Notes on Recipe Development
Several months ago, I spent a long Friday night with apricots. I’d been charged with writing my first recipe for Culture Magazine. The editor wanted me to include two specific ingredients: apricots and feta — “something along the lines of your recipe for baked feta and dates,” she said, “but we want apricots, for color.”
I’ve been inventing recipes since I was seven, when I surprised my parents with hamburgers sandwiched between leftover pancakes — they weren’t bad. Since then, I’ve always cooked more from the hip than from books. The challenge to develop a recipe around such specific ingredients drew me first to my bookshelf, then to my notebook.
If there’s one book I would grab from my house during a fire, it’s The Flavor Thesaurus, by Niki Segnit. The table of contents begins with “Roasted” and ends with “Floral Fruity.” When I need ideas, I simply flip the book open and troll like a starving carp for the next bright spark. In the chapter on “Brine & Salt,” I found nothing, but under “Cheesy,” I found loads of pairing ideas, including goat cheese and anise and even goat cheese and coffee. That lead me to a few brainstorms of my own.
I jotted a shopping list and dashed to the store. When I came home with my trove of feta and apricots (both fresh and dried), I set out to concoct various combinations in small batches with the assistance of a small dog and some Bollywood mixes on replay. There was the Feta and Apricot Phyllo Basket, followed by Phyllo Nests Stuffed with Feta and Apricots. Then I tried a round of Tea-Steeped Dried Apricots with Orange Zest and Feta, until I arrived at the winning number.
Once I realized dried apricots would never look attractive, I fantasized about an inverse deviled egg.
That was the magic minute: half a fresh apricot glazed with honey, stuffed with feta and topped with a rosemary sprig. It took me three tries to get the oven temperature right (I played with baking, then broiling — then both in succession) until I reached just the right level of edge char.
Why am I telling you this? Well, my late-night brainstorm is now on the cover of Culture. I’m thrilled as a bird, but it got me thinking about how many recipes fly around the blogosphere and how few of us actually talk about recipe development. As I watch my Food Writing students explore the recipe realm, I realize how few of them understand how to pair flavors or develop a recipe from scratch.
Over at Vanilla Garlic, Garrett McCord shared his recent recipe flops. It was a great post because it took us behind the scenes, into Garrett’s kitchen, where he is testing ideas for a cookbook. La Phemme Phoodie has also been kicking up dust about copyrighting recipes — she’s a lawyer and food blogger, so she’s got great insights. I’d love to see more behind-the-scenes talk about recipe development. Here are my two cents:
A Few Thoughts on Recipe Writing
Begin with a “color palate” of ingredients. Look at photos, pairing guides, travel magazines, even paintings for ideas — avoid reading a lot of existing recipes so that you don’t repeat what others have created.
Write everything down (ideas, steps, tasting notes).
Buy twice as many ingredients as you think you’ll need. You’re inventing something new — leave room for error and bad ideas.
Invite the neighbors over to taste-test. You’ll have a hard time tasting what’s good after a while, especially if you spend a whole day cooking.
Remake the final recipe several times. What if you raise the heat? What if you knock out a step or two? Do you give too many directions? Not enough? Does the order of your ingredients make sense?