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?



Cheese and Cassoulet

Some people throw legendary dinner parties. Don’t you always want to be that person? Revered for the time you served 200 partridges atop foie gras-stuffed mini pumpkins? Or for the night you whipped up poutine at 2 a.m. for the whole neighborhood?

Neither do I. I don’t have the nerves or stamina to prepare such epic meals. But I like to be there. I like to chronicle such events. And I like to bring the cheese.

That’s why I was thrilled to swan-dive into my neighbor Larry’s cassoulet party on a recent Saturday. I don’t have the patience to make cassoulet – all those days of cooking wings and shanks – but I loved sitting at the table, breathing in the steam.

Corks popped. Tweens trooped in and out of the kitchen. Glasses smashed. And in other parts of the house, dogs barked and games echoed. It was one of those epic parties where a thousand things are happening all at once – wars, wails, wines – and yet nothing distracts from the food.

The cassoulet was sumptuous, full of fall-of-the-bone pork flavor and still-firm beans nestled in around slivers of duck and homemade sausage. The wine, provided from a crew of nebbiolo heads, was blood-rich and pungent.

This was one of those meals before which a hundred emails fly between guests proffering up their best basement vintages. I was happy to lurk, to sip my first real Amarone (a port-like potion with heavy legs), and to collude on a cheese plate with my date, Mike Geno.

The pair of us, both cheese voyeurs, put forth half a dozen rustic selections. A cassoulet cheese board called for rugged elegance, beauties from France and Italy with a few European-inspired Americans thrown in.

Should you find yourself on a cassoulet-themed guest list, may I recommend (from the bottom of the board, moving clockwise):

  • Rush Creek: A gorgeous Vacherin-style cheese from Wisconsin, bound in bark
  • Castelmagno: A mixed-milk crag monster from Piedmont
  • Testun al Barolo: A dapper dandy packed in grape must from Barolo wine making
  • Largo: California’s answer to Coulummiers
  • Leonora: A lemony goat-cheese camisole, from Spain

In Bed with Harold McGee

I don’t care if every woman in the world is consumed with British e-erotica, for me there’s only one book on the nightstand right now. It’s Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of The Kitchen. Granted, it’s not new — it came out in 1984 and was recently updated — but how I have lived  my life without it remains a mystery. It’s science with poetry, or maybe it’s poetry first with science sneaking in the back door. Either way, it’s a beautifully written tome about the structures of our most basic foods, starting with milk.

“Creatures of the breast” — this, Harold tells us, is the meaning of the word mammal. Milk is a primal fluid, he endorses, drawing on the Rg Veda to explore the origins of milk consumption, long before the sippy cup. And did you know that the richest milk comes from the fin whale? It’s 42 percent fat! Horses, on the other hand, produce surprisingly lean milk (just 1.2 percent). You could make lite ice cream.

Being at one with fromage, I didn’t expect to learn much new information, but Harold had lots of surprises up his sleeve. Four facts that stun:

  • Most adults are lactose intolerant because the human body stops producing an enzyme to break down lactose after we exit our toddler stage.
  • Cheese contains little or no lactose, and that includes soft cheeses. (Lactose, a milk sugar, is siphoned off in the whey.)
  • People who say they can’t eat cheese because of lactose intolerance are probably allergic to milk, not lactose.
  • Eating cheese after dinner works to prevent tooth decay. What?! Read below.

Monsieur Fromage hates when I read Harold in bed because I keep reading passages aloud while he is trying to finish his crossword. I can’t help myself. Harold fascinates and titillates all at once. Forget about riding crops and taboo relations, homogenization and “ropy milks” can be just as racy, or at least murmur-inducing.

I have yet to read Harold’s chapers on seeds, sauces, and eggs. At the moment, I’m lost in a sidebar on Indian milk sweets and the keys to foaming milk for a perfect cappuccino. Let me leave you with my favorite discovery: did you know there is a term for the cheese that darkens at the bottom of a fondue pot? In our family, we always called it the “crackle,” and we fought over it like bandits. Harold has a better term: religieuse.

Leonora for Spring

It’s the year of the goat. Everywhere I turn: goat dinners, goat tacos, goat talk. This means I should let you in on a little secret about Leonora. It’s the most luscious Spanish goat cheese on the planet. The texture is gooey-soft, and it comes in a slightly flattened brick that looks like a melting ice cream cake roll. If you’ve sworn off sweets for Lent, you might want to pick up some Leonora for dessert. To continue reading, please click here.

Full disclosure: This post is part of a bimonthly series I write for Di Bruno Bros. I select a cheese from their case, and they pay me to develop content for their site. I run a teaser here to keep you in the loop. 

Brewer’s Plate 2012

One of my favorite places to learn about new local cheese is at The Brewer’s Plate. This annual benefit brings together local food pioneers and Philadelphia chefs for one night of revelry. You’ll get handed a wee pint glass when you enter the National Constitution Center on the evening of March 11, and you can wander around sipping microbrews and noshing local goods until you feel like a whey-fed pig.

Because I usually do some cheese duty behind the scenes, The Brewer’s Plate is offering a discount to Madame Fromage readers. To receive $10 off the cost of your ticket, just visit The Brewer’s Plate and enter the code: mFROMAGE2012TBP

Cheesemakers at this year’s hoopty-doo include:

  • Bobolink Dairy
  • Birchrun Hills Farm
  • Doe Run Dairy
  • Farm Fromage

Some of these cheesemakers rarely make appearances, so this is your chance to meet them and taste their spring selections. Make sure to stop by Bobolink Dairy to try a wedge of Jonathan White’s Drumm, one of the wildest, nubbiest cheese wonders from the area. You won’t want to miss the Anthropologie-esque set-up at Doe Run either.

Brewer’s Plate benefits Fair Food, an organization that promotes local food by connecting farmers, chefs, and the local community. Their farmstand in Reading Terminal Market is home to cheese empresario Paul Lawler, who travels far and yon to scout and sell local dairy. If you’re a fan of local cheese or a curiousity-seeker of all things lacto, please come.

Paul Lawler behind the new cheese case at Fair Food Farmstand