The Development of a Recipe
and a Recipe Developer
Written onApril 10 , 2013
When I entered college I planned on being a computer programmer, but by the time graduation rolled around, plans had changed. My baking hobby was fast becoming a professional interest, and while it might not seem like a clear path from computer science and applied math major to choosing a career in baking and recipe development, both interests make good use of my logical brain that likes to play. I spent a couple of years working in other kitchens before I got the nerve to start Butterfly Bakery of Vermont, and I love the repetitive day in, day out of the wholesale baking gig. But my recipe development gives me some room to play without having to create and maintain whole new product lines for stores.
I got into baking initially because of my restricted diet. I have a malfunctioning pancreas (although not diabetes), which means that refined, quickly absorbed sugars and I just aren’t friends. Sweeteners that hit my bloodstream a little slower than table sugar (like reasonable amounts of maple syrup or agave nectar) are more my speed. But when I was growing up, the sweets that were available to me were either as dry or as tasty as cardboard. So from a young age I took matters into my own hands and started making foods that I not only could eat, but also wanted to eat.
Because there existed almost no sweet recipes that I could eat right off the page, I had to start tweaking recipes on day one. I began by just swapping things out here and there. Some things worked and some things needed to be disposed of in the neighbor’s trash. When I started baking for my dining co-op at Oberlin College, I tried out my newly found recipe development skills on other folks’ dietary restrictions. I played with vegan, whole-grain, and gluten-free foods on top of my no-refined-sugar restriction to varying, but usually quite edible success. I learned a lot in that dining co-op. Some folks ask me if I’m “self taught,” and while I never had formal culinary training, I like to think of myself as having had many teachers.
Since most of the home cooks I know modify recipes, it took me a while to realize that there was value in my recipe development skills, and it took me longer still to realize that it’s something I’m actually pretty darn good at (if I do say so myself). This confidence in my palate and logical brain has allowed me to do some really fun stuff. And since this article is about me and what I love to do, rather than based on an ingredient or geared to a client’s needs, I wanted to be able to play. So I decided to work on recipes that were on my “bucket list”—things I had wanted to work on but had never gotten around to or never succeeded in.
One of the ways to develop a recipe is to start from one that you know works. This can be one of your own or one that you find online that is similar to your goal recipe. When I work with a recipe I find online, I like to go to recipe websites that include hundreds of reviews from other people who have already tried it out. For this article I started with one that’s familiar to just about everyone: Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. That recipe from the back of the chocolate chip bag —involving butter, flour, sugar, chocolate chips, vanilla, baking soda, and salt—has been tested, tested, and tested again, which makes it a pretty good place to start.
The first recipe I wanted to work on was a cornmeal scone. The scone I make at Butterfly Bakery is made with rough-cut rolled oats and I always thought that cornmeal would work well in its stead. But rather than just swap ingredients, I wanted to develop a scone that would be centered around the flavors of good local cornmeal.
I changed the starting recipe by adding baking powder, cream of tartar (a very classic scone ingredient that reacts with baking soda), and sour cream (makes scones moister than buttermilk), and I used a mix of whole spelt flour (my favorite whole-grain flour) and cornmeal in place of the standard all-purpose flour. I also cut the butter into the recipe cold, rather than creaming it with sugar, because chunks of cold butter will melt in the oven and create little buttery pockets. And because this is just how I roll, I swapped out the sugar for three-quarters of the volume of maple syrup. This first batch was too sweet, too buttery, too flat, and while super tasty, it was most definitely not a scone worth publishing.
So I upped the baking soda and sour cream, reduced the butter and maple syrup, and then swapped white flour in for the whole spelt (there just wasn’t enough structure in the spelt/cornmeal combo). That was uber tasty, but I decided to up the ante for batch three, so I added some crumbled blue cheese and chopped red jalapeño pieces to the batter and, oh my, was that a winner (see recipe below). I also rolled the final scoop of each ball of batter in extra white flour. Another baker taught me this trick years ago (I use it on my Butterfly Bakery scones). The flour helps to hold in the melting chunks of butter and creates a kind of buttery layer on the outside. It’s very extremely super yummy.
The next recipe that my brain thought would be fun was a rye cake. I had never tried or even heard of a rye cake but the flavors seemed to be something that could be interesting and tasty. I’ve been trying to expand my palate beyond standard flavors and think less about re-creating things that other people have already made than creating new things that just taste good. And while I’m not vegan myself, I don’t think being vegan (or having dairy or egg allergies) means having to eat gross things. So I decided to make this cake vegan for the folks who swing that way. I started with the chocolate chip cookie recipe and swapped the flour for a mix of whole spelt and rye, upped the baking soda (it seemed like it would yield a better flavor than baking powder for what I was thinking in my head), swapped maple in for sugar out (about three-quarters of the volume), switched the butter for oil (oil works well for cakes, is easier to use with maple syrup, and would allow this cake to be vegan), substituted arrowroot dissolved in water for the eggs (my favorite egg substitute), added water (water evaporates in the oven, creating air pockets that the leaveners can expand to create that familiar fluffy cake texture that’s so yummy), and added spices for interest (fennel, cinnamon, cloves, and orange oil).
The first cake I made was…delicious. That sometimes happens: something will taste great on the first try. Usually that’s cause for celebration, but I had two problems here. One was that this didn’t make for interesting recipe development article commentary and two was that the cake didn’t have nearly as interesting a flavor as I would like. If I’m encouraging someone to go to the store and buy rye flour, I want that rye flour to say something, but unless you were told that this perfectly yummy cake had rye flour, you probably wouldn’t know. I played around with the recipe a few more times, but ultimately wasn’t feeling it. I took a walk through Montpelier’s Hubbard Park, mulled over my recipe quandary, and had a yum epiphany. I decided to totally change the cake. I decided to make it a ginger cake (with only whole spelt flour), with a lemon-peach filling and a maple cinnamon cream cheese frosting (see recipe on below). That sounded super good in my head. The Cake Formerly Known as Rye only took a couple tweaks in the kitchen to make something I was totally excited about. The rye flour could wait for another cake.
For those astute vegan observers who noticed that the cake is vegan and the frosting is not, I would recommend a sweet potato frosting. Purée up some roasted sweet potatoes with a little non-hydrogenated margarine, agave nectar (or maple syrup), and vanilla extract. It’s shockingly orange and shockingly delicious.
Lest you think that every recipe comes up roses in three to five batches, I should note here my failure with a third recipe attempt. Turns out that developing three difficult-to-develop (yet easy-to-reproduce) recipes on a deadline was a little too much to hope for. After the 14th batch of what was supposed to be vegan coconut cardamom shortbread and a looming publication date for this magazine, I had to admit defeat. I started out just thinking that I would create a coconut cardamom cookie. Coconut oil is something that has recently gotten on my radar screen and something that I’m interested in playing with and learning about. After batch one or two I realized that it was quite possible that this cookie could be the answer to my longstanding challenge: to make vegan shortbread that actually tastes like shortbread. But after things that tasted like teething biscuits, dog biscuits, raw flour, fried raw flour, and even a couple of cookies that tasted like perfectly good cookies (but not shortbread), I had to concede that perhaps I was not circling the answer but rather circling the drain.
I have not truly admitted defeat but have decided to shelve this particular recipe quest for a while, until a better ingredient or knowledge set comes my way (or until I have a spare moment and my frustration with being so close to something good gets the better of me). Until then I will practice recipe development like Jay Leno practices standup comedy. All the time.
Photos courtesy of Claire Fitts