Tag Archives: recipes

Putting Recipes to the Test

They say that the proof is in the pudding. And I say it’s also in the skillet-roasted chicken, the green gazpacho, the risotto with asparagus and peas, the braised lamb shanks with olives and the hazelnut soufflé.

The proof I’m talking about is how well the recipe does its job. Preparation steps and cooking techniques all clearly spelled out? Ingredients all accounted for and in order? Cooking times accurate, descriptions of what “done” means easy to understand, the final product delicious?

Ultimately it’s about how dependable the recipe is. This is one of the key tasks in the work I’ve been doing for over 15 years. Making sure that when I sign off on a recipe and it goes out to the world, that everyone who uses that recipes stands a fighting chance of having good results.

I hate the image of a reader in his/her kitchen having just dutifully followed every step carefully and meeting with some less-than-delicious or -successful outcome, who thinks to themself that they must have done something wrong. Too often, it’s the recipe that did something wrong.  My hope is to be the source of that scenario of frustration as seldom as possible. It’s why I test recipes like mad to work out as many kinks as possible before they get in anyone else’s hands.

Having just done some math in my head (oh…okay, I admit I used a calculator), there are about 1000 recipes in the eleven cookbooks I’ve written and/or tested recipes for in the past dozen or so years. Some recipes were my own (my Homegrown series), many of them collected from a few hundred different restaurants (the Best Places cookbooks), two came from working in close collaboration with a co-author (Rover’s and Memorable Recipes). That number doesn’t count multiple tests of a single recipe, nor the many dozens that were tested but didn’t make the final cut. I’d say that easily doubles (maybe even triples) the figure. Lots and lots of recipe testing.

Recipe testing is one of the most important skills that was packed in my tool kit when I came home from my time at La Varenne in France. I had the phenomenal good fortune of having picked a culinary school whose owner, Anne Willan, was (and still is) a prolific cookbook author. As part of my editorial stagiaire (like internship) duties, I helped with a number of cookbook projects doing recipe research, writing….and testing. I learned that–done right–testing is a really detailed process that takes a lot of careful attention and note-taking. Every minute of sauteing/baking/reducing time is carefully monitored, descriptions of specific techniques scrutinized, tastes along the way to verify the flavors are building as desired. Careful testing cloaks the recipe in confidence of its reliability.

I am going to be on a recipe testing rampage for the next few months. In a near-future couple of posts, I’ll tell you more about the specific projects in question. In the mean time I just wanted to bend your ear about this behind-the-scenes part of the cookbook process that I figure most readers aren’t too aware of.

And I have a question. Do you ever stand in the kitchen in the midst of a recipe and hit a wall, whether it’s a technique not well described, an ingredient you don’t know how to approach, a piece of equipment you don’t have, an expectation by the author that isn’t reasonable in your home kitchen? I’d love to hear any of your recipe-frustration stories. To better understand the challenges that pop up in “real world” situations outside my own home kitchen. And to get a little bit better at making sure my own recipes (a random sample of them are here) avoid those pitfalls.


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Beer Meets Birthday Cake

Not long after I got to help toast the 21st birthday of Rover’s restaurant, it was time to celebrate another birthday. My brother’s. He’s older than 21, that’s all I’m going to say. I crafted a dinner menu around one of his favorite food groups: beer. Make that top-quality, finely crafted beer, the likes of Northwest ales and Guinness. No six-packs-of-Bud for this aficionado.

I braised a big Misty Isle brisket with Pike Brewery Pale Ale, fresh bay leaves, lots of onions and root vegetables (turnips, rutabegas and carrots). Came out pretty deliciously, if I do say so. This is one of those preparations that almost doesn’t require a recipe. Doesn’t really matter if it’s 2 onions or 3, you can nix the root vegetables, you can use red wine or other complimentary liquid (beef broth, a blend of broth and wine, etc.) in place of beer. Season the meat well, brown both sides, then set the meat aside. Cook onions in the same pan (oh, almost forgot, lots of chopped garlic too) until they become partly tender and lightly browned. Return the meat, shift onions over and around the meat, then add a couple bottles of beer and a few lightly torn bay leaves. Cover loosely with foil, braise in the oven at 300 degrees for about 4 hours. Better to cook a bit longer and ensure tenderness than risk a still-tough brisket! I added the root veg in large chunks about halfway through.

