In the course of testing and developing recipes for an article, we may make a recipe dozens of times, fine-tuning it to perfection and testing for consistent results. We are a test kitchen, and this is what we do. Of course, when we're done testing, sometimes we also like to play with our food.
At the L.A. Times, we not only test (and routinely retest) every recipe that runs in the paper, we also then re-create and style those recipes for food shoots to appear both online and in print, coordinate and shoot step-by-step demonstrations and videos of various cooking techniques, and prepare for recipe demonstrations that air online and on television.
When we're not actually working with food, we're tracking down reader email requests for the Food section's popular Culinary SOS column.
In addition to our full-time staff, we host interns from culinary schools all over the United States, including international students. These students receive hands-on training as they learn the finer points of recipe testing and development. The students also learn tips for food styling and interact with chefs, writers and food professionals of all kinds.
Here I introduce Davis Alexander, on loan from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles.
When I tell people I’m doing my culinary school internship in the Los Angeles Times Test Kitchen, I always receive the same response: The L.A. Times has a test kitchen? What do they test?
Most every recipe that appears in the pages of the L.A. Times Food section. And seeing as how my entry into the culinary world represents a mid-life career change — I’ve already enjoyed several successful years in the film business, plus nearly 20 years of parenthood — I thought a test kitchen would be a cinch, especially compared to the high-pressured rush and sweltering heat of cooking class. Famous last words.
My lesson in the rigors of the test kitchen began when we got a recipe request from a reader who loved the streusel coffee cake served at the Atlantis Steakhouse. With recipe in hand, we pulled out the bowls, slapped down the spatulas and plugged in the stand mixer with anticipation.
Recipes are tested in teams of two — one intern executes, the other takes notes and times the effort. But from the start, we realized there might be a problem. This recipe looked a little off, calling for perhaps too much butter in the pecan filling. That happens sometimes —a chef inadvertently writes “1 tablespoon” when he means “1 teaspoon,” or, she has made the dish so many times, she jots down instructions in a shorthand.
Still, our Test Kitchen Director, Noelle Carter has a policy of first preparing every recipe as is. So, off we went, cracking eggs and creaming butter.
What we pulled from the oven 45 minutes later was something altogether different. The center of the cake was so wet it looked uncooked. The gooiness had to be the result of too much butter in the filling — a problem we’d anticipated.
Bowls were washed, more pecans were chopped and a fresh team of interns jumped in for Round 2. One-half cup less butter, one-quarter cup more flour and our second effort emerged from the oven with a filling that baked up well, but was layered in a cake that was still far too heavy — not to mention a pale khaki in color.
In order to get a lighter, moister crumb, we measured out more flour, reduced the amount of leavening and added sour cream. Round 3 emerged a perfect pale yellow — but the batter had bubbled up through the streusel topping, giving the surface an unappetizing, cratered look.
For Round 4, Noelle gave the streusel a make-over, increasing the amount of flour by ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons, and adding more brown sugar and cinnamon. The piece cut from the fourth batch looked nearly perfect, but the balance of wet to dry was still off. The bowls and beaters hit the sink again.
We test kitchen interns have an impressive amount of culinary training between us. How could we be beaten by what was essentially a snack cake? The oven mitts were coming off for Round 5. The problem? The cake was pulled from the oven too soon.
By Round 6, I was getting a little punchy. Which was why I inadvertently swapped the quantity of butter in the filling for that in the topping.
Day 7, Round 7. We weighed, measured and prepped the ingredients. Then, watching through the oven door, I saw the batter rise smoothly and the streusel come together. After 45 minutes, I gently lowered the door, pulled the cake from the oven and placed it gingerly on the cooling rack. You never saw so many hopeful faces huddled around a 13 x 9 inch baking dish.
After waiting for 30 excruciating minutes, we cut a piece. A sweet, tender crumb; a moist, crunchy pecan filling; a heady cinnamon streusel. Delicious.
The Test Kitchen, it turns out, is not an altogether unmeaningful step on my new career path. Everything I’m doing right now is a bit of a test, of my skills, my stamina. I’m okay with the fact that nothing worthwhile comes easy — especially because after an admirable effort, it’s perfectly OK to take a load off with a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.
Love cooking as much as I do? Follow me @noellecarter