A few weeks ago, we were invited to a dinner party celebrating the launch of a new cookbook by Dana Cowin, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen. In the book, Dana talks about her past kitchen disasters, and how she sought the counsel of 65 different chefs (Mario Batali, Nancy Silverton, Andy Ricker, and Kristen Kish, to name just a few) to help her course correct.
Dana gathered a small group of bloggers and food writers at her apartment for a potluck. Our assignment? To bring a dish that you have mastered over time, and be prepared to talk about its evolution.
Amanda made her version of Luciana's porchetta, which won one of our earliest recipe contests on Food52, and Merrill brought crostini topped with ricotta and escalivada (Catalan roasted vegetables with olive oil and sherry vinegar), a recipe recently learned from Marian, one of our editors.
There were lots of familiar faces at the party, including Julia Turshen (who made near-perfect naan), Phoebe Lapine (and her tasty gluten-free meatballs), Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman (with a tomato-infused bean dish that she calls "pizza beans"), Kelsey Banfield of The Naptime Chef (who brought a version of her signature chocolate bundt cake using zucchini), and Anna Watson Carl, who writes over at The Yellow Table and served a tahini dip from her new book.
As people went around the room telling the stories behind their recipes, we came to a realization: As a cook, you're never really finished with a recipe. Even once you've "mastered" something, it continues to evolve with you, and odds are you will keep tweaking different aspects of it according to where you are in your life at the moment. Here's how this applies to both of our dishes:
Merrill: The night of the party I told a story about mastering the art of burning toast (or rather, still not having mastered the art of making consistently good toast). I burned half the crostini right before we left for the party, despite my best intentions -- although luckily I had made more than I needed, and bought some backup crostini at Eataly.
Later, I realized that the dish I brought to Dana's was reflective of another long-term relationship I've had with a recipe: my ever-evolving love affair with ricotta-topped crostini. Over the years I've flirted with different iterations; it's a quest for perfection that never reaches its culmination point. I started simply, with a version calling for honey and lemon zest, to which I was a tireless devotee for a couple of years. Since then I've continued to hunt for new flavors and textures to serve as a foil, so that I don't ever tire of the combination of soft, creamy cheese and crunchy, oily toast. Marian's escalivada is my latest favorite.
Amanda: My mother was a devoted (some might say militant) from-scratch cook but she allowed herself the occasional cheat by buying prepped porchetta, so all she'd have to do was stick it in the oven. I always loved that porchetta. My siblings and I used to fight for the pieces of twine that my mother would snip off as she sliced it -- the twine had absorbed the cooking juices and often had little bits of caramelized fat stuck to it.
I've never been able to replicate this porchetta, but I've learned an extraordinary version since, from Aliwaks here on Food52. I've made Luciana's Porchetta a number of times, and have adjusted the seasoning to my liking (cutting back on the red pepper flakes, increasing the herbs), but I always got nervous about overcooking the pork. Luckily, Merrill happened to write about her overnight roast pork, a foolproof recipe that involves putting your pork roast in a raging hot oven, turning down the heat to a flicker, and going to bed. By morning, the pork is so tender you can pull it apart with a fork, and is blanketed with a crisp, chestnut brown skin. I gave it a try, and realized that all of my porchetta problems were solved. It still doesn't taste like the one I grew up with, but just as my mother was looking for a stress reliever, this latest iteration of Luciana's is just that for me.
Below is one of the mistake-proof recipes from Dana's book. We chose brownies because they're something we both have yet to master to our complete satisfaction. This recipe, which is Dana's, incorporates lessons she learned from the crew at Baked, one of our favorite bakeries in Brooklyn.
From Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen (Ecco, 2014)
Makes 1 dozen brownies
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetend cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces high-quality semisweet chocolate (60 to 70% cacao), finely chopped
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, diced
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup cocoa nibs
Photos by Eric Moran, Mark Weinberg and James Ransom