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Behind the Scenes: America’s Test Kitchen

A behind-the-scenes tour of America’s Test Kitchen, where constant experimentation in the kitchen leads to perfect recipes. 

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

A very impressive table marks the center of the America’s Test Kitchen library, one of the largest private cookbook collections in America, with more than 4,000 items. Each recipe process begins here.

I remember the details surrounding the first time I purchased an America’s Test Kitchen magazine more than I remember purchasing my first and only car. On one particularly fated checkout session at Whole Foods, the clean, crisp visual of America’s Test Kitchen drew me into its pages and pages of tantalizing food images. “I must have this I thought.” When I finally glanced the price on the cover, I though, “I must have this and use this!” Use it I did, checking off page after page, as I worked my way through the majority of recipes.

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Photo schedule and details (left). Photo props for backdrop and base textures (right).

As my checkmarks increased, I learned the true value of that $9.99. Each recipe was more than just a set of ingredients and steps. Each recipe represented a precise approach to obtaining perfection! Each recipe had been analyzed, tested, discussed, improved, rejected or accepted, etc until finally fit to bear the America’s Test Kitchen name and appear in print. Though this approach varies from my “ah, I’ll just use this and sub [just about everything],” I respect their maniacal methods tremendously!

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Prop collection for the in-house photo studio.

Thanks to an invite from a very talented friend who works for ATK, I had the chance to experience the devotion and dedication behind the scenes.

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

The origin of all those tantalizing food images. America’s Test Kitchen uses all natural daylighting for their photos.

In their own words…

America’s Test Kitchen is a real 2,500 square foot test kitchen located just outside of Boston that is home to more than three dozen, full-time cooks and product testers. Our mission is simple: to develop the absolute best recipes for all of your favorite foods. To do this, we test each recipe 30, 40, sometimes as many as 70 times, until we arrive at the combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time, and equipment that yields the best, most-foolproof recipe.

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

After stifling my jealousy for those who work in the beautifully minimal photo studio and the ABUNDANCE of props, we continued the tour, and our path opened to the reason behind the name.

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

I asked one of the head recipe developers what the note-taking is like for such an intense process, and she showed me this (good thing she wasn’t using an iPad!)…

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

A recipe in progress might look like a stained, ripped printout long before it becomes a beautiful magazine page.

After the research phase, the ATK process draws from five existing recipes. After scouring their own extensive cookbook collection, the other sources might include a recipe passed down from a relative, a NY Times article, a famous chef or a food blog. Then the testers hit the kitchen!

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

If your mom turned her taco dip into a casserole and put A LOT of time into perfecting that recipe, you’d see this on your dinner table.

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Comparing rice puddings. Here’s a helpful tip: use coconut milk!

I was fortunate to tour on a day when there was lots of taste testing opportunities. While savoring my two spoonfuls of rice pudding and drawing my own conclusions, I suddenly felt transported to a critique in architecture school. “Have you thought about..?” “I like ______, but what about _____?” “This is what I was thinking when I tried this approach…” It really was a creative, constructive process, but the advantage of architecture school was obvious when I took my second helping of the rice pudding with coconut milk!

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Testing the effect of the pans on the recipe.

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

Of course she was smiling to herself. This cake was memorably delicious!

Imagine your favorite banana bread/cake with a cream cheese frosting marked by a walnut crunch. Enticing as that may be, now imagine the bananas were roasted, and the remaining juice from the roasting became a sweetener for the icing. That’s the America’s Test Kitchen difference, and it’s the difference between a long-lasting craving and an “oh yeah, I think I ate a piece of that cake.”

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

America’s Test Kitchen grilling station.

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

What looks like your average grill in an alley transforms to an idyllic backyard scene when the camera rolls- the wonders of tv!

Behind the Scenes: America's Test Kitchen // www.WithTheGrains.com

What’s it like to work for America’s Test Kitchen? Sometimes it’s hard to see over the stacks and stacks of cookbooks.

