Many people who buy Anita Chu's cookbooks—Field Guide to Cookies and Field Guide to Candy—are surprised to learn about her day job: she's a consulting structural engineer for a firm in San Francisco. "At first I saw baking as a way to exercise my right brain after a day in the 'number space,'" Anita says. "But then I realized that engineering and baking are similar. Both involve precision. And some desserts, like wedding cakes, are architectural!"
Bay Area native Anita, now 32, started baking while she was a student at UC Berkeley. "My mother, who'd immigrated from Hong Kong, was a great cook but she didn't do American baking," she says. But Anita had always been fascinated by the dessert recipes her mother skipped over, so she taught herself to bake as a way to relieve the stress of studying. Encouraged by enthusiastic feedback from her friends, she quickly moved from basic cookies to more advanced recipes.
In 2005 Anita decided to take her hobby to the next level. She enrolled in Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco, where the rigorous curriculum focused on classic French patisserie. After graduating, she worked full time at a small bakery in Berkeley. She also fine-tuned her photography skills and launched her blog, Dessert First, "as a way to motivate myself to keep baking and taking photos." In three years her fan base has grown to more than 1,000 readers a day. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts to stay in touch with readers and friends.
Anita left the bakery to write the two Field Guides, which required intensive research and testing. (She enlisted a group of lucky friends to help test and taste.) For the candy guide, "I learned a lot about cooking with sugar," she says—such as the exact temperatures at which different stages such as thread, soft crack, and caramel occur. She distilled her findings into a handy chart on Page 20.
With no cookbook writing in her immediate future, Anita is devoting her energies to another big project: her wedding in May 2010. No, she won't be baking the cake, she says, laughing. "But I know so many wonderful pastry chefs now that I'm thinking of inviting them to contribute to a mini dessert table at the cocktail reception!"