When I first started writing for Bon Appetit magazine in 1999, Sarah Tenaglia was already in their test kitchen putting recipes through their paces. Having been with the magazine for years, I thought our community might be interested in knowing how a recipe gets developed and tested and there was no one better to explain this than Sarah. She is one of the few people in the world who I would trust with a recipe from inception through creation and delivery. Sarah was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse before she spent 25 years at Bon Appetit. She has a lot to say about creating desserts, and then testing and writing them so that they work for the home baker. Sarah’s professional goal is simple, to make recipes taste as good as they can be – and we suspect it is her personal goal as well. Her passion for great-tasting things is palpable.
Bakepedia: Sarah, thank you for doing this interview. It’s funny – most of my interviews are with people I don’t know as well, but I wanted to speak with you formally so that we could bring your expertise to our community.
Sarah Tenaglia: It’s a pleasure, Dédé. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Let’s get to the first question. When people ask, “what do you do?”, how do you answer?
I explain that in the last two years I’ve been freelancing – restaurant consulting, teaching private classes and even some food styling for commercials. That is relatively new for me, but it is fun and interesting. I love the restaurant consulting because one of my favorite things to do is to taste and assess food, to determine what could be improved and make recommendations. Does the existing recipe need work, or does it need to be overhauled with an all-new recipe? If I am doing this for a print publication, I am making sure the recipe is right for the reader. If it’s for a restaurant, is it right for their customer? Knowing the intended audience is very important.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I also make seasonal chocolates and baked goods for corporate gifts and I love doing that. Last year I made a chocolate bark and a rocky road confection. I make a Panforte that people request again and again. I developed the recipe over 10 years ago and it is perfect for gift giving; it’s a perfect shipper and lasts forever, well, a three-month shelf life! For many people, it is a unique sweet, or maybe they have only had poor versions. So many are made in Italy and arrive here less than fresh. I use black mission figs and dates for sweetness and chewiness, dried cherries, apricots, hazelnuts, sometimes almonds or pecans, too, depending on my mood. Sometimes I add candied tangerine peel of fruit from my own trees. Candies kumquats, too, when I have a bumper crop.
I can hear your passion for delicious things when you talk. Now I’m hungry! How are you inspired to create recipes?
You know everything from dining out to seeing what other chefs are doing, cookbooks, flavor combinations. You have to keep up in your field – to keep up with what’s going on. I will also look at Pinterest or Instagram social sites to see what people are doing. I will Google meringue and up pops up all these ideas that help you connect dots and think of new things.
Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
Well it’s got to be the Chocolate Truffle Croquembouche I developed for Bon Appetit. I built it around a Styrofoam cone and added silk or fresh flowers in-between the truffles. It is a holiday centerpiece. I still love it and have made it again and again.
My best friend, Mary, and I made that when the recipe came out in Bon Appetit! We were so inspired by the picture and it came out perfectly and impressed everyone! That was 1991, so it was way before you and I met. I love small world moments like this!
Three years after the article came out I was in Carmel, California, and walked into a store and everywhere you looked there were truffle topiaries. Cone/tree shaped ones like the one that I created, round ones, triangles, every shape. This woman developed a whole business around it! I asked to speak with the owner and I said (with a playful tone), “I bet I know where you got this idea,” and she said yes, Bon Appetit had inspired her! She shipped them everywhere. That was quite a moment.
What are the three most important things that you think the home baker should know?
1. First, when you are starting out – or even when you are experienced – try not to be distracted when you are baking. Don’t try and roast a turkey at the same time. You have to focus or you might mess up your measuring. You have to follow the recipe!
2. Once you get comfortable with the recipe, you can tinker. You can deviate with flavorings – a lemon scone could become orange – extracts could be substituted for one another, nuts might able to be added.
3. Quality of ingredients! All you have to do is look at the labels of purchased baked goods to realize you don’t want to eat them! It is so easy to make a butter cake, a scone or a simple cookie from scratch where you can control what goes into it.
