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?

  • http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/ sam

    Just curious – is recipe testing a paid job? its great you get regular people to try them out. I am convinced that too much recipe testing goes on in test kitchens instead of real homes.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Hello Sam! The recipe testing is not a paid job here, but there will be acknowledgments and a thank-you gift for the testers.

  • http://www.fransktkok.typepad.com Annette

    Bonjour Clotilde,

    I just wanted to let you know that I’m enjoying your posts about the cook-book writing immensely.
    Thank you for the tip on “Will Write For Food”. It gave me lots of ideas about how to spruce up my own food blog – to start with.

  • http://threelayercake.com Three Layer Cake

    It must be pretty hard work to come up with 75 new recipes (not just new to you, but also relatively new to the recipe world!!) Congrats on your perseverance!

    The form is a great idea! I really appreciate cookbooks which warn of any possible “non-normal” looking situations (or warn of seeming anomalies during preparation like a cake batter which at some point may look curdled), so I know if I’ve done the right (or wrong) thing. And I like it when cookbook authors include notes on possible substitutes (if you can’t find X…Y will work just as well– something like that would go over well with the Reader who preferred American ingredients over non-American ones!!!)…

    kristina

  • Stephanie

    I can’t wait to read your cookbook, and also the books you recommended!
    Have you tried recipe software for keeping track of all the recipes? It’s nice to be able to put keywords on your recipes (like ‘try soon’ or ‘maybe’) – I really like bigoven.com’s software for that.

  • sarah

    ditto on the “non-normal” situations. strange things happening to your recipe can scare the home-cook. maybe even a professional one too!

  • Joan

    Already I’m imagining giving THE book as a gift…ah the recipient list is growing :-) Clotilde, it’s as if we, the c’nz readers, are flies on the wall…enjoying the process…sending you love and encouragement all the way…with warmest wishes

  • http://www.creampuffsinvenice.ca Ivonne

    Clothilde,

    We’re behind you 100% … keep up the great work with the book!

  • Toast

    hey, if you are still or ever again in need of testers i’m more than willing. :) Yumm.
    Good luck with the book, are we gonna be able to get it over here in the UK?

  • http://www.ninecooks.typepad.com lydia

    Love reading about your progress on the book. One thing I learned about recipe testing when I wrote a cookbook is that you might want to test the recipes using both metric and American standard measures, rather than relying on a mathematical conversion that often doesn’t quite work. I know it’s a lot to ask, but it’s worth it, to keep those nightmares at bay!

  • http://cadream.exblog.jp/ Satoko

    I’ve been enjoying your blog for last few months. Good luck with your book writing! I’ll definitely buy your book and maybe translate it to Japanese to publish it in Japan! If you still need a recipe tester, I’ll be happy to help:-)

  • Angelique

    Hello! I’m new(ish) to your site. I was wondering,where do you get your recipe ideas? Are they borrowed? Or, are they created by you? Or, do you resurrect recipes from older classics? Am just curious… lovely work on this website. Hope to return again soon.

  • http://www.zeninthekitchen.blogspot.com Tijen

    what do you think about the recipe smelling? I feel like I smell recipes when I see them. not all of them of course but when I read it I feel the taste and smell of it which is like a game to me, which I’ve been playing since I was a kid.
    tijen
    the turkish cookbook/food writer

  • http://www.tangoinhereyes.blogspot.com holly

    Reading your story brought back a memory of me as a child having the idea of writing a cookbook, and the process of gathering recipes. Funny what can trigger a long buried memory. I have had a hankering for your macaroni, cheese and spinach dish since you posted it, but have yet to try it for fear it maybe come an addiction!

  • http://intheshadowsofthesign.blogspot.com/ Cynthia

    As someone who was lucky enough to test a few of Clotilde’s recipes, I gotta say that if those recipes were ANY indication of what’s coming, we should all be super excited. My toes haven’t stopped wiggling!

  • the clean plate club

    I’d be happy to help, too, if you need more mouths/hands/kitchens!

  • Maureen

    I would love to test recipes. Am always making things and bringing them into work. Our scientific research staff (medicine) descends with great glee and joy on new tasty treats. They are equally vocal when things aren’t up to snuff:)

  • http://karen.mychronicles.net Karen

    Thank you for sharing this with us Clotilde. Good luck on the book!

  • Shoma

    Bonjour Clotilde,
    Glad to hear you’re making such good progress– I’m really looking forward to your cookbook! And if you do need more testers, I’d be more than happy to eat… um, I mean, help out :)

  • http://rue-madame.diaryland.com Martine

    I used to work for a publisher in SF—a publisher whose cookbooks were routinely written by authors who did not test their recipes! We would find out that recipe ingredients and steps were wrong when the photographers and stylists would call and say “Hey, I just prepared and plated the Surprise Chocolat and it’s ugly and flat as a pancake. Tell the author!” So nice to know you’re obsessing about ensuring your readers achieve consistent and delicious results. Je te souhaite beaucoup de succès!

  • asha

    Clotilde, I am overdue for buying a scale, but out of curiosity, will your measurements be in both grams and cups?

  • kate

    Clotilde, I’d love testing your recipes, so if you need any more help just let me know. I think it is a brilliant idea to let ordinary people test because only this way you get an idea what the struggles in a non professional household could be and it will make your cookbook all the better and easier for your readers-to-be.

  • Susan

    Bonjour,

    I must say I agree. Since you have so many fans from all around the world it might be best to include measurements in metrics and US measurement systems. I also agree with recommending substitues in the margins for ingredients. I find recipe books that make it as simple as possible for the “at home cook” tend to be much more successful.

    Thank you for sharing! We love it!

  • Jon

    I’d love to help test recipes if you’re still in need.

  • Judith in Umbria

    I was laughing but with misty eyes as I read the first part of this. I recently wrote a very tiny cookbook and because I’d run into what were obviously untested recipes before, I decided each would be tested five times and the last tasting had to be done by Italians– since the cookbook is Italian. Imagine me one Sunday cooking 16 different dishes over a 20 hour period because the tastings just took too long otherwise. At one point one of the tasters criticized me for changing into sweat pants from tight jeans! I could cheerfully have added grilled Italiano to the book at that moment.
    Ahh well, I didn’t come here to change them, and the fact that I even set out that day wearing tight jeans is a sign that they have changed me.
    I sincerely hope you don’t gain the weight I did testing all those recipes. You’re young. You have time to check into a spa to get over the experience.
    Good luck!

  • alexs

    great stuff, great book recommendations, too. You are truly a gem and a blessing to us all–anything anything anything we can do to help–please ask! Ready and willing.
    I would agree with a couple comments above about providing metric and imperial measurements/heat throughout, when I write recipes for my clients diets I put both, sure saves lots of time answering questions later.
    cheers and luck to you!

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