The second most FAQ (after “tell me your best kitchen disaster”) is, “where do you come up with your recipes?” I can’t explain, but let me try to illustrate.
It’s Thursday morning. David, Maggy, and I are at our Pennsylvania house. We wake up early and decide to go to the diner for breakfast. I order two eggs with home fries and toast. Maggy who’s testing with me splits a short stack of pancakes and an order of turkey sausage with her father. A reasonable breakfast if that’s it until lunch.
We arrive home at 8:30 and check our testing schedule: oatmeal and egg salad. Two recipes—seems doable. But those familiar with my style know I’m of the “give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” approach. Whenever I can, I present recipes as a formula or technique—variations on a theme, so cooks have choice, options, see the big picture, become less recipe dependent.
Take Pumpkin Oatmeal with Warm Spices and Toasted Pecans. Sounds great, but what if it’s spring or summer? What if there isn’t a can of pumpkin in the pantry or someone doesn’t like pumpkin? If the cook understands how the recipe works she can tailor it to her tastes.
My approach is good for cooks, but not so good for me on testing days. Throughout the morning we not only tested pumpkin oatmeal, we also cranked out (and tasted) cranberry-orange with toasted hazelnuts, prune with vanilla and walnuts, figs with cloves and pecans, chopped dates with cardamom and pistachios, apricots with ginger, and toasted almonds. (This after spending the better part of another day perfecting the oatmeal formula and testing other variations.) You’d be surprised how a couple of bites of dish after dish over the course of the day can turn you off it for a while.
It’s not even lunchtime yet. We move on. After reviewing our egg salad plan we decide to can a few, add a few, change a few. Thankfully we need a field trip to the grocery store. Among other ingredients are four dozen eggs that I immediately boil in a roasting pan set over two burners. Meanwhile we relieve the fridge of its condiments—mayonnaise, mustards, olives, pickles, roasted peppers, hot sauces, chutneys, horseradish and more.
As I start to make egg salad I think (like I always do when I make the first dish of the day), there’s no way I’ll ever tire of this one. But after making (and tasting) eight egg salads–six hits, one with promise, and one stinker (egg salad with Asian flavoring is not very good), we were starting to feel sick.
As we’re cleaning up for the day, we’re commiserating with fellow blogger, Ivory Hut, about our marathon eating day—how we couldn’t eat another thing, how even the thought of food makes us nauseated. In her wisdom, she suggests maybe we need to make ice cream. Why not try her coconut version, just three ingredients: coconut milk, heavy cream, and sugar. Suddenly the thought of ice cream has a little appeal. We check the pantry. Coconut milk? Check. Sugar? Check. No heavy cream. But I’ve got a can of evaporated milk and it’s almost always a great stand-in for heavy cream (and so much less fat). Wait, we don’t have an ice cream freezer at this house. No problem, says Erika. Just whir it in the food processor, freeze it in a shallow container, stirring frequently as it freezes. The food processor action dissolves the sugar, eliminating the need for heating the sugar and cream. Oh, and then we think about the yummy toasted coconut we used in yesterday’s testing. We add a little. We like. We add a little more. We like a lot.
It’s time for a big break. We go for a walk, clean up, and head to the farmer’s market on our way for a little shopping spree, leaving David in charge of stirring the ice cream. We arrive home late and I’ll be darned if we’re not hungry!
We’re not in the mood for oatmeal or egg salad, but our adobo pork with jasmine rice and a simple salad sure appeals. And that ice cream. Maggy brings the container from the freezer with 4 spoons, and we all dig in as if we hadn’t eaten a thing all day.
I love hearing about your recipe testing–successes and disasters alike! 🙂
Yup, that was a tough day. Not fun at all. The coconut ice cream was the perfect thing at the end though – and I was so excited to learn how to make ice cream without a machine! Now I’m thinking….what other flavors can I make?!?
People are always awed and incredulous when I tell them about all of your recipe testing. How you do it, how long it can take, how expensive it can be, where you get the ideas, and how long we all have to eat it (ugh).
I, of course, tell them all the horror stories like the 40 turkeys and the pounds and pounds of greens. And the not-so-horrible ones like the perfect lobsters or chocolate chip cookie. I always include that I’ve never quite gotten my taste back for chocolate cake after I came home from school to find them covering every inch of the dining room table, the kitchen, then den, and parading up the stairs. And that I have never, ever felt the same about turkey.
Everyone’s always like…’sign me up!’ when I tell them taste-testing is not all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve been with you on some testing days, and it does always start out fun and exciting, but by the end of the day–no matter WHAT we’re testing–we wind up full, exhausted, and often feeling a bit gross. But a long walk, a glass of wine, and a light dinner usually do the trick.
It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Glad it’s you mom, and that we can help.
I just had to comment. I recently discovered your blog and am loving it. Thank you for the wonderful stories and recipes. Oh and for all the testing ….. it’s a tough job, but I’m glad you’re doing it and sharing it with all of us!
Alice from LA says
Thanks for re-posting this on facebook today. I love hearing about the process. And I always like getting led to some of your older recipe posts. What will I cook today, I wonder?…