From a checkout lane magazine to the heart and soul of the publication, my many paths had taken me on quite the journey! The peek inside the well oiled machine [olive or canola? ;p] inspired me on many levels. I left eager to delve into a cookbook or two, fiddle with this and that and then review, critique, taste, review, critique, taste, repeat. Granted, you’ll still find me making substitutions with abandon, but I’ll be doing so with the utmost respect for those whose mission is perfection.

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Boeuf Bourguignon: A Comforting Winter Stew

This French classic may seem intimidating, but with a little prep and a slow cooker, you’ll easily be eating tender, fall-apart-on-your-fork Boeuf Bourguignon. 

Boeuf Bourguignon for Comforting Winter Dinners // www.WithTheGrains.com

For the past couple years, the Rustbelt Farmer’s bagpipe band performed in a beautiful, historical church downtown. After the last reverberations of those powerful pipes, we’d ditch his cumbersome bass drum and explore downtown Pittsburgh. We’d settle into a velvety booth to sip speakeasy cocktails in the basement of an ornate hotel. It became a tradition, one I enjoyed, but it wasn’t a tradition we crafted simply because we loved all those elements. Since then, the Rustbelt Farmer retired his kilt and relinquished his drum, which meant we could usher in 2018 however we pleased. 

Boeuf Bourguignon for Comforting Winter Dinners // www.WithTheGrains.com

With all the options at our disposal, we chose… to stay home!

I like to spend the close of the year quietly, reviewing the past year, relishing the comfort of home and each other. It’s when I raise my hibernation flag and sing my introvert’s anthem. (Plus, they don’t let Julep drink at the speakeasy, even though her name is Julep.) But we chose to stay home with a special twist: a slow-cooked meal and a gussied up table. 

Boeuf Bourguignon for Comforting Winter Dinners // www.WithTheGrains.com

Before I made the leap to self-employment, weekends were sacred and typically, when I would spend time immersing myself in slower, complicated and intimidating recipes like Boeuf Bourguignon. I had two splurge purchases of America’s Test Kitchen magazine as my spirit guide, their many kitchen gurus holding my hand as I tied tenderloins, shaped Parker House rolls and proverbially dipped my toes into the ocean. 

Boeuf Bourguignon for Comforting Winter Dinners // www.WithTheGrains.com

Fast forward and my entrenchment in the food world and a chaotic freelancer schedule means I tend not to carve out as much time simply to enjoy cooking (quel dommage!). Boeuf Bourguignon was a recipe I made on those distant food adventures, so it felt symbolic to feast on this fall-off-your-fork roast for a quiet and celebratory night at home.   

Boeuf Bourguignon for Comforting Winter Dinners // www.WithTheGrains.com

The best part of investing the time and effort (which is really less than you think) in this Boeuf Bourguignon recipe is it keeps on feeding you. From our fancy New Year’s Eve table, to watching Fargo on New Year’s Day (it felt appropriately cold outside to revisit that classic film) and for a few days after that, we had warm bowls of comforting stew to nourish us and torture the dog with its aroma (poor baby, but no wine broth for her). 

Boeuf Bourguignon for Comforting Winter Dinners // www.WithTheGrains.com

Stay warm and nourished, friends. 

Cheers,


Boeuf Bourguignon

Adapted from Martha Stewart
Prep Time 1 hour 15 mins | Cook Time 4 hours 15 mins | Yield: 8 servings

About this Recipe: An hour and change of prep is highly worth the resulting rich and tender stew. To take advantage of my VitaClay cooker, I transferred the prepped mixture to the slow cooker for the low simmer portion of this recipe, but you can continue using the stovetop if you don’t have a slow cooker or don’t want extra cleanup. For the bacon, I’ve sampled several varieties, and so far, nothing beats Whole Foods’ Black Forest Bacon. Use a good quality, free-range meat source for the chuck roast. This recipe pairs well with a celery root mash or mashed potato to soak up all the juices.  

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Roasted Chestnut Stuffing (Vegetarian)

“How do you feel about chestnuts?” I asked Jill, who was coming for dinner in a few days.

“Like…I like them roasting over an open fire? I actually have no idea!”

