Testing: Recipes and Web Sites

In my day job, I've been building web sites. Well, I don't actually build them, but I guide the process and oversee the development. Two out of four are done, with the other two scheduled to be in testing early next year.

Before any site goes live, there's a fair amount of testing to be done to make sure everything works right. On the most recent site that launched, we had a real problem re-skinning the blog section. It was a task that had been outsourced by the guy we had outsourced it to, meaning that from my perspective, the job was now three times removed — from me to the information systems department, to the outsourced guy, to his outsourced guy... who lives in Australia and works on a wholly different time zone than the rest of us. When the job finally got back to me, I tested it under relatively normal conditions. I tinkered with the blogging tools and pressed a few buttons I would normally press in the course of a few weeks of using the blog tools. I deleted something. I changed something. And then I hit the "rebuild" button. Everything broke. The design reverted back to the default blog style. The site was somehow calling the old CSS.

I wrote an email: "I broke the site!"

Aside from the headache of the thrice-removed, days-long fix, it was actually a rather proud moment for me. What a great bug to find early! More important, this particular bug was an indication that the developer didn't do the job properly. It took a few more go-arounds, but we finally got it working right.

Lately I've been thinking about different kinds of "testing" that I do, and it became oddly apparent how different bug-testing and software testing is from recipe testing.

With recipes, you want them to work. The real trick to testing recipes is identifying things that should be explicit but aren't. In other words, figuring out what's missing as opposed to what could possibly go wrong. For example, does the recipe indicate whether to cook something covered or uncovered? Your also looking for inconsistencies, such as an ingredients that's listed at the top in the ingredients section but never mentioned in the directions. Recipe testing is about verification.

Testing a web site and looking for bugs in software, on the other hand, is much more about trying to break stuff. The part when you're trying to figure out what's missing comes much earlier. Looking for bugs requires a different kind of focus. While recipes are more a set of instructions (and the "user" brings his or her own tools and supplies), a web site or piece of software is itself the tool. Recipes culminate in a final, measurable product, while web sites typically give the user an unquantifiable experience.

I'm sure as I think about this more, I'll start to see more similarities between the two. And maybe this essential difference that I see — how one is almost a challenge to break stuff while the other is more of a "fingers-crossed" kind of approach — is not so much a difference in the tasks themselves but more a reflection of my attitude about how I approach them.

Can Knife Skills be Learned in Class?

Image from Lauren McDuff's The DIY Chef

For years, I have toyed with the idea of going to a cooking school and taking a knife skills class, and the reason I still have not done it is because I know that the primary lesson I'll learn will be "go home and practice over and over again." I've gone through books on knife skills, combing over the diagrams. I've watched video tutorials. I researched different styles of knives to learn how some are constructed in a way that aids measuring (the size of and distance between rivets are not insignificant).

Even in the self-taught instruction I've had so far, the last word is always, "Now buy a sack of potatoes, onions, and carrots so you can practice, practice, practice."

For me, I love being in a traditional, face-to-face, classroom environment. I learn well in this setting because I am motivated by not wanting to appear dumb in front of other learners and the instructor. However, I know I will never actually master any knife skills in this setting. The most I will get out of it is a slightly deeper understanding than I would get from a book or video, and probably more importantly, some real-time feedback about my form and movements. Everything else I would want to learn will only come with 1) focused practice and 2) more repetition than would normally occur a two-person household. Seriously, what would I do with 10 lbs. of diced onion?

The flip side of this is why does a home cook need knife skills in the first place? I have my very basic skills down, and I don't feel that I am slow with prep work. And when once or twice a year I try to impress people with my cooking, I can be nit-picky and push to the side any carrot stick that is not perfectly julienned. But on a day-to-day basis, I really don't care if my dice is precise, just as I don't care if there is a stray dribble of sauce on the side of the plate when I set it down on the table. Dinner at home is not where I'm concerned with wiping rims. And, even if I were to cook three meals a day, seven days a week at home, that's still not enough repetition in a short enough window of time to truly "master" any skill.

The purpose of going to a knife skills class, for me, would be to have a fun night out (or a series of five fun nights out) where I could dabble a little deeper into one of my hobbies, and hob-nob with people whose skills I hold in high regard. I'm sure I would learn a lot being around experts, observing their skills, asking questions in real-time, but I also think it's good to have realistic expectations of what a hobbyist home cook will actually learn in a few hours.

Recipe: Black and White Cookies

Last year, around this same time of year, my sister and I got together and made black and white cookies, one of my favorite New York City foods. They show up in most bakeries and delis in New York and the surrounding areas.

I was worried that a homemade version wouldn't capture that wonderful cake texture of the cookie itself, or that it would be difficult to get right that hint of lemon, or that the icing would be impossible to put on by hand in a small kitchen.

