Gotta love social media. I received a tweet today from friend and former editor Amy Traverso, who is cleverly using Twitter to rally recipe testers for her forthcoming cookbook on apples.
It’s gotten me thinking about the process I went through developing and testing drinks for Spice & Ice. I’m fanatical about the testing process — I firmly believe that recipes in cookbooks, including cocktail books, have to work. Period. No exceptions. No room for error. I have a stack of cookbooks that I go to all the time, because I know the recipes are great and I can rely on them to work. And I have an even larger stack of cookbooks set to go to the thrift store because the recipes didn’t do what the author said they would. I’m determined that my book NOT end up in pile #2.
So here’s how I handled the process – and I hope this helps anyone who is working on a book or one day aspires to write one.
#1. Mise en Place. That’s the French term (“putting in place”) professional chefs use to describe putting everything in order at their stations – ingredients chopped and at the ready, tools clean and accessible, etc., so as to be ready for service.
I took the same approach to cocktail testing sessions, including mixing up small batches of infused liquors and syrups in my kitchen at home, although the testing was another space. So I had to find containers for transport that met the following criteria: cheap, disposable, re-sealable, non-spillable, easy to transport, and easy to pour small amounts with precision. I settled on….sippy cups!
I think the testers with small children were first appalled, then amused to see colorful sippy cups labeled with “jalapeno tequila,” etc. Here’s what they looked like:
2. Keep track of feedback. Testing out cocktails was a blast. We did 7 or 8 drinks in each session (distributed in 2-oz. mini-pours, of course, not full-sized drinks). But that’s enough that we all got a little tipsy, a lot goofy, and by the end not even I could remember what I liked and why and what needed to be changed.
So I set up forms for each person to fill out, one per drink, ranking the taste, appearance, heat factor, etc. for each drink. It gave me an objective way to check later on which drinks were most successful, plus everyone wrote down little comments, even ideas for drink names (more on that later…) It also spared my very kind and supportive friends from having to say to my face, “yeah, this one sucks.”
While sobriety and lack thereof may not be an issue for non-booze cookbooks, setting up a form for recipe testers is a smart idea. And Amy has taken the concept a step further, setting up her testing form here, on SurveyMonkey. Her testers can make recipes at home, and the online survey tool spares her the step of tallying up responses later. Simple, yet brilliant.
3. Have fun! I can’t think of any downside to the drink-testing process. And one of the most fun parts of the process (aside from drinking, of course) was coming up with names for the spicy cocktails. Some of the names were easily suggested by the ingredients or the appearance of the final drinks. Others were suggested by our tipsy band of drink testers….and the more drinks we sampled, the sillier (and raunchier) the names became!
There were some great ones — which went into the book, of course. But we also came up with some decent runners-up that didn’t make it in, such as the “Texas ‘Tini,” and “Hot Fudge,” which would have been great for a spiced mudslide-type drink.
But I have to share the Best of the Worst Names list, ranging from “The Hot Kishka” (misspelled — blame the impromptu tequila taste-off), to “Vindaloo!” (and yes, the person who came up with that inspired bit of silliness insisted that the exclamation point be part of the official name) . Here’s a scan of the Post-It that’s been tacked in my overstuffed file of notes for months. It makes me smile every time I see it.
My way was more low-tech, less Web 2.0, but I hope Amy has as much fun with her recipe-testing process as I did!