is left is sweetness.