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Recipe for Confusion


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by Janet A. Zimmerman

<img align="left" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1115292522/gallery_29805_1195_13064.jpg" height="185">I seem to be going backward.

Most people learn to cook from recipes, building their confidence before experimenting on their own. Me? I've been experimenting for years, but now I want to go back to following recipes. When I mention this to friends and fellow cooks they assume either that my sometimes compulsive nature would compel me to precision in following recipes -- and they're surprised to find out that I rarely follow them -- or they're puzzled why I'd want to go back when I've obviously moved past the recipe stage.

So why am I set on going back?

It started when I was at a friend's for lunch. She made an Asian chicken salad with red peppers and asparagus and a sesame-peanut dressing. I mentioned how much I liked it. She pointed to an open cookbook, and said, "It's from that -- I love the recipes in it."

Okay, as epiphanies go, it was minor at best. But it wasn't exactly that book or even that recipe that sparked my interest. It was the process: summoning the discipline to follow someone else's instructions without automatically assuming I knew better. Maybe I could learn something.

When I got home, I looked at the ninety or so cookbooks lining the wall in my kitchen (not counting the overflow that's taking over the spare bookcase in the hall). It struck me: it's been probably ten years since I've used them for the recipes they contain. I started to leaf through my old favorites, the ones I used to cook from. As I looked up the recipes I remembered, I discovered that in virtually every case, the ones I'd "followed" were covered with my changes. It was possible that I tried the recipes once the way they were written and then started experimenting, but somehow I doubted it. Scanning those scribbled-over recipes, I was sure that most were my experiments from the start.

But there must have been a time when I regularly cooked from recipes. Finally, it hit me. The only time I followed recipes religiously-- in the sense of not substituting ingredients whenever whim called or necessity entailed, not combining half of one recipe with half of a second, not borrowing a technique from one and the flavors of another -- was when I bought the two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Twenty-five years ago, give or take, but who's counting?)

Mastering the Art of French Cooking was not my first cookbook. I'd been cooking regularly for several years by the time I got it, alternating between following recipes and just winging it. But my purchase of it coincided with two things: a lot of free time and a decent kitchen. For a couple of years, I spent endless hours cooking from it. Soupe a l'oignon (with several variations), potage veloute aux champignons, pate sucre and creme anglaise, Coquilles St. Jacques a la Parisienne. I made my first hollandaise sauce, my first beurre blanc, my first mayonnaise from the recipes in those two volumes.

And it was fun. Perhaps I was naive; I was certainly fearless. It didn't occur to me, for example, that making croissants should intimidate me, so I just made them. I read the recipes, and did what they said, and if it sometimes seemed like there might be an easier way, I followed the instructions anyway.

So: Why not return to that stage, at least once in a while? I'd pick a completely new recipe from a different book once or twice a week and actually follow it. I'd get some new dishes out of it, and hey! I could write about it too, and get double miles. I would make myself really follow recipes. I wouldn't allow myself to make alterations until I'd tried the recipe as written. I vowed to be very strict. Pretty strict, at least.

I picked a book, not at random exactly, but neither with a definite purpose in mind, unless you count an unfocused but growing interest in New Orleans food as a purpose. I'd bought Palace Cafe: The Flavor of New Orleans a few weeks earlier on a whim -- it was on sale, I had no cookbooks from that region, the recipes made me salivate (here's some advice: if you're trying to cut back on cookbook purchases, don't read them right before lunch) -- and I figured it was as good a place to start as any of the others.

I'd try one of the recipes that sucked me into buying the book in the first place: "Lyonnaise Gulf Fish with Lemon Beurre Blanc and Caramelized Onions." The beurre blanc and caramelized onions -- two of my favorite food groups -- had first enticed me, but the dish as a whole had promise. White fish fillets are dipped in an egg wash and then seasoned flour. Then a coating of shredded potatoes is pressed on over that and the coated fish is sauteed until golden brown and served with the beurre blanc and onions. I'd never had much luck with fried shredded potatoes before, so although I'd seen the technique in recipes, I'd never tried it. I figured it was time I got over that hurdle and learn something. This was the recipe for me.

I looked up the recipe. In my past life, I would have skipped to the part about how to prepare the fish, because I know how to make a lemon beurre blanc and caramelize onions. But this was the new me, so I thought I should play by my new rules and follow the whole recipe. Problem One: the first time I'd glanced at the recipe, I'd completely missed the final step -- topping the cooked fish with a) poached eggs and b) Choron sauce (the recipe for which was included, but in an index section).

Choron, I recently learned, is hollandaise sauce flavored with tomatoes (actually, Julia says it's bearnaise flavored with tomatoes, and my money's on Julia). I have it on good authority that it's worth trying, but lemon beurre blanc and tomato-flavored bearnaise (or hollandaise -- whatever) in the same dish? I love butter, but even to me, this seemed like overkill.

