The Making of A Recipe Tester/Cookbook Collaborator

Introducing Woody Wolston

I never expected to have a true and totally reliable assistant to work with me on developing and perfecting recipes, least of all one who lives several states away. But the universe can offer surprising gifts and thanks to the modern technology of the internet and digital cameras, my newest book has had the great benefit of the presence of Woody Wolston. For those of you who are curious about how such an amazing arrangement came to be, I have asked Woody to come forward and write about it from his perspective.

“You will not believe this, but your favorite fans are T’ai-Chi people and broomball players.” This was the first line of the first e-mail I sent to Rose’s “ask a question” section on her then CakeBible.com website back in December of 2003. The rest of the e-mail was asking some cake questions although her mind was on breads, having just published The Bread Bible. Rose promptly answered, “Who are T’ai-Chi people? And broomball?” What comes to mind for most people is that T’ai-Chi practitioners are those large masses of Chinese you see on some travel show doing a martial art—very slowly. In my case, I have been practicing and teaching T’ai-Chi for over 13 years in St. Paul, Minnesota. And broomball? Broomball is a sport which is played like hockey, but the players run around the ice on special sneakers and hit a small ball with a broom-looking stick, (though we do get confused with that other sport where players sweep their brooms in front of a ‘rock’ --curling). Her answering my cake related questions triggered many e-mail exchanges of cake related questions, discussions and new ideas. The following fall, Rose came to the Twin Cities to participate in a “ Gold Medal cookie exchange” at General Mills, so my wife and I arranged to meet at a coffee shop. I brought along, together with my Cake Bible and Pie and Pastry Bible, cakes I had made from the Cake Bible: a Chocolate Oblivion and the White Whisper Cake with layers of Raspberry Puree and Stabilized Whip Cream. Rose was very pleased with my renditions. Along with autographing my books she walked us across the street to a Barnes & Noble so she could also autograph a newly purchased Bread Bible. One problem Rose has had to deal with in testing her recipes is finding as unbiased audience. Just the fact that she is offering a test sample tends to elicit many positive responses versus objective evaluation. After all, who is going to criticize “The Diva of Desserts.” She asked me if I could make some of her new recipes and she then realized that along with validated outcomes and test reports, I had an army of taste testers on any given night at T’ai-Chi. After some initial taste-test reviews from this unbiased group, who were very eager to give their comments and votes for this or that variation, Rose asked me to come out to New York in December of 2005. In her baking laboratory, which she had annexed from part of the living room, we baked for three days.

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Evenings were spent going over concepts and ideas and fine dining with her and Elliot. At the end, Rose had found in me an assistant that she could rely on to duplicate her experimental techniques and communicate results to her.

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What initially was to be a dozen or so tests soon expanded to Rose and me deciding that I should bake everything in the upcoming Rose’s Heavenly Cakes. This came about as she gave me a recipe for German Chocolate cake, which was given to her by a friend. When I made the frosting, I found the instructions were not detailed as I have seen with Rose’s. So I rewrote them in Rose’s style of writing which we together then revised the recipe to include the added details. Another change we made was how I made a recipe. In the beginning, I would make a recipe to how a likely home baker would make it. Some examples: Prepping a cake pan with shortening and flour versus spraying with Baker’s Joy, or chopping something up versus using a food processor. This soon was changed to matching perfectly how the cake or ganache would come out if Rose made it. We were soon calling my kitchen, “Rose’s Mid-Western Laboratory” and it was equipped to be almost a duplicate version of her work space.

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Another aspect that I brought to Rose was my ‘nuts and bolts’ handyman ideas to compliment her academia research mind. A funny example of this was one day she called me: “Woody, how many cups does your Wilton Angel Food pan hold?” “I am not sure.” She then suggested I somehow duct tape it up or do something to seal the two piece pan to hold water. I quickly called her back with my answer. “Ten cups.” “How did you do it that fast?” “I put a trash liner in the pan, filled it up and then poured the water to measure the ten cups.” “Why did you do it that way?” “Because I did not want to have to peal off the tape and wash a pan.” Inspired by this logical technique, Rose then proceeded to try it out but went one step further. She set the pan on a sheet pan and then set it on a scale and weighed the water it could hold to see if it correlated with the cup volume measure. As I continued recipe testing for the book, and bringing samples to T’ai-Chi, my Sifus (Chinese for masters) Ray and Paul were announcing at the end of a class,” Woody brought cake!” and some twenty mellowed by the meditative practicing of T’ai-Chi tasters, were out in the hallway, where I would have a tasting station with a table, plates, forks, napkins and the cake of the night. Evaluations by the group triggered Rose and my modifying several recipes, much to the delight of the T’ai-Chiers, who were treated to the tweaked cakes two to four nights a week.

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In January of 2007, Rose asked me to assist her in prepping Angel Food Cakes for the demo for the Experimental Cuisine Collective at NYU. Rose was delighted to discover that in addition to my desire and willingness to become her ideal recipe tester, I also had a background in video production. I offered to bring my video camera to give a second camera shot from the back of the demonstration room. The combined footage was then edited and converted to be on YouTube ala Hector’s knowledge of computer videoing. Rose again called on me to oversee kitchen staff and help prep all the cakes and adornments for her Gold Medal/General Mills series of instructional videos for cake and bread techniques that are now available on YouTube and through a link on this blog. This worked out well as General Mill’s is located within minutes of my condo allowing me to meet with the staff as Rose’s representative and help coordinate before the actual video recording sessions.

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We were thrilled to have gotten through so many of techniques we had planned to tape and grateful to Nancy Stuart who sat through every taping session listening carefully to ensure that Rose said exactly what she knew she meant to say! She also organized all the ingredients and equipment for the entire session.

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When the copy edited manuscript arrived at Rose’s with page after page of notes from the copy editor, Wiley’s editors and Rose, I was soon seated across from Rose at her porch glass table. Pens, paper clips, post-it notes, notepaper and a ‘scorecard’ (for how many corrections) were my arsenal to mark some 1000 corrections as Rose read to me for hours and hours and our discussing which or that version to keep. On a couple of occasions, we even called my fellow T’ai Chi student, Rondi Atkin, who is a college English composition teacher for her ideas. Lots of hard work but I was richly rewarded by Rose’s fine cooking, playing tennis with her and Elliott, and evening trips to Friendly’s for ice cream.

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This was only the first round. We had more editing with marathon long conversations between New York and the Twin Cities when we went over the three proof reader versions last winter. And finally in May, we had a toast over the phone when Rose joyfully said, “The book is off to be printed.” It was now out of our hands. To get the book in my hands, I had to go to Michigan this August! Rose was asked to be one of the participants to demonstrate at the Epicurean Classic being held at Kitchen Aid main headquarters in St. Joseph, Michigan. I had my first chef jacket made specially for the event.

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I am humbled by the extraordinary opportunity to be involved in every aspect of this book. What was to be testing a dozen or so recipes given to Rose by fellow bakers, friends and restaurants soon evolved to baking cover to cover, over three hundred tests, over 2000 pictures, thousands of hours of discussing recipes, editing, proofing and developing this book to meet Rose’s dreams. For myself this has met a passion I have always wanted in bringing happiness to so many people whether directly as with my T’ai Chi tasting fellow students, or indirectly to people around the world I will never meet thru Rose’s blog and this book. For Rose, I comment to her from time to time a saying from T’ai-Chi master TT LLiang, “Imagination becomes reality.” Her dreams having now reached perfection ‘reality’ in the photos and printed pages of Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.