Though we sing about chestnuts roasting every year, and the lyrics help put us in that holiday spirit, how many of us actually eat these hearty nuts?

Roasted Chestnut Stuffing (Vegetarian) // www.WithTheGrains.com

If my friend Jill, who samples an array of precise recipes daily at America’s Test Kitchen, cooks constantly, travels extensively and meets world class chefs as part of her job…if she had never eaten a chestnut, it’s safe to say very few people are eating these nuts. This begs the question, why do we sing nostalgically about this nut but not eat it?

Roasted Chestnut Stuffing (Vegetarian) // www.WithTheGrains.com

The short answer is blight. Once upon a time, chestnut trees blanketed the east coast of the United States, covering some 200 million acres. Frost resistant and reliable, the tree was a major source of income for many a rural community, both as a source of food for livestock and as a timber source. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, blight, imported through Asian Chestnut Trees, devastated the eastern woodlands. If this feels like a dismal tale from the annals of food history, it is, BUT there’s a glimmer of hope too!

Roasted Chestnut Stuffing (Vegetarian) // www.WithTheGrains.com

Fortunately, there are organizations and people working to restore the chestnut’s mighty presence. These history lessons are also valuable as more and more of us seek to improve the local food economy. If we spend more time examining our food and its sources, we can better mediate our local agricultural systems. For now, chestnuts cost a pretty penny in grocery stores, and their availability is limited (I hope you can still acquire some as I am sharing this in January!), but hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, every east coast grocery store will offer a regular bin of local chestnuts. Maybe I’ll even be gathering them at Hazelwood Urban Farms!

Here’s to chestnuts roasting on lots of open fires!

Quelcy Signature

Roasted Chestnut Stuffing/Dressing
Recipe adapted from Sift magazine
Yield: 10 servings

About This Recipe: Vegetarians and carnivores can unite on this classic side dish thanks to chestnuts’ meaty flavor! For a more nutrient rich approach, I used a combination of Whole Wheat Sourdough and Mt. Athos Fire Bread (a local favorite- sub any dense, grainy bread). This recipe calls for baking the bread cubes to dry them, but you can also cube and save bread as it starts to harden to avoid wasting a loaf. To simplify the recipe, you can use pre-cooked chestnuts (like these), but roasting draws a lot of flavor. If you have more than 1 1/2 cups chestnuts after roasting and shelling, add them to the stuffing. That quantity is flexible. 

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2013: A Year in Review + Happy New Year!

January 2014

It’s been a whirlwind year (aren’t they all, really?), full of extreme ups and downs, so I dedicated time to sitting in my window seat, cuddled under a blanket [and dog fur], sipping coffee and penning my reflections on paper. Not far from my comfortable chair and window view, is a desk and a laptop beckoning me to give my digital world the same due diligence. There I sat reminding myself that as much as I want to share my adventures, and recipes, and engage in a food dialogue, these pages and posts are primarily here for me. These collected words, images and flour proportions remind me exactly how much one year can contain, but only if I take the time to review them. So review them I did, and these were a few of the highlights…

IMG_9571

Photo by Alexander Mohamed

For one night, in celebration of 29 years, I stepped out of Pittsburgh and lept into my favorite movie, which happens to take place in my favorite city. While the accordeon played, I blew out 29 candles in a continuation of my birthday cake tradition.

Tea With Heather

A bright spot of tea in the bleak month of snowy, gray February was a visit from Heather Mulholland of Tea With Me. I was so honored to be a stop on Heather’s big world tour, and I enjoyed the time we had together to connect in the real world after so many online exchanges. This proved once again the world is small if you make it so!

Final Shot_gatherings

Photo by Adam Milliron

In April, I began styling work with Table Magazine, and in a rare role reversal, I had the chance to be in front of the camera for an article on gatherings. Eat a delicious Italian meal amongst good company? Of course! I am so grateful to be part of this magazine. Each issue gets better and better, and my creativity has been stretched and challenged. I’m thrilled for what lies ahead!