The entire poached egg step, in fact, seemed superfluous. What was this supposed to be, breakfast? I decided that the eggs and Choron could quite reasonably be viewed as a variation, in Julia's terms, on the master recipe. So I could ditch it without actually breaking my rules.

(Yeah, okay. The point was to follow the recipe. But come on, I'm already making a beurre blanc and caramelizing onions and coating fish with potatoes; I don't need to get obsessive.)

But to prove that I can, indeed, follow a recipe -- or at least three-quarters of one -- I decide to use the sub-recipes for the caramelized onions and lemon beurre blanc. For the caramelized onions, I read that I need one large onion, julienned, and a half-cup of butter. Okay, stop. I can get past the "julienned" onion; even though I wouldn't use the term "julienne," I know what they mean, I think. But a half-cup of butter? For one onion? Which, when cooked, gets mixed into a butter sauce? I can't do this. I'll cut it in half; it still seems excessive, but I'm willing to compromise.

The instructions tell me to cook the onion in the butter until "well caramelized." It's fortunate that I know what this means; there are no further indications given. It's dawning on me that this is an incredibly poorly written recipe. What sort of cookbook author would fail to mention a whole second sauce except in passing, by reference to another page? The same sort that would fail to explain how to "julienne" and caramelize onions, apparently. I can't imagine trying it if I weren't already an experienced cook. Julia's recipes may have been long and complicated, with frequently nested steps, but at least she was clear.

But the problem is, now I'm hooked. I really want to make this dish (albeit without the eggs and Choron). It sounds so good, and I've promised myself. I'm going to do this. I persevere and turn to the sub-recipe for the lemon beurre blanc.

The ingredient list calls for heavy cream. I stop again. I recall the chef character in Anthony Bourdain's novel <a href=” Bone in the Throat, as he consults Larousse on beurre blanc: "There is no, I repeat, no, cream in a real beurre blanc . . . You see any mention of cream in there? No . . . you put cream in there, it ain't a beurre blanc." If a cookbook author is going to cheat so egregiously, he should at least admit it.

Still, I'm okay with this. I can add the cream or not, depending on timing. It will help if I need to keep the sauce; if I don't, I won't use it.

The main puzzle about the recipe, though is this: "Three whole, lemons, peeled." I read the directions, and there's no further instruction before telling me to combine them with chopped shallots, a couple of bay leaves, half a cup of white wine and a few peppercorns in a saucepan.

Falling back on the old standby, I check Julia's recipe for lemon beurre blanc, plus -- to be on the safe side -- two more from other books. They all call for lemon juice and one calls for zest as well. But none of them call for anything close to the amount of juice from three lemons. I'm confused; I even check the Palace Cafe recipe again to make sure I haven't missed anything. In the index, I find lemon beurre blanc listed twice, once from this recipe and once on its own in the "Et Cetera" section. I flip to that section thinking that maybe the other iteration of it will make sense. No such luck; it carries the same vague directions.

The thing with the lemons is keeping me up nights. First, the juice from three lemons, together with the white wine, would make for so much acid that all the butter in the city couldn't tame it. And if it's just the juice, then why peel the lemons? Who "peels" lemons, anyway? You don't peel lemons, you zest them, don't you? Then I think that maybe I'm just supposed to strip off the peel and use that to infuse into the white wine. But surely, if that were the case, the recipe would simply call for the peels of three lemons, not three whole lemons.

If it actually is the whole lemons, then I really don't get it. First of all, the image of three whole, peeled lemons lounging around in the wine and shallots like pasty vacationers in a hot tub is just too surreal; second, I can't believe the method would produce enough lemon flavor. So it must be the juice, or the juice and zest. But then I'm back to the beginning -- way too much lemon juice. And around I go again.

As I'm tossing and turning, it occurs to me: maybe I'm supposed to pull the lemons apart, into segments. Or crush them. Wait! I know, now. Cut the peeled lemons up before simmering them in the wine mixture. This could be it.

I check out my theory with a friend who knows about Southern cooking. "Of course," he says, "Cut them into chunks. It's common in Creole and Cajun cooking." (It occurs to me that I could have just asked him to start with, but that would have been way too easy, and totally out of character.)

But I'm ready, at long last, to follow the recipe (except for the eggs and Choron, and the extra butter for the onion, that is. Oh, and the cream for the beurre blanc). Now, though, I'm thinking of the practicality of it all. The amount of beurre blanc I'm going to end up with is staggering: the recipe calls for a pound of butter (not even counting the butter for the onion). Yes, of course, I can cut it in half, or even by three-quarters, but when I start to do the math, it strikes me: I'm officially over this recipe. I haven't even made a shopping list -- okay, let's be honest here, I haven't even gotten to the main part of the recipe (the fish fillets and potatoes) -- and already I'm exhausted.

