how to write a cookbook: recipe development for #weeknightbakingbook
My first cookbook, Weeknight Baking, is coming out on October 29th and I’m spending the month celebrating with lots of giveaways, sneak peeks, and behind-the-scenes posts about the making of the book. So far I’ve talked about how I came up with the concept of the book and shared two recipes (for cake and pie!) demonstrating how to turn more elaborate baking recipes into weeknight friendly ones, as well as the nuts and bolts of how I sold Weeknight Baking to my publisher. But today we’re talking about what I consider to be the HEART of it all: the recipes of Weeknight Baking. Specifically, I’m going to talk about my recipe development process and how I made over 80+ brand new recipes for the book.
My Recipe Development Process
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I sometimes do extensive behind-the-scenes posts when I develop recipes for Hummingbird High where I make the same recipe over and over again in a row, but with slight variations to the recipe each time. Usually, I start with a recipe concept—something that sounds good in my head, or a copycat of something delicious from a bakery that I wanted to recreate at home (see: these Levain Bakery copycat blueberry muffins)—and then spend a few hours researching recipes to see if one exists for that particular idea already. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a handful in cookbooks or the internet that sound promising. I’ll create a Google doc to store these links for reference when testing recipes later. But if it’s something more obscure or unique, I’ll start with one of my trusted base recipes (from Weeknight Baking, actually!) and tinker with it to incorporate my ideas and the new flavors.
Creating A Table of Contents
My process for developing the recipes for Weeknight Baking is similar to what I described above, with one exception: instead of being randomly inspired by new ideas or bakeries, I followed a hypothetical Table of Contents that I’d written during the proposal process. Doing so was incredibly important—because my publisher had judged the merit of my idea for a book based on my proposal, I needed to stick to the idea that had sold them. I’d sold them a book for weeknight baking recipes, and I probably would have lost my contract if I’d then turned in a book full of savory recipes or something, lol.
Of course, I still had a lot of leeway and control when developing the Table of Contents in the first place. Too much, almost—I know some other authors who have really struggled with narrowing down what to include in the limited space and time frame of a cookbook. But because the concept of Weeknight Baking was crystal clear to me, I had no trouble defining the types of recipes I was going to include in the book. I wanted to only focus on classic, accessible recipes like chocolate chip cookies, fudge brownies, banana bread. Because although I baked a ton of fancy things for my Hummingbird High all the time (see: 24 Hour/24 Dollar Chocolate Chip Cookies, Carrara Marble Wedding Cake, and Coconut Lemon Saffron Panna Cotta), it was usually the simple stuff that I found myself craving the most on the weeknights, and suspected that was what most people only had time for on a random Wednesday night, too. I brainstormed a TON of recipes, and from there, I worked backwards to create the “chapters” for the Table of Contents. Classic pound cake, banana bread, and pumpkin loaves all went into a chapter appropriately called “Loaf Cakes”; chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, and snickerdoodles all slid into the “Drop Cookies” chapter. You get the idea, lol.
How to Develop Recipes: Research and Taste Testing
Once the Table of Contents was set, it was time to actually do the work. I started by researching and making a list of the most popular and/or well-recommended recipes of whatever baked good I was developing that week. I did this in a handful of ways—there was a LOT of perusing cookbooks and food magazines, and even more Googling and crawling around on major food sites and blogs. But my favorite method was simply to ask you guys for your favorite recipes. As much as I like to hate on Instagram, one of its biggest benefits is how it’s made it SO EASY for you to give me feedback. Not only would I run surveys in Instagram Stories asking you for your favorite recipes and recommendations, but I was able to do quick polls like “Do you prefer your brownies to be fudgy… OR CHEWY?” and “Lemon zest in blueberry muffins: YAY or NAY?” Your preferences really helped narrow down the recipes I was collecting, as well as give me an idea of what flavors, tastes, and styles would work best for everybody.
Once the research part was done, it was time to figure out what I liked best by making them all and taste testing them. Not only was this helpful in figuring out what *my* ideal version of the baked good was, but making the recipes also exposed me to a ton of different methodologies and ways of making the same thing. Doing so allowed me to see which one worked best within the constraints of my book’s weeknight baking concept. But in order for this to really work, all the recipes would need to be baked and sampled in the same day (because it’s not really a fair comparison to compare a fresh blueberry muffin to a three day old one, right?).
