When I'm working on a new version of a classic recipe, my first instinct is skepticism. Take creamed spinach, for instance. The classic dish is made by slowly cooking down spinach in a lightly thickened mixture of heavy cream seasoned with onions and nutmeg. Simple. But does the spinach need to cook that long? What if I blanched it first? Perhaps cream is not actually the best medium—why not, say, cream cheese or sour cream, or even a purée of some kind? Would it still taste like creamed spinach if I kept the spinach bright green and a little crunchy, or does it need to achieve that army-green, totally tender consistency?
Once you start down rabbit holes like this, it's really easy to get lost in them and emerge at the other end in a place that you don't even recognize. I've seen it happen to recipes before. You get so carried away with upgrading, deconstructing, and reinterpreting that by the time you slap it all together, it's barely identifiable as the dish you started with. I'm guilty of the same thing. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, even as a recipe writer, sometimes you get so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you don't stop to think if you should.
Experimenting with creamed spinach for me, then, was really an exercise in reeling it in. In test after test, I found that every supposed "upgrade" to the recipe I could think of (or find in other people's recipes) created a dish that, while it might have been tasty, failed to hit the buttons that creamed spinach needs to hit. Turns out I want my creamed spinach to be a little stodgy. I want it to be drab army green. I want it to completely melt on my tongue as I eat it.
So the bare bones of the creamed spinach recipe in my book are pretty straightforward and classic. The spinach is cooked low and slow to gradually concentrate its juices. Combined with a creamy béchamel sauce, it reduces into a rich, thick coating with a near pudding-like texture. The only minor embellishments are a doubling-up of the alliums (I use shallots and garlic) and a last-minute shot of crème fraîche, which serves a function similar to when it's added to creamy scrambled eggs at the last minute: a final dose of creaminess and fresh flavor. For the absolute ultimate holiday side dish, make your crème fraîche from scratch and broil the whole shebang topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
–Sections of this article are reprinted from The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science with permission from W. W. Norton.