Maria Robledo

At the Harper Collin’s blog The Secret Ingredient, Tavia posted  her experience with Sally’s just-released-in-paperback The Improvisational Cook. The gist: Tavia considered herself an improvisational cook until she realized that…

“…it…doesn’t quite mean the person who leans into the fridge and whips up a stir fry with the crudités that are left from the Super Bowl dip tray. (I will neither confirm nor deny if I have assembled such a meal.) What Sally is getting at in The Improvisational Cookbook… is building a repertoire of recipes that we know by heart so that we can then begin to tweak and adapt them to use for different dishes and meals. It means asking why not, it means pairing flavors courageously, it means knowing when a culinary accident is in fact a happy one. Sally wants us all to be fearless improvisers in the kitchen—and I am touched by her confidence and support.”

The Bittersweet Black Pepper Brownie Cake (also known as Essential Chocolate Cake for Improvising) is an example of the kind of culinary riffs that occur once you understand the inner logic of a recipe. Sally devised it when she was fooling around with a recipe she’d made as a chef, for an over-the-top chocolate cookie that was essentially a brownie batter made with great chocolate, packed with chunky elements like nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, and dropped onto a cookie sheet in hockey puck-size portions.

Made without the chunky elements, she discovered the batter made tender, slightly chewy, melt-in-you-mouth cookies.

Then, she translated the same batter into a cake by adjusting the it’s proportions slightly and baking it in a round cake pan, adding a little freshly ground pepper as an experiment. What was once a brownie formula became an elegant, intensely-chocolate cake.

Many years later, low on ingredients, she replaced some of the butter with bacon fat and baked the batter in cupcake cups to make Dark Chocolate Cakelets with Aromatic Pepper and…, with an intriguing undercurrent of smoke.

All of these permutations were possible once Sally understood the basic structure of the original cookie recipe, and make the decision to try out some new ideas, which is the essence of what she teaches in The Improvisational Cook.

(Any of these simple chocolate creations would make great Valentine’s Day gifts – as would The Improvisational Cook.)

Are you an improvisational cook?

–David Saltman

Related post: our best d-i-y chocolate gifts for valentine’s day
the improvisational cook’ is here!!

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4 replies on “are you an improvisational cook?

  1. I learned to cook from my Great Grandmother who often took care of me. I grew to know her best recipes by heart and love to make them. But I also have developed my own take on them and some tried and true tricks to personalize recipes like adding instant expresso to her brownies.

    I have carried that spirit to creating my own recipes. One of my favorites is to take a whole loaf of artisan bread and cut it half so you have a top and bottom layer. Scoop our the bread from the middle and mix it with cheese, herbs, veges or even some left over ham or other meat. Stuff the bread with the mixture and baste it with butter (or for the calorie conscious, spray it with olive oil spray) wrap it in foil and heat it thoroughly in a 350 oven. Serve it in slices. It looks great and tastes even better.

  2. You are very lucky to have had a Great Grandmother like that, to be around a fearless cook, and thus start with NOT fearing, which is the key to improvisational cooking. We wish there were a way you could “beam” that stuffed bread to us, a la Star Trek. We are happy to have your notated recipe.

  3. WOW! I made the chocolate cake last night for my valentine – using Kahlua instead of vanilla and adding cinnamon. Extraordinary – especially w/ unsweetened cocoa dusted on top ! Thank you!

  4. Thank you so much for letting us know – and of your shift of flavors in the cake that sound delish! It is one of our favorite recipes because there’s so many places it can go, and it always knocks people’s socks off.

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