El Bus Blanco

Tacos from the Tampa Taco Bus is a worthwhile foodventure, but this trip was especially meaningful because I was eating tacos with two of my BEST friends. We had reunited for one of said ladies’ wedding! One look at Sandra’s wedding shoes, and Nina and I were a mess of squished, teary faces. It was love! Full disclosure: even the thought makes me tear up a bit. I love those ladies!

Bourbony Whipped Cream

May was bittersweet. I watched my best friend walk down the aisle, and I couldn’t have been happier, but I returned home to heartbreak. My love, my best friend, my “special one” concluded our relationship and broke a piece of my heart. Our lives had been intertwined, but I had to move forward and learn to flip my own pancakes. In a twist of fate, this batch of independence, in the form of peach & bourbon pancakes, made its rounds on the internet and earned me some press, which humbled my heart and reaffirmed my journey. I was also grateful for the way my friends rallied around me, both in person and via the internet. Through all the sadness, I managed to hold my head high and I also found one of my greatest joys…

Introducing-Julep

Bourbon is a girl’s best friend, and so is my sweet, minty Julep! My search for a four-legged companion also had its fair share of ups and downs and disappointments, but as soon as I saw this tiny little face, I knew I had found my pup! Julep reminded me of the importance of patience. The best things in life are worth the wait. One glance at my instagram feed is evidence of how quickly I slipped into crazy dog lady territory, but I can’t imagine my life without this little lady. She brings a smile to my face every single day. Her sweet demeanor even charmed my family who typically prefers dogs to earn their keep in the pastures amongst cows and sheep.

Bon Appetit Bloggers Cook BA

July was a dance party for one when I discovered my grandma-style, beet-substitution semi-freddo made a slideshow on Bon Appétit’s website. I was dancing with delight! Now if I could just get Martha to pay attention to me!

Champagne Toast

Though sundresses and warmth on my shoulders feels forever ago, I am grateful for the friends who surround me, especially these two ladies who have become even closer to me this past year. Being single has reminded me not to cut out important friendships and lose myself in one person.

The Cottage

Sweet, sweet respite. It’s so important! This year I experienced Maine for the very first time, and it was the most perfect way to find respite. I was honored to help my friend Acadia with her wedding decor, and I was so graciously welcomed by her family’s neighbors. They were like instant family, and I look forward to many more adventures north!

Rice Pudding Taste Test

En route from Maine to Pittsburgh, I made a Boston detour and a deeper connection with my wise-beyond-her-years friend Jill. This lovely lady happens to work at a foodie mecca- America’s Test Kitchen, so she generously invited me to tour the place where recipes meet perfection. Though my approach to cooking and baking may differ, I walked away truly inspired nonetheless. The coming year will be filled with even more ATK inspiration as I work my way through one of their newest books.

The Farm

Throughout the summer and fall, I enjoyed plenty a farm dinner. There’s nothing like tables extending into the horizon, fresh farm air, beautiful barns, fresh, seasonal food and down-to-earth chefs full of talent. All these dinners led to the creation of Farm Week on my blog, in which I recounted the many meals shared with fellow foodies on farms. I hope Farm Week becomes a tradition!

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Photo by Chris Goodman

Summer quickly faded into fall, and elegant tables moved indoors. As I took a leap of faith and dove headfirst into doing what I love- styling & event design- I found myself at more and more festivities. The one that stood out the most was Thanksgiving. This golden table marked the start of an event design collaboration with painter and floral designer Thommy Conroy. Thanksgiving affirmed all the twists and turns my path has taken this year. I finally feel like I’m on the path which leads to my skills and passions aligning fruitfully. I’m finally challenged and fulfilled by the work I produce, which makes for a very exciting start of a brand new year!

Happy-2014

So here’s to a brand new year with far more dancing, cherished pals, growing friendships, wine refills, artful cappuccinos, brunches that spill into evenings, fulfilling endeavors, foreign vocabulary, and warm puppy snuggles! Here’s to 2014!