And so began the long, LONG hours: the day before a baking day, I would bike (at the time, I didn’t own a car) to various grocery stores and arrange deliveries from Costco to make sure I had everything I needed. If the recipe included an ingredient that required lots of prep—say, I was making 8 different recipes for lemon tarts, all of which required 1 cup or more’s worth of freshly squeezed lemon juice—I would go ahead and prep that ingredient the day before, too. This is a true story: I vividly recall spending blowing through an entire season of The Walking Dead on Netflix all the while hunched over my coffee table squeezing bag after bag of lemons. I think I blew through about six 5lb bags that evening and was up way past midnight. I remember my hands being sore afterwards.
The next day would be the intensive baking day. After biking to a gym class at 7AM, I would come home at around 8:15AM, immediately turn on the oven, and start pounding through the recipes. Depending on how time intensive the recipe was, I would bake around 6 to 8 different versions of the same type of baked good in one day. While the first recipe was in the oven, I’d prep and make the next recipe. Then, if there was time left over, I’d do the frenetic dance of running to the shower/eating a quick meal (usually something terrible and half hearted, like leftover pastries, a sad fried egg with ketchup, or avocado toast if I was being “healthy”)/clearing my inbox before the timer dinged and I shoved the next recipe into the oven and started over again.
How to Develop Recipes: Developing the Recipe
At the end of a test day, I’d have a line-up of the completed version of the different recipes. I’d sit down and sample them one after another after another. I took note of what I liked, what I didn’t like, what method paid off and was worthwhile, and finally, what was too complicated for hardly any different results. This was harder than it sounds—although I tried to limit myself to only one bite of each recipe, I frequently had to go back and compare the third and fourth version to the first, etc, etc.
But once I figured out which recipe I liked best, this is when the magic started to really happen. I would go back and look at the different ratios of the recipes I tried—I literally had a Google spreadsheet comparing the volume measurements of each ingredient in every recipe I made—to see how it made the recipe different. I also looked at the recipes I liked but didn’t deem “the best”, taking note of what I specifically liked about each one. Like sure, this chocolate chip cookie recipe was the “best” overall, but this other one had really awesome toffee notes and this other one had better color and more consistent spreading. I would then take note of those recipe ratios too, to try and see what gave them those specific qualities.
From there, I would start to tinker with the winning recipe and try and incorporate the methods, flavors, textures, and results that I liked from the other recipes. I kept handwritten notes along the way—in fact, one of my most prized possessions these days is a ratty, stained notebook showing all these meticulous notes from all my tests! I would then have a second baking intensive day in which I made the winning recipe over and over, using these notes to change one element at a time to achieve a specific taste/texture/look until I was happy with the result. There are maybe four recipes in the book in which I didn’t change a whole lot from the original recipe—specifically, the pumpkin loaf recipe in my book is based on Tartine Bakery’s, a chocolate cake from Ina Garten and a peanut butter one from my friend Molly Yeh, and a vegan chocolate chip cookie from America’s Test Kitchen—because they were already SO good (you go, guys!) and are credited accordingly. But overall, most of the “winning” recipes still went through about 5 or 6 changes until I deemed them worthy enough to be included in Weeknight Baking.
On average, it took me about a WEEK to run research, taste test, and ultimately develop a single recipe for the book. This is incredibly SLOW, and I found myself rushing towards the end of the year that the publisher had given me to write the manuscript (think about it: there are 52 weeks in the year, and my book has 80+ recipes, lol). Later, when I talked to other authors about their process, they would tell me that they were able to develop three or so recipes in a week. Somebody even told me they blasted through five a day! Oops. Of course, these books weren’t exclusively baking books—baking recipes tend to be more time-intensive, especially when compared to say, salad or drinks recipes. And with savory recipes, it’s also easier to fix mistakes and errors: if something is too salty or sweet, most can easily be remedied without having to do the recipe again. But if a cake comes out too flat or fluffy, you can’t simply reduce the amount of baking powder or soda in the recipe and hope for a similar result. Baking is a form of chemistry, even more so than cooking; even ¼ teaspoon change of leavener can lead to a cake overflowing from the pan or sinking in the middle. And if you change too many things at once, it’s really hard to figure out which change made the specific result.
After I was happy with the recipe, I wrote up the ingredients and steps and sent them out to a handful of recipe testers. This is another super important part in the recipe development process—I needed to make sure that the recipes worked in kitchens and ovens beyond my own! Sometimes the recipe testers would report back issues like cakes sticking in the pan or things coming out under- or over-baked. I’d then remake the recipe to see if I could recreate the issue. If I could, I’d have to figure out what went wrong and either clarify my instructions further or continue tinkering with the recipe more. Other times, the recipe testers would report back qualitative feedback, like something was missing specific spices or had too much chocolate. In those instances, although I considered their feedback, I would sometimes disagree and keep the recipe as it was since it was just a matter of differing tastes (I LOVE chocolate, okay?).
