As foodies and casual diners, we usually see recipes in their final form. But what goes on behind the scenes to make them so great?
Vital to making any recipe foolproof is its meticulous testing process. Restaurant chefs and cookbook authors are responsible for testing their own recipes, a time-consuming process that calls for multiple tests for each one—which is where pro recipe tester Denise Landis comes in. For more than two decades, she’s scrutinized instructions, measured ingredients, jotted notes and cooked up some of the finest recipes.
Naturally, all that recipe testing prompted Denise to become a recipe creator and cookbook author herself. In 2005, she published Dinner for Eight: 40 Great Dinner Party Menus for Friends and Family, which shows home cooks how to prepare for group entertainment with a dinner party timeline and sample menus for every season.
As an expert in her field, Denise is often asked about what goes in to the process of testing and writing recipes. So what better way to celebrate the craft of food writing than to bring together and cultivate a community of food lovers from all levels who wish to write about food? Launching in February 2014, her groundbreaking digital magazine, The Cook’s Cook, will do just that and more.
In our interview, Denise offers us a sneak peek at life inside a recipe test kitchen and reveals the aha moment that led to her forthcoming publication, created for home cooks and professional chefs alike.
TriMark R.W. Smith: For over 20 years, you’ve tested recipes for The New York Times, cookbooks and professional chefs. Could you describe the experience of being an expert tester?
Denise Landis: I enjoy my work very much because it’s constantly surprising. I never know from day to day what I’m going to be asked to cook. Even after twenty-five years it’s still exciting. Recipes are sent to me by newspaper or magazine editors, and occasionally I am asked to test an entire cookbook manuscript. Sometimes publishers hire me, sometimes authors hire me privately. Once I receive the recipes, I read each one and make notes on questions or possible errors. I look over the ingredients to see if there is anything that should be ordered by mail or for which we might want to offer a substitute. I talk to my client if needed. I shop for ingredients, then I cook. As I cook, I make notes all along the way. I ask myself if the recipe can be organized better, if the timing is accurate, the cooking temperatures appropriate, the correct cookware specified. I check quantity—does the recipe really make 3 dozen? If soup “serves 8,” what’s the total volume and the volume of each serving? Are all the ingredients listed and in the correct measures, and are they all used? Lastly, I edit the recipe in the form required by the publication—or, if I’ve been hired privately, in the style requested by the author.
I have a large kitchen and a great deal of equipment, all intended for use by home cooks. I have every kind of cookware there is—ceramic, glass, terra cotta, black clay, stainless steel, copper, cast-iron (enameled or plain), nonstick, electric… Need some recipes tested for grilled foods? I can grill in a grill pan (I have several sizes) or on my range-top grill, or on a gas grill, or with charcoal, or in a fire pit.
My kitchen is designed like a home kitchen, but with conveniences that make it easy for me to test recipes. Large pull-out bins built into cabinets hold flour and granulated sugar and confectioner’s sugar. I have an instant-boiling-water dispenser at my sink. In my pantry and freezer I have spices and seasonings from around the world—curry leaves, asafoetida, sumac, kaffir lime, every kind of paprika… All of this allows me to test recipes on short notice.
RWS: Of all the recipes you’ve evaluated, which have been the most memorable?
DL: The reasons I remember recipes is because they were very good, very strange or difficult, or, in one particular case, because an ingredient was very expensive. There have been so many great ones, I’d hardly know how to pick favorites. Many of them are in my cookbook, Dinner for Eight: 40 Great Dinner Party Menus for Friends and Family. A few of my favorites from over the years at The New York Times are Mendiant Tart (a chocolate tart), Bosnian Bread (a no-knead recipe that makes two huge loaves), Braised Short Ribs in Porcini Prune Sauce (a hearty winter dish), Curried Scallops with Tomatoes (a simple and very quick recipe with excellent flavor), Maple Glazed Meatloaf (topped with bacon!)…I could go for hours about my favorite recipes and why I love each one.
