Ask an expert: Baking-show contestant shares tips for sweet success

Contestant John Fowler on CBC's The Great Canadian Baking Show
UVic grad and employee John Fowler impressed during his time as a contestant on CBC’s The Great Canadian Baking Show. Photo by Carmen Cheung, courtesy of CBC

In our Ask an Expert series, we learn useful tips and life hacks from UVic alumni.

Who: John Fowler
Expert in: Home baking, among other things. Fowler was a recent contestant in the CBC’s The Great Canadian Baking Show.
Current job: Administrative Officer in UVic’s Geography department.
UVic degree: Master of Science in Geography, 2005

1. What treat is a must-do for your own holiday baking?
Mince pies. My partner, Martin, LOVES them and they are becoming a tradition (must-have) during the holidays.

Mince Pie
Photo by John Fowler

2. Do you have any new twists on holiday-baking classics?
I like to add citrus zest (lemon, orange, grapefruit) whenever I can to add another flavour dimension to the bake. Oatmeal-raisin cookies taste extra delicious with a teaspoon of orange zest added to the dough.

3. One premium ingredient that is worth the expense: High-quality chocolate.

Yule Log
Chocolate Yule Log. Photo by John Fowler

4. An ingredient you feel is overrated: Fondant—it can make a cake look great but does anyone ever eat it?

5. One baking tool that you can’t do without: A scale.

6. What is the most common mistake aspiring home bakers make?
If the recipe calls for room-temperature ingredients (such as butter, eggs, cream cheese, etc.), make sure they are at that temperature. By having them at the same temperature, the ingredients create a smooth, uniform batter/dough. There are lots of tricks to bringing these items up to room temperature quickly (Google can help).

7. What’s something you learned on The Great Canadian Baking Show?
Never be afraid to try (or bake) something new. More specifically, tempering chocolate and making phyllo dough.

8. Should bakers improvise, or stick to the recipe?
The first time I bake something, I usually stick to the recipe to figure out the original intent. After that, I’ll alter it to suit my taste.

Meringue Cake
Meringue Cake. Photo by John Fowler

9. Since you’re from Newfoundland, what’s an East Coast speciality everyone should try?
Toutons (pronounced tow-ton) is fried bread dough served with molasses. Definitely one of my favorites and something that reminds me of home.

10. Care to share a recipe with UVic alumni?
I make these Orange Chocolate Chip cookies every Christmas and they are one of my all- time favourite cookies. The recipe calls for semi-sweet chocolate chips but try using a darker chocolate (60-70%) for more depth of flavour. If you can’t find the darker chocolate chips, you can chop up a dark-chocolate bar.

Orange Chocolate Chip Cookies (Fine Cooking Magazine)


2 cups (260g) all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 stick (113g) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

¼ cup (113g) whole-milk ricotta cheese, at room temperature

1 cup (199g) sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 cup (160g) mini semisweet chocolate chips

  1. In medium bowl, whisk flour, salt and baking soda until well blended.
  2. Using stand mixer fitted with paddle, beat butter and ricotta on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add sugar, orange zest and vanilla and beat for another 4-5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl.
  4. Add egg and beat until combined, about 30-60 seconds. Reduce speed to lowest setting and add flour mixture until just incorporated.
  5. Add chocolate chips and mix at lowest speed until distributed throughout the dough. Cover dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate until slightly firmer, about 30 minutes.
  6. Preheat oven to 350F and set rack to middle position. Line large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  7. Drop the batter by one heaping tablespoon about 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until cookies are set around edges, 12 to 14 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through baking. Let cookies cool on sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and let cool completely. Cookies can be stored in airtight container for up to 5 days. 
Ricotta Orange Cookies
One of Fowler’s favourite recipes is these Orange Chocolate Cookies from Fine Cooking Magazine