Tell us about working in the test kitchen at Bon Appetit. Please explain the process to us. I hope that this will help home bakers understand why they can trust certain recipes, why they work.
We tested recipes three times a week on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. At 11:30am, a bell rings and the whole staff would assemble for the first tasting – the Food Editor, the Associate Food editor, the top writers on staff, all of these people spend a lot of time thinking about food and flavor and taste. For instance, there is this caramel budino [pudding] that Nancy Silverton makes [at Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles] that is simply amazing. You taste something like that and then you have a bar to compare others to. Once you have had something so delicious, you strive to make similar recipes as spectacular. We would be sampling dishes from chefs and cookbook authors from all over country and be able to see who is doing it the best and why, and then we can try to help other recipes that don’t have that wow factor. We would strive for that.
The second bell rings at 2:00pm and the next group of staff come through. We might be eating five chutneys and sampling a wedding cake (laughs). It’s not always a “meal.” There would be three to five recipes tested per day and so much work goes into this beforehand.
There are planning meetings, editorial calendar meetings, hiring people to develop the recipes by first submitting proposals with a list of ideas. Then our staff would select the recipes we wanted based upon what else is in that issue. We need a balance of flavor, looks, style, theme, whatever is needed for that issue. We planned a year ahead and then there would be modifications. Testing would be six months ahead. The time it took to test, style, edit, process and shoot would be a six-month time frame.
Mondays were spent planning for the week: scheduling, planning, deciding which dishes would be tested on which day. So, for instance, if there were simple dishes, they could be tested on Tuesday, but a complicated dish might need an overnight step or something like that so we would schedule for later in the week. Then those middle-of-the-week days were testing days – cooking, testing, sampling, getting feedback and making changes.
Fridays we would read manuscripts, proofs, first draft, seconddrafts, looking for any mistakes. Is the recipe clearly written? Can the person at home re-create the recipe with these instructions? Fifteen eyes would look at each written recipe, fact checking and then styling as well. Testers would add notes for styling and then re-write in the Bon Appetit style – we would use specific wording, like “how to make a pastry cream” would always have a certain approach.
Recipes would be reviewed even before they were tested for pitfalls, like checking the proportions of butter. Is there a typo? The test kitchen staff knows how much butter is typically in certain recipes, so they can “see” mistakes even before we get to the kitchen. We would always have to streamline chef recipes – their approach is always laborious and too much for the home cook. We might remove an ingredient if we can get as good a result, then place it in the hands of the tester. We would be communicating before and during or maybe even after testing if there is trouble with a recipe.
Baking, more than any savory cooking, is wrought with more problems. How you measure, the weight of flour makes a huge difference. Oven temperature/calibration is important, too. The fun thing about testing is that there are so many surprises. Even the most seasoned, experienced cooks experience this. All of a sudden there will be a change – was my chocolate too warm? Was there a different brand used? The texture of something is off. You want consistency. If something goes awry you have to figure it out. What did I do differently from the previous time? The ultimate goal is for the recipe to work every time for whoever is following it.
My favorite assignment was when I was asked to create a dessert for a White Christmas theme. That request pushed me in ways I would not have gone on my own, which is so much fun and exciting as a recipe developer. It stretches your brain and creative muscles. That ended up being my favorite cover – my White Chocolate Tiramisu Trifle with Spiced Pears.
Tell us about what you are doing currently…
I am dabbling in food products. People have been encouraging me to do that for years. So, for instance, a company might ask me how to extend the shelf life on something, or how to retain the flavor of a recipe once it is bottled. It’s humbling and challenging!
What do you hope to do next?
My dream job would be restaurant consulting where I could take my present skill set and help them make dishes better, maybe on a corporate level. I will mention that caramel budino again (laughs). If I hadn’t had so many caramel budinos over the years, I wouldn’t know what a truly great one should taste like! The more experience you have, the more you are able to help refine a recipe. I want to use my taste memory and my palate.
Sarah, thank you so much for bringing us a glimpse inside a test kitchen. We hope it gives our readers an appreciation for all of the work that goes into creating a good recipe.
Thank you, Dédé. This was fun.