For the last several years, while I've coauthored five cookbooks with five different chefs, my professional role has been Full-Time Pain in the Ass. As any of the chefs with whom I've collaborated can tell you, I'm well suited for the position.
It's been my job to badger them with questions about pan dimensions; to hound them for plausible substitutions for dried wood ear mushrooms; to rush at them, measuring spoons in hand, to ensure that a pinch is only a pinch. Behind their backs, I've rolled my eyes when their recipes casually called for a Vitamix, a chinois, or any other of a dozen tools that the average home cook most likely doesn't have.
So I naively thought that when it finally came time to write my own book—a long-held dream—it would be a breeze. After all, I know how to write a book proposal. I know how to draft and retest recipes. I know what it's like to cook in a home kitchen, and I know how many rounds of edits come between a manuscript and a finished copy.
And now I know how wrong I was.
As the deadline for my first solo cookbook, Repertoire, draws near, I have been to the grocery store every day—sometimes twice a day. My home kitchen, once used to make tidy dinners for two adults and two children, is now in constant chaos. I've made gingerbread six times, tweaking the recipe with each iteration, until the sight of it cooling on the counter fills me with rage and despair. I have cursed over trays of burned nuts, left toasting in the oven too long while I tended to beef browning on the stove and ice cream churning on the counter. I've delivered impossibly crispy potato pancakes to neighbors, foisted not-quite-right cookies on the UPS man; I've frozen half-eaten chickens with plans to return to them later, unable to waste the birds by tossing them into the compost, unable to stomach the thought of another bite.
The premise of my cookbook is that it contains dishes that I cook all the time, or, as I promised in my proposal, the "infallible recipes that form the backbone of my cooking life." The proposal I submitted introduced the project and included a table of contents plus a complete recipe list; I labored over the proposal for over a year before my agent sent it out to publishers to review. Because I'd done such a comprehensive outline, and because the recipes I'm including are my favorite dishes—the ones I've been making for years—I thought the recipe development process would be relatively easy. Or, at least, it would be easier than fixing a laser eye on a chef who attempts to drizzle in an unmeasured amount of heavy cream at the last minute, or decides on a whim to grill rather than roast the chicken.
But, through the process of writing my own book, I've learned that codifying something I do intuitively is frustrating as hell. I've also realized that part of what makes a good cook is the ability to riff on a recipe, to alter it based on his or her own taste and the ingredients on hand. Did I make the last batch of tortilla soup with Early Girl tomatoes I froze in the summer, and does that explain why this batch, made with store-bought canned tomatoes, isn't quite as good? Is it possible I tossed some long-frozen oxtail into the stockpot the last time I made chicken stock, making it especially silky and gelatinous? What did I do last time? What should I do next time? I'm balancing my commitment to providing foolproof recipes with my own desire as a home cook to add that last browning bit of fennel to the soup pot, to use cheddar in this batch of gougères because I've run out of Gruyère. It all matters, and it all doesn't: Part of my goal with Repertoire is to inspire home cooks to think and taste while they're cooking, to use the book as a jumping-off point but have the confidence to make a recipe their own, to riff on it until it feels like it's part of their own repertoire as much as it is mine.
I think about the chefs I worked with on their cookbooks, and I can finally appreciate the exasperation with which they met my questions—how long should I cook it? (Until it's done, they replied.) How much salt should I add? (To taste, they said, shrugging.) Writing a recipe that will work for every cook in every kitchen is a tedious task, one that clips the wings of a freewheeling cook.
But this is the real work and the real magic of a cookbook: to distill one's perspective and experience, one's trials and errors, into a spectacular recipe that readers can use as a roadmap to a great meal. When I think of it like that, I'm sure I've got the best job in the world.
But oh, how there have been setbacks along the way. Last week, I tested a recipe for spatchcocked chicken. I've made dozens and dozens of spatchcocked chickens over the years, so, in my mind, I'd already checked the writing of this recipe off my to-do list. I love this method—removing the backbone so the chicken can be opened like a book and flattened slightly—because the bird cooks quickly and has a broad expanse of crispy skin. On an ordinary night, when I'm just making this chicken and not testing how I make it, I cut out the backbone with a pair of kitchen shears, arrange the chicken on a baking sheet, and toss it into a cranked oven. I fold a load of laundry, administer justice in a quarrel between my two boys, make a salad. I don't set a timer—I just pull it out when it seems done. But on the evening I tested this recipe for the book, I slavishly measured the ingredients for the spice rub, carefully minded the oven temperature (starting it high and then lowering it), and set a timer.
When the timer chirped, I transferred the chicken to a cutting board as my hungry children circled around me like vultures. As I began to carve, I discovered that the bird was totally raw at the bone, and spilling pink juices all over the board. The chicken was mocking me. "Did I mention I'm writing a cookbook?" I said to my wife, Sarah, who was already reaching into the freezer for some tamales to placate our ravenous brood while I returned the chicken to the oven. I hate moments like this, of course, when my confidence is temporarily shattered. But I also love them because they remind me why it's so important to write recipes that work, and to test them until they're perfect. We ate three more spatchcocked chickens that week, until what emerged from the oven was ready for prime time: golden brown, crisp-skinned, and, yes, cooked all the way through.
When I'm cooking for work, sometimes it just feels like work, not the relaxing, fun hobby that got me into this in the first place. To keep pace with my deadline, I have to make meals count, so dinner is often less about what I feel like eating and more about whatever recipe I need to refine. Like a lot of people, I want to braise in winter and eat the hell out of spring's first asparagus, so I'm trying to align my testing schedule so that I'm cooking and eating seasonally, rather than trying to make my favorite corn salad with the starchy ears now available at my local grocery store or simmering cauldrons of French onion soup on days when it feels too hot to turn on the stove.
When I worked on other people's cookbooks, I was able to maintain an objectivity that was helpful in the recipe-testing process. A dish either worked the way the recipe said it would, or it didn't. It was delicious, or it wasn't. When it comes to my own recipes, it has been hard to know when it's as good as it can be. I might make a dish once, or twice, and still feel like something's not right. I'll tweak the recipe, adding an ingredient or changing the cooking method. My friends may love the third and fourth iterations, though they may grow tired of me standing nearby as they take the first forkful, quizzing them, "Does it need something?" A friend asked for my gingerbread recipe after tasting version two (out of six). "It's perfect," she enthused. It's hard not to sound like a jerk when you tell someone that the sugar-dusted square they just tasted and loved is far from perfect, that it's just a work in progress.
What would happen, I wonder at night, if I swapped the all-purpose flour for bread flour in my calzone dough recipe? Could I reduce the number of egg yolks in that chocolate ice cream custard and still get the same creamy result? There are a million ways to alter a recipe, and so there are a million ways to drive yourself crazy considering the possibilities. So I don't dwell—instead, I concede success when my wife cuts a fat wedge of the cake I made the night before and eats it for breakfast, or when a friend tries something I've cooked and says, pleadingly, "That's going in the book, right?" And sometimes, after I've tested a recipe many times, I have to admit that it's not going to make the cut—I want every one of the 75 recipes in my cookbook to be absolute slam dunks, which means some are going to hit the cutting room floor.
I thought it impossible that I'd end up being harder on myself than I'd been on the chefs I've worked with, the ones I'd cajoled and badgered with questions. Turns out I was wrong about that, too.
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