What I did on my summer vacation
Truly good white bread satisfies, I think, like no other loaf, really like no other food at all. It is the one thing we eat that has been wholly shaped to comfort human hunger. Bringing it to the table, wrapped in a linen napkin, is not unlike holding a small baby—the same hand-filling size, glowing warmth, yielding firmness, and salt-and-sour scent. Here, however, the relationship is exactly inverted: it is the infant who is entirely nurturing—and entirely eaten up.
— John Thorne, “An Artisanal Loaf”, from Outlaw Cook (1992)
The above quote is one that I rediscovered last week, in a book that I already owned but nevertheless repurchased at a library book sale while visiting the Cape on vacation because it was only $2 and because I love it so much. Thorne is one of my favorite food writers—favorite writers, actually—and one of my recipe and writing inspirations. I read the series of essays on his forays into bread making at the start of my own bread baking career, but had not really revisited them since. I’ll have more to say about them specifically in the future, as they are as wonderful as the quote suggests, but today I just want to touch on how he does recipe developing.
Thorne’s approach to the art of crafting recipe is in many ways the inverse of the Cook’s Illustrated one: Instead of distilling a collection of recipes into a perfected, Platonic ideal, one-true-version, he meanders around casually over the various contours that a recipe might take, and presents his own interpretation of all of the ones that appeal to him. His essays on a particular dish might present 5 or more different versions, so that the reader walks away with a detailed understanding of the forms a recipe might take. It’s an expansive, open-ended effort, rather than a narrowing.
After 12 years of working at Cook’s, I’d sort of forgotten that that is also how I approach cooking and eating too—why limit yourself to just one way of doing things, or one set of ways to flavor a thing? I never make anything quite the same way twice, and I’m far more interested in knowing as much as possible about the diverse ways that people assemble a particular recipe than I am hearing one person’s opinion (including my own) on the “best” or “only” way to make something.
Obviously, when it comes to aiming for a particular result—a chewy-crispy pizza crust, for example—there are better and worse ways to do so, and it’s worth sorting out which is which. But why limit yourself to just one result? Sometimes I want a chewy-crispy pizza crust, and sometimes I want a tender, plush one. Both can be great!
I don’t want to suggest that my friends at ATK are this rigid about recipe developing or eating themselves. (I do think that there was a time when the company did tend to claim that its recipes were definitive, but it softened that stance significantly well before I moved on.) I only mean that after working there for so long, I kind of forgot that it’s not really how I do things myself.
All of which is to say that—even in bread baking where precise technique is often crucial for success—I’m not particularly keen any longer on creating final recipes for one particular dish or another. When I publish a recipe here (or elsewhere, for that matter), it’s an as-good-as-it-can-be version at that moment, but it’s never really the last word on the subject, and I might well contradict myself with another version of the very same dish someday. Hell, I might even present two or more contradicting versions of a dish in the same moment! (I contain multitudes, yada yada…)
This post started out as a recap of what I got up to on the month I took off from publishing here, including my visit to that library book sale (where I also scored a stack of the Time-Life spiral-bound Foods of the World cookbooks, which are little treasures worth seeking out themselves). It veered into recipe testing philosophy pretty quickly, but that’s because—alongside spending a glorious few weeks at the beach—I finally had some time to reflect upon what I’ve been up to over this past blur of a year, and what I’d like to do here going forward.
I haven’t come to any sort of definitive conclusion, but I do know that I want to change things up a little. While I have kept things loose here for the most part, I want to push further in that direction—to make it even more of a sketchbook than it already is; to share works-in-progress before they are completed, with the hope that you all can help me shape and improve them before sharing them with the wider world.
I don’t mean that I’m going to send out garbage recipes that haven’t yet been tested, mind you. But as I am a “test kitchen of one” here, I know that my recipes benefit from having other people try them out in their own kitchens before declaring them ready for prime time. I’ve done that all along, though not explicitly; instead, I’ve updated and edited recipes over time based upon feedback you have all provided. (My sourdough discard English muffin bread is a perfect example of one that improved significantly from version 1.0 to 2.0.)
And I’ve tended to hold back recipes until I had all the photo and video assets they needed in place before doing so, which has slowed down the amount of recipes I’ve been able to share here. One of the many other things I did while on hiatus was work to push a few of the many, many half-finished recipes I’ve had in the pipeline closer to the finish line, among them a Detroit pizza, a sourdough naan, the classic kouign amann that I am developing for King Arthur Baking, a version of my oatmeal porridge sandwich bread using Renewal Mill’s upcycled oat milk flour, and a bunch of connected buttermilk biscuit recipes that all stem from the same basic ratio of ingredients. (These represent just a fraction of the total list of unfinished projects I need to complete someday.)
Almost from the start, I’ve had a handful of enthusiastic, secret testers who’ve given me feedback on recipes-in-progress, something that has been enormously helpful. (Thank you, friends, you know who you are, and not to worry, I still plan to share many things with you first.) Going forward, I’m going to extend that request for help to everyone who’s a paid subscriber here, starting with the first of those biscuit recipes, which I will send out to you all in the next few days. These recipes will be a little rough around the edges, and likely lack the visual assets they need for public consumption, but they should be detailed enough to follow and execute with a close reading, and tested enough to work in my hands at least. What I’ll need from you is to tell me what is missing or needs further clarification.
What else did I get up to during the break other than avoiding a sunburn and finishing some recipes for you all? Let’s see…I wrote a few things for other publications, including a piece for Stained Pages News (which should drop in a few weeks) on Owen Simmons’ 1903 book The Book of Bread (which I have also written a little about here) and I wrote the first of what will likely be a monthly series of stories and recipes on mushroom science and cookery for a new, for-now top-secret publication (which likely won’t launch until next Spring), which I am pretty excited about. I also finished up a lavash recipe for Serious Eats, which will be out as soon as I find time to photograph it. I even found time to try baking it in my friend Nathan’s tonir, the Armenian equivalent of a tandoor oven.
I even managed to read a couple of books from cover to cover, instead of just flipping through them and adding them to the stacks around my apartment! My hands-down favorite (both for my vacation and in a long time generally) is Kate Lebo’s The Book of Difficult Fruit, which is a love-letter abecedarian to some harder-to-love fruits, a cookbook, and a memoir of sorts. It is beautifully written and inspiring in a way I can’t yet articulate. (I’m hoping to share an excerpt from it here soon, so stay tuned for that.)
I also started to catch up on my sleep, but not as much as I should have before the month came to a close. *sigh*
More soon, thanks for indulging this somewhat scattershot return to newslettering after a long month away.