The minute she tasted the young food editor’s kreplach, Ruth Cousineau knew something was wrong—not necessarily with the food editor but with how she, Cousineau, director of Gourmet magazine’s test kitchen, had written the recipe.
The meat-stuffed dumplings were bland. The recipe was Cousineau’s mother’s, but when her mother made them they never came out like this. “She would brown the pot roast and onions until they were dry and almost, but not quite, burned,” Cousineau says. “That gave the kreplach an incredible flavor, really deep. As soon as I tasted this kreplach, I knew that his brown and my brown were not the same. So I knew I had to describe it better. That’s what recipe writing is all about, making absolutely clear what you mean.”
Ever since last October, when Condé Nast abruptly folded Gourmet, the 68-year-old grande dame of cooking magazines, Cousineau, 64, has had plenty of time to look back on her three-year tenure as test-kitchen director and to ponder her future. On the day the announcement was made, she was at home in her downtown Jersey City co-op, recuperating from knee surgery. She hobbled into the office to commiserate with colleagues. “The next day,” she says, “we were all gone.”
In a single large room divided into eight U-shaped kitchens outfitted with home equipment, Cousineau had supervised a staff of eight cooks and three housekeepers. The latter “did all the dish-washing, which is an unreal situation, not what happens at home,” she says, “but it allowed us to be very productive.” On an annual budget of $120,000, the staff would test about 80 recipes a month. “The procedures we followed were stringent,” she says. “It was an exhaustive system.”
The cooks “had different backgrounds and were very skilled. Some had lived in different countries. They had different tastes. There was a salty camp and a sweet camp. I was in the salty camp. One of our youngest members was a beekeeper who would go hunting and once brought in a woodchuck to cook. It didn’t taste very good. He’d go mushrooming. All these things added to our collective wisdom. And we would travel a lot—travel is invaluable for a cook.”
Holiday recipes would often be prepared and photographed a year in advance of publication, because that was when the ingredients were in season. (“It’s hard to find pumpkins in August.”) Restaurant recipes had to be scaled down for the home, and often simplified. Some recipes were designed from scratch to fit the theme of a given issue or adapted from existing sources. “To call a recipe your own, you have to change at least three ingredients and some method in the cooking,” Cousineau explains. Testing involved cooking, tasting, making suggestions, trying again, writing the recipe, editing it, cross-testing, catching mistakes, re-reading.
Cross-testing means having another cook make the recipe and comparing the results to what the first cook produced. “One reason you cross-test is to make sure timings are right,” Cousineau says. “If you give eight people a recipe, it will come out eight different ways.” The better the recipe is conceived, tested, written, and edited, the slighter the differences will be.
Cousineau, who grew up in Fair Lawn, has had a long career in cooking. She ran a restaurant in Vermont, was a corporate chef and a pastry chef, wrote a cookbook (Country Suppers, Morrow, 1997), developed recipes for Woman’s Day, and tested recipes for Redbook, Family Circle, and Gourmet before becoming test-kitchen director in 2006.
One thing she does not miss is the commute and the daily pursuit, ordering, and schlepping of ingredients. She does miss the people, the group problem-solving, the international travel, and the food. “I was like a kid in a candy shop,” she says. “It was a great ride. I’m sorry it’s gone.”
Next? Possibly teaching, writing (“I’ve always wanted to do a book about nuts”), traveling with her husband, visiting their son in Spain, relocating to Seattle to be near their daughter. “I’m ready for the next step,” she says, “whatever the hell it is.”