And the first time we made them, I have to admit, they didn't come out great. We realized too late that we were out of baking powder, and thus simply left it out, causing the cookies to come out more like chewy pancakes. We didn't have cake flour either, so we just used more all-purpose flour. Then there was the snafu with the sugar — it got sifted into the dry ingredients accidentally, rather than beat into the butter and eggs. And the icing... we must have used up almost an entire box of powdered sugar trying to adjust the viscosity.

This time, I adjusted the recipe a little bit beforehand (less flour, more lemon extract, a dash of vanilla in the icing, and a total re-do of the chocolate icing), made sure I had all my ingredients, and got to work.

It's not so hard, and they came out great. I came up with a few new tricks, which are in the directions below.

Black and White Cookies
Makes 18 medium-large cookies
For the Cookies
3/4 cups plus granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature

2 large eggs at room temperature
3/4 cups whole milk or half-and-half

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1 cup cake flour or pastry flour

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Icings
1 cup powdered sugar (confectioner's sugar)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
boiling or very hot water

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate (chocolate chips work fine)

1 tablespoon half-and-half, cream, or whole milk

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Prepare one or more cookies sheets or baking trays by either using a Silpat, parchment paper, non-stick cooking spray, or butter.

2. In large bowl, combine sugar and butter. If using a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat on low to medium; if beating by hand, prepare to use some elbow grease. Beat until the butter and sugar are fluffy and pale yellow. Add the eggs, one and a time, and beat until well incorporated, then add the milk. The batter may appear to "curdle," and that's okay. Add the vanilla and lemon extracts, and beat until very well combined. The batter may still look curdled, especially on top, but don't worry. It will look smoother once the dry ingredients have been incorporated.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk or sift together the cake flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.

4. Working in three or four batches, add the dry mixture to the wet, beating the batter by hand or with a mixer after each batch. The batter will become very thick, but it should not feel stiff. If it starts to feel stiff, withhold some of the flour, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and continue beating. If the dough relaxes and becomes loose again, add the rest of the flour; if not, leave it out.

5. How you decide to scoop the cookies onto the prepared baking sheets is up to you. Some people like to use an ice cream scoop for reasonable approximation of uniformity. I usually use a tablespoon, like an ordinary soup spoon (but not a Japanese or Chinese soup spoon!). Whatever method you use, drop a few tablespoons of batter onto the baking sheets at least 2 inches apart. To give you an idea of how much room that is, I fit no more than 6 cookies on a half-sheet pan. Gently swirl the back of the spoon on each dollop of dough to coax it into a more perfect circle shape.

6. Bake the cookies in the center or upper racks of the oven just until the edges begin to brown, about 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

7. Make the icings. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a bowl, preferably glass or Pyrex, but metal or ceramic will do fine, too. Plastic bowls tend not to be the best option, but it won't ruin the recipe by any means. Add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract plus a few teaspoons of hot or boiling water, and stir until you reach a paste-like consistency. You might need to add more water, but do so very slowly and cautiously. If you add even a teaspoon too much water, you'll end up with a runny mess and will have to add another 1/2 or full cup of powdered sugar to compensate. It's a vicious cycle thereafter of adding water, sugar, water, sugar, until you have more icing than you know what to do with! Work slowly.

8. Using a double-boiler or baine-marie, melt the chocolate over barely simmering water. This will take 10 minutes at least. If it takes less than 5 minutes, you're probably going to burn the chocolate. Work slowly!You can move onto step 9 while this is happening. When the chocolate is nearly melted, dribble 1 tablespoon of half-and-half, cream, or whole milk down the inside of the bowl so that it warms up before it hits the chocolate. When it meets the chocolate, stir it in gently. If your chocolate burns and "breaks," or separates into oily chocolate clumps, lower the heat to as low as you can get it or temporarily remove the chocolate from the heat all together. Add a teaspoon or two of boiling water and stir. If the chocolate doesn't look glossy within a minute or so, repeat. Return it to the very lowest possible setting over the baine-marie -- remove some of the water from the baine-marie if necessary, or if you suspect your bowl is too thin or too low to the water, stick a wooden spoon between the bowl and the pot containing the water to create more space between the heat source and the chocolate.

9. To spread the icing, I found a cheese knife in combination with a wetted finger works exceptionally well. Using the cheese knife, scoop a small amount of white icing on half of the flat side of each cookie. Dip your finger in hot water, then use it to sort of half spread and half "melt" the icing into place. It should look shiny, and it will dry to a nice sheen. Let each cookie's icing set completely before putting chocolate on the other half, which you can do with just a knife (no fingers). Leave on a wire rack at room temperature or in the refrigerator to set.

When I worked in delis and bakeries, we always kept the black and whites in the refrigerator over night. To this day, I have a special place in my heart for a cold black and white cookie.