For my recipe testers, I relied on a handful of friends and acquaintances—a mix of professional bloggers and home cooks. All of them were solid bakers, whose tastes and opinions I trust, and most importantly, who knew how to follow recipes exactly as they were written. I tried to open up recipe testing to everybody, but I’m not going to lie: it was a low-key disaster! Many folks made changes to the original recipe, making substitutions for ingredients and skipping over the necessary equipment or steps needed for the recipe. While this is fine for a completed cookbook—in fact, I encourage folks to do this kind of experimentation with the Single Lady Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe in my book—it’s no bueno for a book that’s still in development. I needed to make sure what I’d written worked as is.
What All of This Is Really, Really Like
Although developing and testing the recipes was for Weeknight Baking was probably the most fun that I had during the entire cookbook writing process, I’m not going to lie. It was SO. MUCH. WORK. Both physically and mentally. I needed to get special shoes to wear in the kitchen because my lower back and feet hurt from standing all day—to this day, I have a pair of Danskos that I wear just for when I develop recipes. The hours were endless, and definitely even longer than the hours I worked when I was in tech and finance (two industries notorious for long hours). To meet my deadline, I worked during the weekends too. It was not atypical for me to begin my baking at 7AM and complete at 7PM—in the evenings, I’d catch up on the work I needed to do to maintain this blog (which, don’t forget—the blog was what was paying my mortgage, after all) and my other obligations in life, staying past midnight many nights. That year, my social life was in shambles; I rarely saw friends, and if I did, they hardly understood why I was so low-energy and exhausted. “But you don’t have a real job now! You just bake all day!”
My one respite from the kitchen was the gym (which is not really a respite). Because I knew I would be consuming even more sugar and baked goods from the testing and development, I made a promise to myself that I would go to the gym every day in order to work off the extra calories. Even despite the long hours, I did make the time to attend an hour-long HIIT class five days a week, and a 45-minute long spin class on the other two. Later, towards the end of my deadline, when the recipe development intensified and I was eating triple the trials in one day, I doubled down on my gym classes and did BOTH classes in the same day—HIIT in the morning, spin at night—six days a week. But it didn’t work. My weight still ballooned. When I turned in my manuscript, I was 20lbs over my regular weight. I don’t know the exact figure because I stopped weighing myself.
If this all sounds self-pitying and whiny to you, there is a somewhat happy ending to the story. After my manuscript, I went on a STRICT diet with complicated fasting schedules that eliminated everything good in life: alcohol, dairy, grains, sugar, fun. Because I had been exercising so religiously, the weight slid off fairly quickly—I was back to my normal weight in around a month and a half. And I hate to say this, especially as a baking blogger and official cookbook author, but seriously: it’s sugar that’ll kill you. You can see the below Before/After photos of me, where I’m posed in a similar fashion over a tray of cookies I’m shooting. The photo of me in the blue shirt was taken towards the end of the year I spent developing recipes for Weeknight Baking, whereas the photo of me in white shirt was taken about six months after I’d turned in the manuscript and lost the recipe development weight. I guess it’s hard to tell because these are both relatively flattering photos of me, but I’m two pants sizes larger in the left picture and you can definitely see my face is a little swollen and puffy:
But unrelated to my appearance, my year of developing recipes for Weeknight Baking undoubtedly taught me how to be a better baker. These days, I can confidently identify what’s missing from recipes without having to sample a variety of different versions of the same thing. I can reverse-engineer baked goods from bakeries and restaurants that I love—it may take me a few tries, but I eventually get the results.
Furthermore, as you’re hopefully finding out from these posts, writing a cookbook is not as straight-forward or easy as it seems. There’s usually a fair amount of differing opinions and ideas between the author and the publisher about the book; it can sometimes feel like the final book is a series of compromises. But the recipes in the book is the one spot where I NEVER made any concessions, and where I’m really, truly happy and proud of the results. Even though my process was intense, I really do believe that my hard work in testing and developing recipes for Weeknight Baking will pay off. I’ve released some early copies of Weeknight Baking into the world already, and seeing folks bake from the book and have their baked goods turn out exactly the way they’re supposed to is so incredibly rewarding.
Pre-order Weeknight Baking
Pre-order Weeknight Baking here: