A Working Session Reveals Where the Chef Ends and the Collaborator Begins
[Editor's Note: In this post, the second of a two-part series about working on a cookbook proposal for Harold Dieterle's Kitchen Notebook, we take you inside a working session. - A.F.]
The other day, I shared a little about how the idea for my next collaboration, Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook, came about. If you haven’t already, I suggest you read that post before reading this one, to familiarize yourself with the book’s concept and structure.
Today, I thought it might be interesting to take you inside an actual working session, for two reasons: (a) to demonstrate how a cookbook takes shape, from inception to publication; this is the first collaboration I’ve taken on since relaunching Toqueland earlier this year, and I plan to track its every development here, and (b) after the confusion left in the wake of some recent newspaper stories about collaborating, I thought there’d be nothing like pulling back the curtain on the process to help clear up how things actually work, at least between one chef and one collaborator.
Two of the most important components of a cookbook proposal are the sample recipes and text. Herewith, the genesis of some material, in three steps:
Harold emails me a recipe for a dish.
Here is the recipe for Ricotta Cheese, Acorn Squash Tempura, Truffle Honey, Sunflower Seeds, and Grilled Bread, exactly as it was received:
All Purpose Flour 1 cup
Soda Water 1 pint
Put the flour & soda water in a bowl; mix vigorously with a whisk, then strain & reserve.
Acorn Squash- peeled, sliced 1/4in thick 1ea. / about 16 slices
Truffle Honey 2T
Sunflower Seeds-toasted 3T
Grilled/toasted Sourdough Bread- ¼ inch thick 8 slices
S&P tt **
Extra Virgin Olive oil 4 T
[** "tt" = "to taste"]
Preheat deep fry or large pot of oil to 350f. Coat the acorn squash slices in tempura batter. Remove excess batter and place in the oil for about 2 minutes or till golden brown. Remove from oil, season generously with salt & pepper and lay on paper towel.
To The plate;
Place 2 slices of bread on each plate drizzle each slice with olive oil, place ricotta cheese on each slice. Next drizzle truffle honey over the cheese, sprinkle sunflower seeds over the top. Finish by laying squash tempura over the top.
[NOTE: Harold also sent along his recipe for homemade ricotta and ways to vary/use it, all of which has been edited below. In the interest of space, I'm not including his version here; suffice it to say the level of detail and description was comparable to what you see above.]
We conduct an interview based on the recipe.
Here’s the audio of our interview about both the dish and the ricotta cheese. I’m presenting the full, 7-minute dialog here for those interested in how all elements find their way into the text that follows, but you might well get the gist after a minute or two.
Harold Dieterle Interview – ricotta (April 13, 2012)
I go off and write.
As you can see below, I’ve fashioned a headnote and other text in Harold’s voice, and tweaked/expanded the recipe, weaving in information from the interview and my own knowledge of what’s required for a cookbook recipe. Ingredient details and recipe instructions have been fleshed out, and some decisions have been made to address the restrictions of a home cook; for example, explaining how to be sure multiple components are hot at the time of serving. When necessary, I contacted Harold for clarification and/or approval. The result looks something like this:
Ricotta Cheese, Acorn Squash Tempura, Truffle Honey, Sunflower Seeds, and Toasted Bread
I grew up eating a lot of pastas, and many of them, such as manicotti, lasagna, baked ziti, and cannelloni, featured, or were topped with, ricotta cheese. I always loved that soft, smooth cheese, and in time became something of a ricotta fiend. I’d raid the refrigerator, taking a spoon to the plastic tubs of supermarket brands like Polly-O or Sorrento that we always had on hand. In time, I began to experiment with it, garnishing bowls of ricotta with fruit from our garden, and drizzling honey over it, for breakfast.
Today, I make my own ricotta (it’s actually very easy as you can see from the Notebook feature on the facing page) and have developed a number of ways to serve it. This is one of my favorite ricotta-centric dishes: the honey really activates the taste buds, the sunflower seeds add texture, and the tempura squash offer substance and a surprising, subtle sweetness. This is presented as an appetizer, but can also be a small meal, especially if you pair it with a quick salad of frisee lettuce dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
1 cup all purpose flour
2 cups soda water
Canola oil, or other neutral oil, for frying
3 tablespoons sunflower seeds
Eight 1/4-inch-thick slices sourdough bread
About 1 cup ricotta cheese, preferably homemade (see Notebook)
1 acorn squash, peeled, halved, de-seeded and cut crosswise into sixteen 1/4-inch-thick slices (Butternut or Hubbard squash may be substituted)
2 tablespoons truffle honey (other honeys, such as clover or elderflower, may be substituted)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Preheat the Fryer and Prepare the Tempura Batter:
- Make the tempura batter: Put the flour and soda water in a bowl and whisk vigorously just until integrated. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into shallow bowl wide and deep enough to accommodate a squash slice.
