The Highs and Lows of Recipe Testing
As professional recipe developers in the process of writing a cookbook, we’ve learned that a recipe that works out perfectly the first time is as rare as finding a baby unicorn that coughs up winning lotto numbers. Even if you know what you’re doing, the recipe usually comes out fine, at best. Even if it turns out great, there’s still the need to test variations; tweak the spices, bake instead of broil, use half a cup less flour.
A toasted orzo pudding I worked on is perfect now. Now. The first time I tested the recipe the pudding was so thick you could turn the bowl upside down and it wouldn’t budge. The next time around it tasted like curdled milk and foul eggs…I’m not sure what happened there. It took trial and error to get the damned thing right.
Perfect the first time? Rare indeed.
But not impossible.
Penne served with Lincolnshire Poacher, cotija, and chorizo? Spot on. I could almost hear the heavenly choir singing. The dish tasted like childhood acceptance.
Even better, the testers I sent the recipe to loved it. Their friends demanded the recipe. Potential buyers for my cookbook! I thought. Huzzah!
All this perfection affects me every time. The dopamine flooding my brain from finding the four-leaf clover of food seizes my thoughts. I imagine the stunning picture of this dish in the book, and the page stained with saliva. My book will, naturally, become a New York Times best seller, and I wonder who will play me in the movie.
It’s a lovely ride.
It starts innocently enough; an inspired thought, the freshest ingredients, and a cheese sent down by the Almighty himself on the wings of beaming, rosy-cheeked cherubs. I think, this is it. This will be the dish that makes me the next Amanda Hesser, the recipe that will be chiseled onto my headstone for all future generations to remember me by. Yes, I will be happy sailing into eternity labeled, “Shropshire in a Ginger Carrot Béchamel over Radiatore.”
I gather my ingredients – because, after all, a perfect dish requires perfect mise en place – and begin the ritual. I lovingly chop the vegetables and crumble the bright, tender blue cheese into a bowl. Butter sizzles gently in the saucepan, joined a moment later by two tablespoons of flour and a few swirls of the wooden spoon. My beautiful roux deepens in color. Just like it’s supposed to.
Having done this a thousand times, my confidence is high. I add the milk and twirl my spoon like a conductor over an orchestra, enjoying being in the zone. But I quickly realize there’s a sour note in my overture. Something’s gone wrong. The flour refuses to play nice with the milk - floating about like stubborn, carb-laden islands. The sauce has broken.
Annoyed but undeterred, I ditch the dead béchamel and start afresh. Sauce #2 is a champ and carries through, so I add the carrot puree and grated ginger. The kitchen once again smells of success. I briefly entertain a vision of my corner office at Saveur.
Seconds before I’m ready to add the most important part of the sauce (the whole point of this dish) there’s a crash. I turn to see a fat, furry blur streak through the room. The cat has gotten into the cheese, and his clumsy, elderly joints fail both of us as the bowl of crumbled Shropshire flies over the counter and scatters across the carpet. I do a quick priority check. Which is more important, saving my béchamel or committing felineacide? Lucky for my cat, the little devil on my shoulder is also a cook.
I crumble more cheese at lightning speed. There’s no time for thoughtful preparation as my béchamel begins to shrivel. The sauce is just barely saved and poured over ramekins of pasta, which I slide into the oven to bake. A brief check 15 minutes later shows four exquisite mini casseroles, bubbling and browning flawlessly. Five more minutes and they’re ready to eat.
The timer dings. Two hungry cookbook authors dive in, excited beyond belief to taste this dish that will make us famous. He bites first and glances sideways, a look that says, “Um, WTF?” Somehow we’ve created a perfect storm of perfect ingredients that combine to produce - nothing. An insipid dish - lackluster at best. A veritable void of flavor.
Exasperated, we throw the dishes in the sink and start over. There’s no time for the pity pot. Our publishing contract contains no clause that makes allowances for fragile egos. Mental note: ask our agent about that for book #2.
In reality, it’s rare that a single bite of a dish is enough to prove that it’s flawless. And if you’re writing a cookbook you have to make around 75-100 more equally peerless recipes, so you’re faced with the dilemma of comparing perceived perfection to itself.
In the end you have to accept that they won’t all be rock stars. Not to everyone. There’s no accounting for another’s taste, or skill in a kitchen, or how hot or cold their oven runs. Regardless of how well written a recipe is, someone will botch it up because A) they can’t read, or B) they decided to change it (the recipe, of course, will be held at fault).
Not to worry, there will be more encounters with perfection: fettuccini with spicy crab sauce laced with musky Rogue River Blue; Mini-cocottes of meaty Nicasio Square and spinach. These little victories balance out the trials and tribulations any cookbook author faces time and again.
Written by Garrett McCord & Stephanie Stiavetti
Photo by Matt Armendariz
Garrett McCord and Stephanie Stiavetti are both professional food writers and recipes testers living in Northern California. Their book, Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, will be published in Fall 2013 by Little, Brown.