But you’re here for the cake, I know that. I based my brother’s birthday cake on a recipe from The Best Places Northwest Desserts Cookbook that I wrote. The recipes are all from restaurants, inns, cafes, bakeries, etc. that were in the then-most-recent edition of the Best Places Northwest guidebook (this link is the current edition). It was a really fun project to work on, testing recipes that range from homestyle oatmeal cookies to a swellegant Grand Marnier Cake. This recipe, Black Bear Ginger Cake, came from the Manning Park Resort in Hope, B.C. Their recipe called for Black Bear Ale, from nearby Kamloops. In honor of my brother’s love of Guinness, I used it instead. This makes for a deeply flavored, moist, aromatic, delicious cake that (as a bonus) holds up well for a few days, still tender to snack on later in the week. I whipped up a batch of homemade vanilla ice cream as well, working in some Guinness just before tossing it in the freezer. Made for a great partner to this cake.


Black Bear Ginger Cake, Manning Park Resort, Hope, B.C.

from The Best Places Northwest Cookbook (Sasquatch Books, 2004)


1 cup Black Bear Ale or other dark beer or stout

1 cup molasses

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3 eggs

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

3/4 cup vegetable oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons powdered ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (I was out, so used allspice instead)

12 pieces candied ginger, roughly dime-sized


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.

Combine the beer and molasses in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Take the pan from the heat and sprinkle the baking soda over but do not stir; foam will rise in the pan (will it ever, be prepared!). Set aside to cool for about 15 minutes.

Whisk together the eggs, granulated, sugar, and brown sugar in a medium bowl until well blended. Whisk in the oil. Stir together the flour, powdered ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom in a large bowl.

Whisk the beer mixture into the egg mixture, then whisk this into the dry ingredients in 2 batches. Pour the batter into the baking dish and scatter the candied ginger evenly over the top. Bake until the top springs back when gently pressed, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Makes 12 servings.


The recipe came with a caramel sauce to accompany but I just served this with the ice cream instead.

The terrible irony is that my brother ended up being sick for his own birthday party. But the cake had been made, the brisket braised…not to go to waste surely. We toasted him heartily throughout the evening and even sent a tiny video to wish him well. Happy Birthday, Big Brother!!

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Cooking at Home: Caramel Corn

This is an old friend I hadn’t visited with for some time. The subject of caramel corn came up in a recent conversation and it set me on a nostalgic trip back to when I used to cook up batches of the stuff at home. So I dug out this yellowed, stained recipe from my files and reconnected with a favorite snack. I originally got the recipe from my cousin, who told me she can still picture her source: a recipe card that had come in the mail as part of a magazine promotion or something along those lines.  It’s a pretty standard combination of ingredients and a no-fuss recipe to make.

Here’s my tried-and-true method for making it (with thanks to cousin Pita for the original inspiration!):

popperPut about 4 quarts of popped corn (which I make in my trusty Whirley-Pop popper) in 2 large shallow baking dishes (I use the bottoms of broiler pans).

caramelIn a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup packed brown sugar, 1/2 cup butter (I use unsalted) and 1/4 cup light corn syrup and set over medium heat. Stir gently as the ingredients melt and blend. When it comes to a boil, time for 5 minutes and stir almost constantly. Take the pan from the heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda; the mixture will puff up and lighten in texture (good reason to not use a small saucepan). Fun culinary science going on, I wonder if Alton Brown has tackled this recipe on Good Eats!?

Pour the caramel over the popcorn in as even a fashion as you can. It’s rather pouring caramelgloppy at this point, but don’t worry. Stir to coat as much popcorn as you can (the popcorn invariably flips out of the pans; be prepared with clear counter space to easily retrieve it). Put the pans in a 250 degree F oven for 1 hour. Every 15 minutes, take the pans out and gently stir to distribute the caramel, including scraping up what’s stuck to the bottom of the pan. Switch pan positions at each interval.

popcornWhen done, let the caramel corn cool in the pans but stir every couple minutes to avoid the caramel corn bonding with the pan. Do your best to not eat one whole pan’s worth in the first half hour. I dare you.

This recipes makes for about 2 to 1 popcorn-to-caramel ratio. If you want more caramely corn, I’m sure a double batch of the caramel will easily do the job. I’m happy with this version, since my sweet tooth is a small one.finished

Although I’d always made the recipe in its pure and basic form, this is an ideal platform for variations. The one new twist I did yesterday was tossing French sea salt on the caramel corn after its last turn in the oven. Outstanding! You can certainly vanilla extract and any number of spices (from cinnamon and nutmeg to cardamom and cayenne) to the caramel mixture, and toss nuts with the popcorn and caramel. Maybe toasted coconut? Now that I’ve dug up this recipe again, I may have to do some experimenting.

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