ATK at Home
A Day in the Life of Andrea Geary, Deputy Food Editor of Cook's Illustrated
More time at home has led to a recipe-testing discovery and a new Instagram obsession.
07-01-2020
Andrea Geary

After months of being closed, America’s Test Kitchen’s office in Boston is now open to a handful of employees at a time. So on any given day, the majority of the staff is still working from home, developing recipes, reviewing kitchen equipment, and creating magazines, cookbooks, photos, and videos that will help our community of home cooks excel in the kitchen. In this new series, we give you a look at a typical day—and in many cases, the home kitchens—of some of our staff.


 

As the Deputy Food Editor of Cook’s Illustrated, I'm involved in every step of the recipe development process. I help set the lineup and guide the test cooks' recipe development process. I edit recipes for reliability and clarity, and keep tabs on how they perform with our at-home recipe testers (more on that below). I also find time to develop recipes of my own for the magazine (more on that below, too). So when the office is open, I spend a lot of time in the Test Kitchen, whether it's working on my own recipes or with other members of the Cook's Illustrated team. With a few adjustments—and a lot of Zoom meetings—I've been able to get all that done from home, too. Here's what a typical day looks like.

6:00 AM – Early to Rise

I usually get up at around 6 AM so I have time to ease into the day: a cup of coffee while I catch up on the news, another while I compose my to-do list. This morning I also bake off a couple of sourdough loaves that have been fermenting in the fridge overnight, proving that test cooks are not immune to lockdown trends that are sweeping the globe.

Sourdough
yogurt for breakfast

From left: One of Andrea's morning sourdoughs and her first (pre-walk) breakfast of the day.

While the bread cools, I eat my (first) breakfast, yogurt and granola, out on the porch before setting out for an hour’s walk. The walk is a good substitute for my usual 6-mile bike commute. Every day seems much like the next during this working-from-home period, but noting the growth of the local bunnies and cygnets helps me mark the passage of time.  

9:00 AM – . . . of All She Surveys

Survey and breakfast

Checking the at-home testing results of an in-progress recipe while eating breakfast #2.

A big part of my job is editing all Cook’s Illustrated recipes and monitoring their progress on the survey (shout-out to all our at-home testers—I appreciate you!). While checking in on the current crop of recipes, I eat my (second) breakfast—a veg-heavy stir-fry with eggs, brown rice, and chili oil. Years ago, I started eating this powerhouse of a meal each morning to balance the Test Kitchen diet of carbs and meat; now that I’m working from home, I find it still sets me up well for the day.

9:30 AM – The Daily

The CI team on Zoom

Some of the Cook's Illustrated team during their morning check-in.

The Cook’s Illustrated team meets via Zoom each weekday morning to talk about our various projects. Video conferencing is a great tool, and I’m grateful for it, but it’s no substitute for the casual, spontaneous conversations we’d normally be having in the Test Kitchen: “Do you think this is enough to feed four?” “What if you tried it this way instead?” “Would you call this ‘golden brown,’ or is it more of a ‘deep golden brown?’” But Zoom is what we have. It’s good to see everyone’s faces, and the possibility of a toddler or pet wandering into the frame is an added bonus.

10:30 AM – Testing . . . Testing . . .

Time to hit the kitchen. I’m currently working on a popover recipe for the January/February 2021 issue of Cook’s Illustrated. Popovers don’t require a lot of ingredients—just flour, milk, eggs, and salt, really—and that’s fortunate. In the Test Kitchen we have a vast expanse of refrigerator space at our disposal, but these days my modestly sized household fridge has to accommodate all of my testing ingredients in addition to the food I eat over the course of the week and the occasional batch of sourdough. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that my roommate is also an ATK cook with her own “work” food, and we’re both trying to minimize trips to the grocery store. So, yeah, the food storage piece takes strategy.

