Every once in awhile, I take time to answer something that is on the minds of some of my readers. One of the questions I get asked a lot is “What IS the test kitchen? Do you have a special kitchen just for the blog?”
First off, I wish. That’d be awesome.
Secondly, the test kitchen… hmmm… see, to answer that, I have to tell you a little bit about my actual kitchen.
In my home, the kitchen is the hub of activity. It’s where the family members start the day, and honestly, it’s where we end it. Because of the way our house is set up, you can’t really get very far without going through the kitchen, and it’s such a special place that if you’re going through it, you may as well stop and stay in there for awhile.
Our kitchen isn’t just for making meals together. It’s for enjoying them together. It’s our school space, and it’s our space to play games together at the end of a long week. It’s the place where we talk about our problems or our lives or our plans. It’s where we keep our schedules. It’s where we keep screwdrivers and candle lighters and all of those other odds and ends that we need a million times a day but can’t ever seem to find. It’s literally the hub of our house, and we spend about 80% of our time in there, even when there’s no food involved.
That’s why there has to be some designation. On the days when I’m really laboring over a new recipe or trying to whip out several foods at once, the kitchen becomes the test kitchen. Essentially, that just means “Stand back! I’m going to try something!”
It’s a pretty scary place on test kitchen days. I can’t guarantee that a kitchen passerby won’t be hit in the face with flour (accidentally, of course) or hand smacked for trying to sneak a treat (not accidentally, of course).
On test kitchen days, my mother knows to avert her eyes. She’s not a fan of having the kitchen in shambles, and on the days when I’m in my test kitchen, well… it’s in shambles a lot.
So, while the test kitchen isn’t it’s own place, it is a frame of mind. It’s the way that everyone knows that the kitchen is pretty much off-limits. Or, at least any food I’m working on is, until tasting time.
That leads me to the other frequently asked question that I get… what’s my process?
A lot of people want to know first how I develop a recipe, and second if I bake every day or if I just pile it all up at once.
I have a lot of ways that I develop recipes. Sometimes, I start with a basic recipe and figure it out from there, substituting ingredients to make things work. Sometimes, I start from scratch taking the knowledge that I know about baking or cooking and using resources like The Pastry Chef’s Companion and other amazing books (plus the internet!) to help me figure them out step by step.
No, not every recipe turns out. For example, this weekend, I’m working on a dozen (yes, you read that right) recipes. Only about half of those will see the light of day for some reason or another.
Some won’t even make it to the second step. I’ve had sandwich cookies that never got their filling because the basic cookie was wrong, or buttercream that went down the drain because it was just awful.
Some treats will make it all the way through the entire process, only to be shot down by my closest family and friends, my loyal taste testers. If it gets to them and they decide it isn’t appealing or doesn’t taste right, I won’t post it. It could have been the best idea in my head, but once it got to executing it, it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
My basic baking weekend generally starts with my plan. As I mentioned before, I have an Evernote note for almost every set of posts I do. If I’m working on a recipe series or party or any other major post, I start taking notes there. In the case of recipes, which is what we’re talking about here, I tend to go through all of my notes and ideas and pick out the best ones for my theme. At this point, I may have three or four ideas for a single recipe. For example, I recently worked on a cookie requiring filling, and I debated whether to use chocolate, pumpkin, caramel, or pecan pie filling. Before I can ever head to the test kitchen, I have to narrow that down. I may narrow it down to two or three and try them, but it has to be narrowed down at least somewhat.
Once I get it narrowed down, I do the stuff most people do when they are trying a recipe… I go shopping.
After that, it’s time to get down to business. I begin working and I bake as many things as I can, taking notes in Evernote along the way so I can remember my exact recipe. This helps for two reasons: one, if the recipe goes horribly wrong, I can see what I did and try to fix it; and two, if the recipe goes perfectly, I know what I did so I can post it on the blog.
As I bake, I take pictures. Most baking weekends involve close to two thousand pictures, from start to finish, of each recipe I try. About three quarters of those will be deleted. When you bake, you can’t go back and get shots again, so it’s better to take more photos than you’ll need than to not take enough.
From there, I tweak recipes, and when they’re finally done, I put out the bat signal. Or the taste tester signal, anyway.
Close friends and neighbors come to taste the recipes and give honest feedback. If they don’t like it, I make a note of that. If they love it, I make a note of that. In the end, I cull all of the notes together, and if the feedback is largely positive, I move forward with the post. If it’s not, I either bench the recipe until I can figure out what I can do to improve it, or I just toss it entirely.
Then, I edit my photos, write my posts, and share it with you.
Oh, and then clean the kitchen.
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