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Notes from the Test Kitchen

A Dozen a Day

Here in the test kitchen we conduct anywhere from 30 to 40 recipe tests in any given week, which makes for a lot of shopping, chopping, and tasting. Though it’s still just the start of 2009, we started cooking up a storm the minute we got back in the office after the holidays.

Every week we tally things up to see which ingredients need replenishing, and last week’s winner, eggs, won by a long shot. Maybe it was the frittatas, maybe the cakes, or perhaps the cheese puffs, but we used an unprecedented 60+ eggs in one work week. You’d think we were an all-night diner but we were just busy creating deliciousness that you’ll see coming to the site during the next few months. In the meantime, we’ll be taking our daily doses of Lipitor in atonement.

Camera Gets Hungry, Eats Test Kitchen’s Trifle

Food styling is a big part of our adventures in the test kitchen. We spend at least one day a week getting our recipes camera-ready so readers can see how they are supposed to turn out. Styling is a precise and nitpicky process, but when done well, it helps our photographer make beautiful photos.

But sometimes no matter how much we fuss over a dish, things don’t go right. Take the other day: We were charging ahead on the shots for our Valentine’s Day menu and had just figured out the lighting and camera angle for our Pear-Ginger Trifle when all of a sudden Chris, our photographer, let out a yelp. Concerned he had hurt himself, we threw back the curtains of his studio to discover the nose of his camera in the trifle! It was frustrating, given the time we spent to make the dish look good, but then we took it as a compliment—his camera was so tempted by our food that it had to try some for itself!

Cooks Stink

Whether we have onions and garlic sautéing on the stove, or a pot roast braising in the oven, most visitors to the CHOW test kitchen remark, “Hmmm, that smells good.” And it does, until about 6:30 p.m. when I’m on a crowded bus or train. Then I become that smelly person no one wants to sit or stand next to. Sometimes fellow riders grimace sideways at me, and sometimes they slowly sidle away from me. This is my daily experience.

My own husband is known to occasionally say: “Ewww, what’s that smell?” That would be me. I smell, thanks honey. I spend twice as much time and money on laundry as I should, just to wash the stench out of whatever clothes have been to the kitchen with me—never mind if they’re actually dirty or not.

I’ve been told there are worse things than food to smell like. And in some cases it’s true: I can say a solid day of baking cookies or cakes leaves a much sweeter-smelling laundry pile.

Welcome Back, You

As I return to the test kitchen after my maternity leave, I feel as if I never left. It’s amazing how second nature cooking is to those who are avid cooks. It feels good to be back discussing the bitterness of fennel and the burn of vodka.

With a fury of activity surrounding the end of the year, our deadlines are tight. Four stories need to be tested, edited, and shot in the next three weeks. I initially wished for an easy, laid-back week to ease back into things, but all the activity has turned out to be a blessing: The constant twinges of heartache from missing my daughter are pretty strong, and the distractions are welcome. So bring on the brownies and bratwurst, people, and give me something to cook!

Tastes Like Postnasal Drip

One of my all-time favorite food flicks is Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. I used to watch the opening scene, with the precise chopping and enviable kitchen skills, on repeat when my love for food was budding. I was always saddened by the part in the movie where the chef relies on his friend as his tester because he has lost his sense of taste; it’s a testament to just how large a part the five senses play when it comes to cooking.

So you can imagine how frustrating it is when a cold settles in for a test-kitchen worker—with a lack of taste and smell, you’re about half as useful. As I’ve been battling a never-ending cold, I’ve had to, like the chef in the movie, call in my coworkers for tasting backup. Luckily, we’ve all been working together long enough that we know each others’ preferences and palates. So no matter what illness we’re tackling we can be sure we’re collectively producing recipes that are up to CHOW standards.

The Art of the Scrounge

We’re working on a suckling pig menu in the test kitchen, and my art director sent me prop shopping for the photo shoot. The theme: Catholic Church meets sexy Spanish Medieval. Where exactly do these props exist in retail? Home Depot, wholesale tile warehouses, reclaimed-materials graveyards, Williams-Sonoma, secondhand cookery shops, Chinese restaurant suppliers, and Ross apparently, as I channeled my inner head-to-toe-black-wearing, skull-clad dude to make this vision happen.

More mundane items were easily located, like containers for tarts and mashed potatoes. However, I don’t know if you’ve ever looked for a platter that can house a suckling pig, but large-platter availability pretty much ends at huge-turkey size. Enter Home Depot. Let’s just say that this is where the “leave no stone unturned” theory comes in. Unfortunately, giant pieces of slate—suckling pig size, say—need to be special-ordered. Fail.

