Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Recipe Testing for Cookbooks: Tea With Anne Willan- Part Two

Today: A sneak peek into the secret world of professional recipe testing.

If you read my first post about having Tea with Anne Willan, you'll know I won a visit with Anne Willan, the famous cookbook author, in a silent auction to benefit the Culinary Historians of  Southern California.  What I didn't mention in my previous posting is that part of the prize was helping Ms. Willan and her staff test recipes for her upcoming cookbook about the history of cookbooks.

Ms. Willan was in the final stage of testing recipes for the book, which is based on the antiquarian cookbooks she has collected over the years with her husband, Mark Cherniavsky.  The most exciting part (at least to me) is that she's including a selection of recipes based on original recipes from these old, sometimes ancient cookbooks.

At a recent lecture at the Los Angeles Public Library, Ms. Willan discussed her project and way in which she tested her recipes.  You can watch her lecture "Old Recipes in the Kitchen" or read my blog report,  but the basic idea for each recipe she includes in the book is to "reconstruct the recipe, not adapt it".   Meaning that she wanted to make a version of the original recipe that tasted as close to the original recipe as possible using modern ingredients.  Easier said than done.

When I and two other members of the Culinary Historians visited her kitchen, Ms. Willan and her team were finishing up the medieval chapter and we had the fun of helping them run through a final testing of recipes for Jance, Tarte of Prunes, and Ypocras.  Tarte of Prunes was pretty self-explanatory, but Jance? Ypocras?  I had no idea what these recipes would produce.  And that was part of what made the recipe testing so entertaining.  It was a discovery of something new, but at the same time very old.  And I suspect this same spirit will permeate the book.  I can't wait to read it and try out these recipes for myself.

Everyone at the table was given a handout for each recipe being tested that included a description of the dish, the book it came from, and the background of the recipe, along with the recipe itself.  At the end of the handout came a list of questions to be answered.  We were also given a "recipe testing sheet", which each person in attendance was supposed to fill out for future use.  Ms. Willan told us that she always likes to include outsiders in her testing because it provides a new perspective.  The outsider is often her husband, whom she calls "The Man on the Street".  But today, I was "The Woman on the Street".

First up was a recipe for jance.  Turns out, jance is commonly used ancient term that covers a wide range of foods.  According to Ms. Willan, every medieval cookbook contains a recipe for jance, but the ingredients can be very different, although jance recipes often call for almonds and ginger.  Our recipe came from "Le Viandier" by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel) and was first published in 1486 from a manuscript dated 1392.
Jance sitting on Anne Willan's kitchen counter after the recipe testing, June 2010.


We try the jance with celery sticks and a selection of crackers.  I take a cracker.  Then we turn to our recipe testing sheet.  Recipe name:  Jance.  Portions yielded:  We discuss, letting Anne and her capable assistant Christine lead the way.  "Will this recipe make 6 to 8 portions?"  "That's a lot of jance."  Ms. Willan makes imaginary dividing lines in the bowl of jance.  "How about 8 to 10 portions?"  Sounds good to me.  

Were the recipe steps clear?  Yes.  Any substitutions for rare ingredients?  What about verjuice?  Stop the presses.  What's verjuice?  Turns out it's a juice made from pressing unripened wine grapes and it was a common ingredient in medieval times.  According to Christine, you can also order it online and you can occasionally will find it at the Santa Monica farmer's market.

Level of difficulty?  Easy.  Then we get to the big question.  The Rating.  Ms. Willan polls the crowd and asks us each what we think of jance.  The first person questioned isn't a big fan and gives it a "B".  The second taster likes it-- "B+".  I say, "I like it.  It looks like hummus, but doesn't taste like anything I've ever eaten before".  Ms. Willan says, "Exactly!  Medieval chefs wanted to create a taste sensation that was entirely new... like nothing you've ever tasted before."  I say, "well, it worked.  And it would be really fun to serve to guests because it's a good conversation starter.  I give it an A."  Ms. Willan's intern Natalie says she can imagine serving it at a cocktail party.  Ms. Willan nods.  Anne asks Christine if she thinks describing jance as having the texture of hummus would be confusing to readers.  Christine thinks it would.

After surveying the rest of the crowd, I believe this recipe was eventually given a B+.  (I gave it an A, but as Ms. Willan later noted, "I see you're our generous grader today."  I was surprised and embarrassed and said it was somewhat unlike me (my photo students would never believe it!).  But I gave all the recipes high marks because of their exoticism.  I like to try new things and even though these dishes were out of the ordinary and had unfamiliar flavors, that was what I liked about them. 

Moving on to our next dish... Tarte of Prunes.  The original recipe for Tarte of Prunes was from "A Proper Booke of Cokerye", author unknown.  It is one of the earliest English cookbooks, published in 1558.  This batch of tarts was prepared by intern Natalie, and part of the testing procedure was to find out if Ms. Willan's recipe instructions were easy to follow.  Natalie says they were.  Was the cooking time accurate?  Yes.  Any substitutions needed for rare ingredients?  No.  Unless you count ypocras, which is a spiced red wine.  I'll get to the details of ypocras (also spelled hypocras) in a minute, but right now the big question was whether the tart was better with the ypocras or without.  

Tarte of Prunes with cup of ypocras in the background, Anne Willan's kitchen, June 2010.

Two versions were presented to us.  The one with a delicate leaf on top had ypocras, the other did not.  After some debate, we all agreed that the one with the ypocras was best.  It was richer and altogether delicious.  Ms. Willan described Tarte of Plums as a "five hundred year old Fig Newton", and it was, in a way.  But the version with the ypocras was something else altogether.  How could I resist giving this dish an A-?  I guess I was an easy grader that day.
Two versions of Tarte of Prunes, one with ypocras, the other without.  Anne Willan's kitchen, June 2010.



Next up, was the eagerly anticipated ypocras.  Ypocras is a spiced wine that was consumed as a beverage, or as a cure for "illnesses caused by cold humors", or as a cooking ingredient, as we saw in the Tarte of Prune.  The recipe was from from the same source as the jance-- "Le Viandier" by Taillevent (Guillaume Tirel) and first printed in 1486 from a 1392 manuscript.

I was surprised that I really liked ypocras.  The only spiced wine concoction I'd ever had was Glögg-- and I am NOT a big fan.  But oddly enough, ypocras was the big hit of the day.

The most interesting thing about ypocras is that it called for an ingredient called "grains of paradise", which was new to me.  It was a common medieval substitution for black pepper, although it is in no way related to the pepper plant.  At a time when people often ate food that was going bad (or had gone bad), I can see why grains of paradise would have been a welcome addition to many dishes, including wine.  It's Latin name is Aframomum meleguaeta and it is part of the ginger family.  Native to West Africa, it was imported to Europe through caravan routes across the Sahara desert and up into Sicily.

It looks like pepper, but has a much more flowery aroma.  I don't know what ypocras would have tasted like with black pepper, but it certainly was delicious with grains of paradise.

The final rating for ypocras?  An "A".

As was the entire experience.

I'm NOT an easy grader-- ask my students.  But I give the whole experience an "A+."