Giving up on it wasn't easy, despite all its problems. I'm not a quitter. I swore I would follow recipes, and here I was, defeated by my first attempt. I wanted to apologize to Julia, and I needed to redeem myself. So I picked another recipe -- much simpler, perhaps, but it was a written recipe in a book I own, so it counted.

It was "Roast Bone Marrow with Parsley Salad" from The Whole Beast, by Fergus Henderson, something I'd been meaning to try ever since I bought the book. My butcher always has marrow bones; I love them. The other ingredients, only a handful, would be easy to get; the instructions were simple (and delightfully written: "Meanwhile, lightly chop your parsley, just enough to discipline it . . ."). There were no sub-recipes or references to other sauces on other pages. [An eG Forums topic on The Whole Beast is here - Ed.]

Forget the poached eggs and Choron sauce. Forget Lyonnaise Gulf Fish with Lemon Beurre Blanc and Caramelized Onions, for that matter. This was the recipe for me.

At the produce store, buying the parsley and shallots, I saw bunches of beets with gorgeous fresh greens attached. I remembered reading a recipe for beets and their tops with a horseradish cream sauce. It had sounded great, and as a bonus, I thought that maybe if I actually followed two complete recipes in the same meal, it would help assuage my guilt over abandoning the Lyonnaise Fish. I felt better.

Of course, I didn't have the beet recipe with me, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. As it turned out, when I found and printed the recipe, I'd done pretty well without it. I hadn't known I was supposed to sprinkle chives over the top, but I could live with that. And I ran into a minor problem: I was supposed to roast the marrow bones at 450 degrees and roast the beets at 350 degrees. Since I'm skeptical about the superiority of roasted beets, that didn't bother me. They're faster, easier and less messy in the pressure cooker, anyway.

Other than that and the lack of chives, I stuck with the recipe. If I'd tried to make the dish without consulting it -- something the old me would have done without blinking an eye -- I'd have missed adding lemon zest to the sour cream along with the horseradish, which would have been a shame. And undoubtedly, I would have blanched the greens, rather than sauteing them in butter, because I've always started by blanching beet greens, whatever I end up doing with them. So I learned something. Cool.

The marrow and parsley salad was a revelation. The bones are roasted. Crostini are made. The salad (the parsley, a couple of shallots, sliced, and a handful of capers tossed in lemon juice and olive oil) is prepared. Simple, straightforward, but so much more than the sum of its parts. Who'd have thought it could be so ethereal? (Well, besides Fergus Henderson?) Maybe this was a good idea after all -- trusting someone else's culinary sense once in a while.

As I spread the last of the marrow on the toast and topped it with a pinch of salad, it occurred to me that I'd done it, in my own fashion. I'd followed recipes, after all this time, and it wasn't so bad. I could do this again. Perhaps even Choron sauce was in my future. Assuming, of course, that I could find the right recipe.

<i>Janet A. Zimmerman (aka <a href="http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showuser=7258">JAZ</a>) writes about food and teaches cooking classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the dean of the eGullet Culinary Institute (eGCI) and co-host of the Fine Spirits and Cocktails forum.

Art by Dave Scantland (aka <a href="http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showuser=6393">Dave the Cook</a>)

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Great work Janet. The article made me chuckle quiet a few times, mainly because I could see myself doing the same stuff and obsessing about the same details.

My approach to cookbooks has definitly changed over the past few years. At first I used to follow recipes religiously (If a recipe calls for marjoram, I would go to three stores in search of marjoram or else I just would not make it). Not so much anymore, I feel free to edit where I think it is necessary.

However, I do enjoy following recipes up to a point, mainly to get new ideas and to get familiar with a cuisine that I am not yet comfortable with (most recently Thai). Of course when attempting pastry or bread recipes, then I keep edits to a bare minimium or non at all if possible.

So, does cooking from a recipe necessarily mean following one to the last minute detail? I don't think so. If I see a recipe for a poached salmon that I have never done before in a Jamie Oliver book, then I cook it with some alterations, it still is a recipe I got from a book. Isn't it? Oh well, maybe that's how I justify my coobook buying habit :smile:.

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Nice job, Janet! As I was reading your article, I was thinking, "I really ought to get out that Henderson bone marrow recipe...." Thrilled, then, was I to read of your own experiences!

It made me wonder: what particular recipes might you, dear members, turn to should you decide to go back to the books?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Thank you, Janet. Enjoyed this tremendously. Having been a "cook from the recipe type" for too long, I am finally going in the opposite direction and either making it up as I go along or adapting the recipe to my taste. But you hit on a favourite complaint of mine - poorly written instructions for cooking or anything else.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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Excellent, and very well written -- this was really enjoyable.