Among the strange recipes would be one consisting of tomatoes stuffed with pineapple and caramel, and poached in something sweet. There was one that combined cottage cheese, Cool Whip, and powdered lime Jell-O. And odd ice creams! Lima bean ice cream was one. Another was peanut-butter-pickle ice cream that had chunks of frozen pickles—-I gave it some to my neighbors’ children and they loved it!
Some recipes have been challenging because they’ve had to be adapted from chefs who are used to working with a kitchen staff. There was one recipe for a very complicated chicken dish that took at least three hours to make. I worried so much about whether home cooks could successfully execute all the steps, and my husband told me, “Are you kidding? Do you really think anyone is going to try to cook this?” I relaxed, because I actually thought he was right. In any case, there were never any complaints from readers.
The expensive recipe was a simple one with caviar. My husband and I have a foster daughter who was about to leave for college, and we had decided to send her to a summer program on campus. The cost of the caviar (for which I was reimbursed) was the exact price of her housing for the entire summer, and that troubled me.
RWS: In February 2014, you will be launching The Cook’s Cook, a free digital magazine for cooks, food writers and recipe testers. What inspired you to start the publication?
DL: After 25 years as a recipe tester and food writer and constantly fielding inquiries from people about how to have a career in those fields, I thought, “Why not share this information in a broad way?” I realized that there was no organization or community specifically of food writers and recipe developers and testers. I felt that one was needed for all levels of expertise, including those who aspire to write about food.
The Cook’s Cook is not meant to be a trade magazine. It’s for anyone interested in writing about food or getting their recipes into type. That includes home cooks who would like to keep a record of the recipes they have created, borrowed, or adapted, or who would like to organize or rewrite recipes they have from an earlier generation. My own adult children have books in which I have hand-written their (and my) favorite recipes. The largest and most elaborate cookbook collection in the world (and I love cookbooks) can’t begin to compare to that.
Consider the sheer number of blogs about cooking. So many people are blogging about food, but they aren’t familiar with the standard forms of writing a recipe or why they should want to utilize one of them. Many professional chefs would like to write a cookbook, but they aren’t sure how to begin. Some writers who are planning to self-publish could use tips on how to make their book more appealing or more useful or reach the perfect audience for their book. And there are people like me who are established their field and who would enjoy connecting with others who are doing the same work.
I decided that articles and instruction should be given away for free. It was obvious that it was going to require an online publication, so I decided to publish a digital magazine, free to subscribers and supported by advertising.
Here’s where to sign up for a free subscription: http://app.streamsend.com/public/9vosv1f35c/2CR/subscribe
Because so many people who cook are interested in the food of other cultures, and therefore have an interest in travel, I decided to approach my favorite tour company, Gate 1 Travel, about teaming with the magazine. The result is an agreement we have with them to offer discounts to our readers if they register for a tour using our code. We will receive a small percentage of each sale that will help us fund publication of the magazine.
RWS: The magazine includes a section on recipe writing tips. As a cookbook author and food writer yourself, what advice can you give chefs and bloggers about writing their own recipes?
DL: In brief, my advice is to be aware that food writing is much more than being a good cook or even a good writer. A recipe is a set of instructions, and the instructions need to be written in a form that other people can understand and follow.
Once you have a collection of written recipes, making them into a cookbook is not an easy task even for an experienced food writer. It usually takes a team to put together a cookbook— author, recipe tester(s), literary agent, publisher, editor, copy editor, photographer, food stylist, and more.
That there is so much to be said on the subject of food writing is why The Cook’s Cook will have a column on food and recipe writing (“The Cook Writes”), a column on recipe testing (“The Cook Tests”), and one on recipe editing (“The Cook Edits”). Each column offers instruction in three levels. The Beginner level is for readers who are unfamiliar with the subject. Intermediate is for those who are familiar with some vocabulary and technique. Professional is written for those who are already employed in the field or are currently seeking employment. Of course, anyone is welcome to read any section he or she chooses. It’s all free on The Cook’s Cook website.
RWS: Which culinary trend would you like to see turn up in your test kitchen this year?
DL: Something new introduced by The Cook’s Cook! I hope and expect that we will be trend setters, sharing the newest information about what’s developing in the world of cooking, starting with farming (and exploring the very definition of “farming”) and following everything that happens to our food from planting to plating.
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