- Pour oil into a deep fryer, or wide, deep, heavy pot, to a depth of 4 inches. (If using a pot rather than a deep fryer, you will need a clip-on thermometer.) Heat the oil to 350°F.
- Line a large plate with paper towels.
- As the oil continues to warm, toast the sunflower seeds and the bread (Steps 3 and 4).
3. Toast the Sunflower Seeds:
- Put the sunflower seeds in a heavy sauté pan and toast over medium heat, shaking the pan to prevent scorching, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to let the seeds cool.
4. Toast the Bread:
- Set the bread slices directly on the uppermost rack of the oven and toast until golden-brown and crispy, about 5 minutes. Transfer the toast to a baking sheet, lower the oven to 200°F, prop the oven open slightly (a wine cork is the perfect implement for this), and keep the toast warm on a lower rack while you prepare and cook the squash.
5. Batter and Fry the Tempura Squash:
- When the oil reaches 350°F, working with 1 squash slice at a time, dip it in the batter to coat it on both sides, letting any excess batter drip back into the bowl. Carefully lower the squash into the oil, coating and adding another slice or two as quickly as possible so they all fry at the same rate and fry until golden-brown, about 2 minutes.
- Use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer the squash slices to the paper-towel-lined plate and season immediately with salt and pepper, then transfer to a baking tray and keep warm on the center rack in the oven.
- Repeat with the remaining squash slices and batter, letting the oil return to 350°F between batches.
6. Plate the Dish:
- Put 2 slices of toast on each of 4 salad plates.
- Drizzle each slice with olive oil, spread some ricotta cheese on each one, drizzle with honey, and sprinkle sunflower seeds over the top.
- Set a piece of tempura squash on top of each slice and serve.
And here’s the “Notebook” accompaniment to the dish, in which we focus on a component of it, in this case ricotta cheese, offering a recipe and multiple variations and uses:
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
Makes about 2 cups
There are different schools of ricotta-making that break down according to fat content. Some recipes use milk, or milk and cream, with a little lemon juice added to cut the richness. Personally, I like a pure, un-apologetically high fat content, with no acid added, although I’ll sometimes add acid to the finished ricotta in certain recipes.
There a bit of a hurry-up-and-wait required when making ricotta: You have to put a little sweat-equity into it at the outset, whisking vigorously until curds form, then patiently let it finish cooking.
When making ricotta cheese, it’s essential that you stop cooking as soon as the temperature reaches 170°F, and be careful to not let all the moisture strain out, or it’ll be too dry.
2 quarts whole milk
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup heavy cream
Fine Sea Salt
Freshly ground white pepper
Clip a kitchen thermometer onto the side of heavy, stainless-steel pot. Pour the milk, buttermilk, and heavy cream into the pot and set over medium-high heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until cheese curds begin to form, about 10 minutes. Stop whisking but continue to let cook until the temperature reaches 170°F, about 5 more minutes.
Remove the pot from the heat and let rest until it cools to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Suspend a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and use a slotted spoon to transfer the ricotta curds to the sieve. Let strain until well-drained but still moist, about 30 minutes. Transfer the curds to a bowl, season generously with salt and pepper, and mix gently and briefly with a rubber spatula.
Serve the ricotta cheese right away or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Let come to room temperature and stir to reincorporate any liquid before serving.
Ways to Use and Serve Ricotta Cheese:
In a mixing bowl, mix together 2 cups fresh ricotta cheese, 1 cup grated pecorino cheese, 1 egg and 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest. (The zest cuts the richness of the cheese.) Fill ravioli following the instructions on page 000.
Topping for pasta with red sauce:
Top a serving of your favorite pasta with 1 tablespoon of fresh ricotta, a teaspoon of grated pecorino Romano cheese, 1 teaspoon of extra-virgin olive oil, and a few grinds of black pepper. As the ricotta and sauce meld, a lasagna-like effect takes hold. Where I grew up, different families used different grating cheeses. Ours was a pecorino home, so I use pecorino, but you could also use Parmigiano Reggiano here.
Here’s my family’s recipe for cannoli filling, which uses confectioner’s sugar to ensure it dissolves quickly, helping you avoid over-processing the cheese: Put 2 cups of ricotta cheese in the bowl of a food processor fit with the steel blade. Add 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract, and a pinch of ground cinnamon. Pulse just to combine. If desired, fold in 1 tablespoon of chopped, dried fruit, or small chocolate chips. Spoon or pipe the filling into store-bought cannoli shells.
“Breakfast of Champions”
This one comes straight from my childhood. If you have ricotta cheese on hand, it always feels a little harmlessly indulgent to call on it for breakfast: Put 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese in a bowl, top with 1 cup of your favorite fresh seasonal fruit, and 1/4 cup of granola. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of honey or maple syrup.
… and that’s it. Typically, I include 8 to 10 recipes in a proposal, so we’re well on our way. We’ll keep you posed on this project as it continues to develop.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.