Next up: tile. Find blue surface tile. What does this mean? Uh, go to a wholesale tile warehouse with a Pantone swatch and find tile flanked by a bunch of crusty guys who install flooring and want to know why I’m walking around with a fork and napkin laying it next to bargain tile piles. Surprise, I actually found the perfect shade that complements my mashed potato bowl. Luck or skill? Who cares, success!

On my third shopping trip to outfit this pig dinner, I finally checked out Cookin’, the most fabulous cooking materials resale shop ever. Walking inside this magical place, packed floor to ceiling with every vintage dish, pot, pan, knife, and accouterment you can imagine, I feel in my gut that this is the place to find my pig platter. After a few minutes of chatting with the owner, my platter came to me in the form of a clearly Catholic sexy Spanish Medieval black metal cookie sheet. Sounds wrong, but it was so right. And that’s a wrap on pig shopping.

Getting High in the Test Kitchen

New Year’s Eve came early in the Test Kitchen, as we’re busy mixing, shaking, and vetting potential recipes to help you ring in 2009. Of course the main focus is on cocktails but, to mix it up, we’re including some nonalcoholic drinks too. The most anticipated is one made with kava root because we knew pretty much nothing about it until a few weeks ago except that it’s a popular libation in the South Pacific. It may merely be a root, but quite a controversy surrounds kava: It’s not FDA-approved and is said to have a variety of side effects from numbing of the mouth to, in extreme cases, liver toxicity.

Never ones to turn away from an adventure, we started concocting drinks as soon as the powder arrived from the mailroom. We started off by blending up kava root, yogurt, milk, sugar, vanilla extract—a sort of kava lassi, if you will. But it tasted more like a wet cardboard smoothie or, as Amy named it, “Milky Sawdust Delight.” Adela stepped in to work her magic, and after a little more research convinced us that the way to go was to treat the kava root powder like a tea and steep it. We also decided to ditch the lassi angle and focus on improving the taste. A few minutes later, we apprehensively sipped on the newest iteration. It was so much better—like a coconut- and earthy-flavored cocoa—that we poured it over ice and toasted Adela as today’s MVT (most valuable tester).

Oh, and as for the side effects, they’re for real. For the next hour we had tingly mouths, light sensitivity, and a boost of energy similar to that experienced from taking guarana extract. I mean, I was so buzzing with energy it was like I had swallowed a beehive. Luckily, though it’s worn off, I feel more relaxed than if I had slept 12 hours, and I’m looking forward to the next test.

Chocolate + Brioche = Gastrorgasm

I just ate my weight in brioche and I want more. We decided to reshoot the photo for the Chocolate Brioche Club Sandwich recipe by Chef Nancy Silverton because the current photo did not do it justice. Chris our photographer actually called it “fur-bearing.”

This was the first time I had tested the recipe and I loved the entire process. First you trim away the crust off the entire brioche loaf (hence all the brioche gorging), then you dip the brioche in a cocoa cream mixture, and then top each soaked slice with a gooey chocolate custard. All of this goodness is placed in a loaf pan, baked, and then chilled overnight. I am partly hoping that the photo shoot isn’t a complete success so I will have an excuse to make the recipe all over again.

I Heart Ham

On my last trip to Golden Gate Meat Company in San Francisco’s Ferry Building I was on a mission to pick up two 10-pound bone-in smoked hams to test for our Festivus menu and was so impressed by the guys and gals behind the counter. They were so nice, and the store has a familiar neighborly feel that puts you at ease despite it being in the middle of a huge market. I almost forgot that these hams weren’t for me and that I was in the midst of my workday running around like a madwoman trying to finish my entire ingredient shopping for the week. I have to say it was refreshing and comforting to be able to go to a good butcher who knows and loves what he is doing.

On a side note, today was the second test of Amy’s ham recipe, and it was delicious. I would have to say from the reaction of the CHOW team that ham would definitely win in a battle against turkey. Both times we have tested the ham there was nothing left but the bone and even that got claimed shortly afterward so someone could make split pea soup. I have truly become a ham admirer—for now, anyways.

Pork Appreciation

Today was the first time I carved an entire suckling pig and it gave me a new perspective. As I am getting older, I find myself eating less and less meat, but I am never one to pass up a perfectly cooked steak, grilled lamb chop, or bacon wrapped hot dog on those late party nights.

I have always understood that what I am eating was once a living thing and am used to seeing big slabs of meat and animal parts on a daily basis. During my butchery class in culinary school, we broke down animal parts for six hours a day. But to have the whole pig before me was, and will always be, a humbling experience.

After we brined the pig overnight and roasted it in the oven for five hours, it was time to carve it. I started from the back and worked my way toward its head, making sure to get every single piece of meat so that I didn’t waste any part of the pig. When I was finished, I was filled with gratitude towards the animal and the food that he just provided.