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Happy Holidays! (The City Mouse, The Country Mouse & Quick Cinnamon Rolls)

November 2013

Once upon a time, there was a meek and kind Country Mouse and her vivacious cousin who lived amongst the glamour and glitz of the big city. When the holidays arrived, the City Mouse ventured over country roads, to visit her cousin, in her home underground. Unimpressed by the country’s quiet charms, the City Mouse convinced the country cousin to experience the sparkling city and its constant commotion.

City and Country Mouse

After scurrying to evade carriage wheels, fancy high heels and cats lurking in corners, the exhausted Country Mouse called it quits. The City Mouse bade the Country Mouse farewell before finding a fancy party to scavenge for fallen fringes and pretty pearls. As she bumped and bounced on the country roads to her home, the Country Mouse was filled with relief and gratitude for the peace of her holiday home.

Wall Decor

From her quaint pantry, she pulled out the pan of homemade rolls she had made for her metropolitan cousin. In the peaceful quiet of her home underground, the Country Mouse relished the fruits of her labor in solitude. She reflected on all for which she had to be grateful while savoring the swirls of sugar and spice.

Little Tin of Rolls

I recently assisted the magical mind of my friend Thommy Conroy, as he interpreted the classic tale of The City Mouse & The Country Mouse for the holidays at Roxanne’s Dried Flowers. As we put ourselves into the story and the minds of mice, I couldn’t help but add a little food to the story, and my new cookbook provided just the solution!

Pan of Larger Rolls

If you’ve ever awakened lazily on a Sunday morning with a cinnamon roll craving, then stared at a time-consuming recipe regrettably, you know a significant factor in making them is time! In response to this predicament, America’s Test Kitchen set out to make a quicker cinnamon roll. Their thorough testing proved biscuit dough to be the solution, and though their aim is to develop the perfect recipe, I couldn’t help but tinker a little with some whole-wheat pastry flour and raw sugar. The recipe in the book also includes a buttermilk icing, but I served my rolls with a homemade cranberry sauce (recipe to follow in a subsequent post) for a holiday touch.

Quick Cinnamon Buns
adapted from America’s Test Kitchen
Makes 8 buns & some mice-sized rolls too!

Melted butter is used in both the filling and the dough and to grease the pan; melt the total amount (8 Tablespoons) at once and measure it out as you need it.

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, melted, for pan

Filling

3/4 cup (5 1/4 oz) packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) raw sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoons ground cloves
1/8 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

Biscuit dough

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 oz) whole-wheat pastry flour, plus additional flour for work surface
2 Tablespoons raw sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
6 Tablespoons organic, unsalted butter, melted

Directions

Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Pour 1 Tablespoon melted butter into 9-inch nonstick cake pan; brush to coat pan. Spray wire cooling rack with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

For the Filling

Combine sugars, spices, and salt in small bowl. Add 1 Tablespoon melted butter and stir with fork or fingers until mixture resembles wet sand; set filling mixture aside.

For the Dough

Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in large bowl.

Whisk buttermilk and 2 tablespoons melted butter in measuring cup or small bowl.

Add liquid to dry ingredients and stir with wooden spoon until liquid is absorbed (dough will look very shaggy), about 30 seconds.

Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and knead until just smooth and no longer shaggy.

Pat dough with hands into 12 by 9-inch rectangle.

Brush dough with 2 Tablespoons melted butter.

Sprinkle evenly with filling, leaving 1/2-inch border of plain dough around edges. Press filling firmly into dough.

Using bench scraper or metal spatula, loosen dough from work surface. Starting at long side, roll dough, pressing lightly, to form tight log. Pinch seam to seal. Roll log seam-side down and cut evenly into eight pieces. With hand, slightly flatten each piece of dough to seal open edges and keep filling in place. Place one roll in center of prepared nonstick pan, then place remaining seven rolls around perimeter of pan. Brush with 2 tablespoons remaining melted butter.

Bake until edges are golden brown, 23 to 25 minutes. Use offset metal spatula to loosen buns from pan.

Wearing oven mitt, place large plate over pan and invert buns onto plate. Place greased cooling rack over plate and invert buns onto rack. Cool about 5 minutes before icing.

Single-Grain

Happy Holidays!
With The Grains

:)
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