Maria Guarnaschelli Made Me Into a Recipe Tester
I learned last night that the famed cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli has passed away. It was because of Maria that I became a professional recipe tester. My husband was a senior editor at the publisher William Morrow, and at the time I was in a hiatus from my career as an archeologist, staying home with our infant and toddler sons. Maria was familiar with my cooking. She and her husband had been to dinner parties at our home, and it was at their apartment that I got to know their young daughter, Alex (now a celebrity chef ), and meet some of Maria’s authors. One day my husband casually mentioned that Maria was looking for someone to try out a few recipes from a cookbook she was considering for publication. I told him I wanted the job, and he warned me that it was just a few recipes, a one-time gig.
Maria sent me a sheaf of recipes and asked me to give her a call after I’d cooked them. I was being paid by the recipe, so I wrote a critique of each recipe, which pleased her, and she sent me more. She started sending me recipes from other manuscripts under consideration, and then began sending me excerpts from books she’d acquired that were in the process of being edited. I liked the work, the food, and the fact that I could be with my children during the day and test recipes at night while my husband was at his desk at home, reading and editing.
Sometimes I tested recipes during the day. I’d put baby Ben in a Jolly Jumper in the doorway of the kitchen, where he could bounce up and down and watch me as I cooked. Our New York City kitchen was cramped, long and narrow. To occupy Jacob, the toddler, I stood him on a sturdy step ladder that was behind me as I stood at the stove; our backs nearly touched. The ladder faced a cabinet that had a wooden spice rack that rotated on ball bearings, making a satisfying swishing sound as it moved. The spices were in thick glass cylinders, just the right size for Jacob to grip. He would carefully unscrew the cap of a jar, sniff the contents, and if he liked the smell would ask me the name of the spice and to have a taste sprinkled into his little palm. (He’s now a professional recipe tester and food and travel writer.)
Maria was a brilliant editor, and her authors were among the best anywhere. It may be that she made them that way. Through Maria I met and worked with Julie Sahni, Lynne Rosetto Kasper, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Dan Leader, Dorie Greenspan, many others. Dorie touched my heart forever for sending me a thank-you note when I finished testing her book. Rose’s parents lived in my building. My inexperience in some aspects of cooking could be an asset, as when I told Lynne that her instructions for rolling pasta were incomplete — I had never done it before. Julie Sahni became a friend. I once told her that my husband and I were leaving on a flight to France, and she said that was too bad, she was planning to ask us to dinner that day with her friends James Ivory, Ishmail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala — it was tempting to miss that flight.
Everyone who knew Maria knew she was highly focused, quirky, and could be demanding of her authors and others. We got along well, never quarreled, and I knew she liked my work because she sent recipes for me to test in a constant stream and never had complaints. Still, someone I knew told me she “never paid attention to what Maria said” about me. The catty remark stung, but I had to laugh it off. Maria was my mentor and I admired her immensely.
Recipe testing became a compelling career. Each book was a new project with a different focus. At that time there was no Google, and if I had a question I would call Maria, who usually had me call the author of the book. There’s no better way to learn about food and cooking than in conversation with experts. The fact that I was a knowledgeable home cook, but no expert myself, was more of an asset than a liability. I was aware of my limitations and eager to learn. Authors usually understood that it was a great compliment to have a recipe tester hired on their behalf; it indicated faith in the promise of the book. Madeleine Kamman was an exception. When I called to ask her about a conflict in her book — that a basic recipe for stock fell short of the quantity needed for most of the soups that required it — she became incensed at my question and shouted at me over the phone demanding my credentials.
I learned quickly to be wary when a recipe didn’t make sense. One author was annoyed when I pointed out that the olives with pits in his thick stew were quite hidden and dangerous; my husband and I had both bitten down hard on them. My older son’s favorite mishap story is an incident he swears he remembers. I had received a recipe that called for cracking a coconut for its meat. The recipe called for using an ice pick to poke holes through the three eyes of the coconut, wrapping the coconut in a kitchen towel, then putting it in a bowl and microwaving it until it cracked. I did the preparations, but something made me hesitate. The kids were in the kitchen. I put them in the hallway, turned on the microwave, then ran out and shut the door. About 30 seconds later there was a loud KA-BOOM. The coconut had exploded, blown my bowl to pieces, and blown off the door of the microwave oven. Maria bought a new one for me.
There was the question of what to do with all the food, especially sweets. During a stretch of testing recipes for 10-inch multi-layer chocolate cakes I gave them to a neighbor until she gently asked me to stop. After that I gave them to the maintenance staff of my building. The night crew were mostly Polish men who spoke little or no English. Since most of my work was at night, I often brought desserts to the workers in the basement, who were grateful but could have had no idea why I was making so many cakes.
Testing a recipe requires great attention to detail. Oven temperatures must be accurate, ingredients and instructions pair correctly, and each recipe had to be made in full to confirm the yield. One recipe called for making candies that were intended to look like chestnut burrs. The center of each was something like marzipan with a firm layer over it. This was then dipped into tempered chocolate and allowed to cool just long enough to allow a crochet hook to dab and pull spikes over the whole surface. There were I don’t know how many dozens of these, and the process took hours. I lost track of time in the nighttime kitchen while my family slept, and as I finished the last of the chocolate burrs I realized the sun was rising over the buildings outside my kitchen.
I worked consistently for Maria for two years before I was offered a job that would combine recipe testing, editing and food writing. I’d begun with the best and never lost my gratitude for that experience. Maria shared her knowledge freely. She taught me the importance of having standards and on insisting that they be met — lessons that have meaning beyond food and cooking that we all can use.