The testing itself takes strategy, too. For example, if I were in the Test Kitchen and wanted to know which kind of milk works best in popovers, I’d start by heating three ovens; then I’d whisk together 3 batches of batter—one with skim milk, one with low-fat milk, and one with whole milk; then I’d fill up my three popover pans, and bake off all three batches. But having only one oven and one popover pan at home has forced me to devise a more efficient process.

Popovers

Three "micro-batches" of Andrea's in-progress recipe for popovers.

My recipe makes six popovers, so I weigh all my ingredients in grams, and divide the weights by three. That way I can make three “micro-batches,” each with a different milk, and bake them all at the same time in the same pan. By doing so I eliminate any possible variables that might arise from using multiple ovens. Though our Test Kitchen ovens are calibrated frequently to ensure temperature accuracy, when I’m presented with unexpected test results, I wonder, for instance, if the temp in oven A was cycling up while the temp in oven B was cycling down. No such worries with micro-batches baked in a single oven, and I’ve conserved energy and food, too. Micro-batch testing is a technique I’ll bring back to the Test Kitchen when the time comes. 

Other popover questions answered today include, “Does the temperature of the batter make any difference?” and “Any advantage to mixing the batter in a blender?” All in all, it was a productive day of testing.

2:30 PM – Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

Speaking of micro-batches, I’ve been working sporadically on a variation of the croissant recipe I developed years ago for the magazine. The twist? This new version makes only two croissants. My hope is that it will give people a chance to develop a new skill—making laminated pastry—without investing a lot of ingredients or time.

I do the mixing by hand because a stand mixer is useless with such a small amount of dough, but there’s actually very little active time—much less than is needed for the full batch. The only problem is that the baked croissants still aren’t as layered as I’d like them to be. They taste great, and there’s no butter leakage when they’re baked (that’s the classic sign of poor lamination), but they’re not yet perfect. It’ll take at least a few more tests before I’m ready to share the recipe.

4:00 PM – Daily Documentation

Detailed testing notes have always been an important part of my process, but never more than they are now that I don’t have my co-workers in the kitchen with me—my notes and my daily reports via Zoom are the only way for them to know what I’m up to.

At the end of the workday I make sure that I’ve documented all my tests, and I review my notes in search of patterns. (Was the most successful micro-batch of popovers always the one that was on the left side of the oven? Is it possible that the left side of my oven is hotter than the right? (I make a note to change things up tomorrow.) I briefly outline my next steps, and then I clean up the kitchen. 

5:00 PM — Walk It Out

If I’ve been testing and tasting all day, I usually skip dinner. The weather’s nice, so I take another, longer walk. Cambridge is pretty densely populated, so I’m still wearing a mask whenever I leave the house. It’s interesting to me that what felt oppressive in the middle of March is now second nature. Humans can be quite adaptable, it seems. This afternoon I walk down by the Charles River, catching up on political podcasts as I stretch my legs. 

Bridge in Cambridge

One of the nice views on Andrea's twice-daily walks around Cambridge.

7:30 PM – Happy Hour

Evening finds me back out on the porch, this time with a cocktail and a snack, catching up on social media and phone calls with family and friends. All this time confined at home would be much more difficult without modern communication technology. On the other hand, without my smartphone, I would have read so many more books after three months of lockdown.

I also use this time to indulge my latest Instagram obsession which—sorry to shock you—isn’t related to food. I’ve become fascinated with “mudlarking,” which is the term used for treasure-hunting on beaches and in the muddy banks of tidal rivers. I’m especially interested in the mudlarks who search along the Thames in London. Because that city has been densely and continuously populated for so long, Thames mudlarks find everything from Art Deco perfume bottles to 17th-century clay pipes to Roman roof tiles to Bronze-age tools, all preserved by the anaerobic mud. As the weather here in Cambridge starts to warm up and actual travel seems like a far-off dream, I like to think about donning wellies and picking around the misty, cool Thames foreshore, looking for something thrilling. 

10:00 PM – Early to Bed

I’ve never been a night owl. Time to recharge and re-set. Tomorrow awaits.