Book Update, Part III: Recipe Testing

Book Update

This is the third episode of my Book Update series, in which I share the ins and outs of writing a cookbook — or at least the way I’m tackling it. (You can read the first two parts about The Book Deal and The Recipes.)

Back in late July, when the sun was shining bright and the air was crisp with elation and hope and the workmen had not yet adorned the facade of my building with an ugly brace of light-depriving scaffolding, the list of recipes was ready. That was all good and dandy, but of course the real work was just about to begin.

My mission, should I choose to accept it — and considering I had signed a contract in blue ballpoint pen there seemed to be little doubt about that — was to bring these recipes to life by testing, tasting, and writing them up if I deemed them worthy of my readers’ taste buds.

Since my previous dayjob had taught me that any project looks easier on a spreadsheet, I drew one up with two tabs: the first one was labelled “To test”, listing my seventy-five recipes, and the other one “Tested”, which looked dauntingly empty at first.

In the to-test list, I flagged the recipes that I could cook for my weekday lunches, the ones that were more suitable for company, the ones that were easy (because they were already tried and true and I just needed to give them a final whirl to check quantities and cooking times), and the ones that required a little reflection and research (because I knew what I wanted to achieve, but didn’t quite know how yet). I also highlighted those recipes that had a high seasonal factor, with ingredients that made a fleeting appearance on market stalls — such as strawberries, nectarines, or young zucchini — to make sure I tested them in their right time.

I started to work my way through the list, choosing whichever recipe fitted the day’s mood, taking every opportunity to share the fruits of my labor and get outside opinions, striving to test three or four recipes a week, getting dangerously backlogged when other writing projects competed for my time, and then doubling my efforts to make up for it. We’ve been eating quite well I must say, and I thank my lucky stars that we have a dishwasher (the appliance, not the employee).

For each of the recipes, the process is this: I write down the ingredients and estimated quantities on my trusted companion The Spiral Notebook. I get to work in the kitchen to test it, following or correcting what I had envisioned, and jotting down notes on the increasingly blotchy pages. I taste the dish, decide whether some steps or ingredients or amounts need to be changed, and write up the recipe. If anything has been modified, the recipe gets tested again using the new version, until I’m satisfied with the result. I also try to have leftovers whenever the recipe lends itself to it, because I have found that when you’ve put a lot of thought and cooking time in a dish, it can sometimes dull your ability to judge it right away.

After just a few weeks of this, I started having waking nightmares in which the book would come out and the recipes wouldn’t work at all and everyone would snigger and throw sharp stones at me: I clearly needed the fresh input of recipe testers. I decided to call upon the generosity of C&Z readers, and placed a post on the forums, asking if anyone was willing to help me test the recipes. The response was quite overwhelming — I had over a hundred volunteers — and for this I am truly grateful*.

The way I work with recipe testers is that I send them a batch of three or four recipes to test, with a little form along which to format their notes**. I’ll answer any question they may have about the ingredients and the process, and when they come back to me with their comments, I will work these into the recipes to make them easier to read and follow.

To this day, I have tested and approved fifty-six out of the seventy-five recipes, and I am quite pleased with the overall shape they are forming: they feel like a good reflection of my cooking tastes and ingredient fancies, and to be truthful I can’t wait to unveil them to you.

I have in fact tested a few more than that, but some were a bit of a disappointment: they sounded like good ideas at the time, but didn’t quite live up to my expectations, and were hence replaced by more exciting ones. Likewise, I noticed over time that a few dishes kept being brushed aside when I was browsing through the to-test list to decide what was next, and decided that if even I wasn’t wriggling my toes with eager anticipation, then they had to be tweaked, buffed up, or simply abandoned to make room for new ones.

And so, with just four months left before my manuscript is due (just so you know, thinking about this does make the hair in my nape stand up in panic, but this is usually alleviated by breathing deeply and/or indulging in a little piece of dark chocolate), it seems I am on the right track. But of course, there is still work to be done on the writing and photography, so stay tuned for the next installments of this Book Update series…

Note: If you are looking for books that deal with recipe writing and testing, let me recommend again two that have proved very helpful: The Recipe Writer’s Handbook and Will Write For Food — the latter is about food writing in general, and includes a section on recipes.

* It seems unlikely that I’ll be able to send recipes to everyone, but I am trying to include as many volunteers as I can in this project. If you have replied to my call and are still very interested in taking part but haven’t yet received recipes, please email me and I’ll do my best to send some your way.

** Here is the form I’ve created:
Appeal: Did the recipe appeal to you at first glance?
Clarity: Was the recipe clear enough? Is there something you feel could be added or better explained?
Preparation: Was the dish easy to prepare? Did everything go according to plan? If not, what was different?
Baking time and temp (if applicable): Were they accurate?
Result: What did you think of the finished product? Did you and your friends/family like it? Was it what you expected?
Servings: Did the serving count and serving size sound right to you?
Repeater: Would you make it again? If not, why?
Other: Any other thought or comment?

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