The CIA Professional Cook book lists Choron as a Hollandaise derived sauce -- Hollandaise with tomato. Béarnaise is a Hollandaise derived sauce -- Hollandaise with tarragon (and a few other things). I don't want to offend anyone by naysaying Julia here, but I remember watching an Iron Chef episode where Mario Batelli served up an Eggs Benedict variant, and used a red-ish sauce -- I've been trying to dig into sauces lately, and I was kinda proud when I said, "Choron!" to myself when I saw that sauce... It appeared to be smooth, without the easily recognizable terragon/chervil/parsley bits in it, so I'm fairly sure it was Hollandaise, and not Béarnaise.

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Wow, that was a nice read. Thanks.

I recently picked up some of my cookbooks again as well. I decided to challenge myself by choosing recipes because they used interesting combinations or flavors that I am not accustomed to. I was rather pleased with the result of a salad that used grapefruit, smoked fish, pomegranite, etc. It was something I would never do on my own.

Hmm, If I were to go back to the books, I think it would be to learn how to do some of the Lyonnais specialties. Reading this essay, in fact, got me to the library where I picked up a Leon de Lyon cookbook. Some of the recipes look pretty interesting!

I love the graphic for the essay, Dave. Nice work.

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Good story! Brings to mind a few things.

First, about how recipes are written. Your tale makes me long for the days of short recipes that assumed the cook knew and understood the procedures. If the cook didn't know, then it was incumbent upon her/him to find out. Lengthy recipes such as the one you encountered lull one into the false sense of security that all of the relevant details are included. They almost never are.

I keep a manuscript cookbook in which I file short, rewritten versions of almost every decent recipe I make. In fact, rewriting the recipe using my own short hand for procedures (and listing the ingredients to the left, quantities to the right, my preferred format) is how I study a recipe before tackling it. I rewrite the recipe on 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 lined binder paper, and it had better be a great recipe to take up more than the front page.

Second, about quantity/yield mis-matches. These are a pet peeve. I remember having to incorporate a recipe for streusel muffins from someone who should have known better, into a cooking class for home cooks at a retail cookware store. The source recipe specified a yield of 15 muffins. Ever seen a 15 hole muffin tin in a cookware store? Me neither. We sold 12 hole muffin tins. And the streusel topping recipe started out with a pound of butter. For 15, (or 12) muffins?! No mention in the source recipe of what had to be the case, that this recipe for streusel was meant for several batches of muffins. (How many batches??) Aaaarrgghhh!! My insistence on testing the recipe for quantity/yield was poorly tolerated as unnecessary and picky. Except that I was the one who had to teach these recipes to unsuspecting home cooks. Whenever the yields were way off, I could just see the looks on their faces, dismissing the recipe, me, and the school for which I taught.

Finally, why try new recipes? Because of the joy of unexpected discovery. Once every few weeks, I'll try something new, probably because I'm bored with my standards that day, or because I've scored a large quantity of a certain ingredient. Reminds me of the three bean salad recipe that is now in my standard repertoire. I dug it out of an old Sunset cookbook (their recipes tend to be reliable, if not cutting edge trendy.) Garden was overflowing with green beans. Needed to use them up. What made this recipe work was the inclusion of fresh tarragon. It made the flavors just pop! Everyone loved it. Its a far cry from the overly sweet bottled blech three bean salad available at warehouse stores by the gallon. If I can figure out how, I'll post the recipe over in the recipes section. This is how the manuscript cookbook grows, and what keeps me trying new recipes.

Hmm, fish crusted in shredded potatoes, topped with a poached egg and Sauce Choron. Sounds a mite contrived, to me. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose. Gotta have a lot of available time in the kitchen for that sort of thing. Leftovers might not be too suitable for lunch tomorrow, either. That's always a consideration for this cook who works in an office.

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Finally, why try new recipes? Because of the joy of unexpected discovery. Once every few weeks, I'll try something new, probably because I'm bored with my standards that day, or because I've scored a large quantity of a certain ingredient.

I approach new recipes as educative experiences. I'm young, and haven't traveled extensively, so making an unusual curry from David Thompson's Thai Food (or even making a few different recipes for the same curry), for instance, helps me learn about a cuisine and an aesthetic to which I have access and how two or three great culinary minds approach the same dish.

JJ Goode

Co-author of Serious Barbecue, which is in stores now!

www.jjgoode.com

"For those of you following along, JJ is one of these hummingbird-metabolism types. He weighs something like eleven pounds but he can eat more than me and Jason put together..." -Fat Guy

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As a chef I'd like to add that over the years you find that many of the recipes dont work in cook books! But I'd like to also add in discussing great chefs I made the statement that its as much about the ingredient, the retort was if only the ingredient was consistent.

Sometimes it isn't, so surely for a true recipe the variety as well as the food type even down to the sugar content in the fruit should be mentioned. I'm sure I've read some where Bocuse says that flour from one miller is different from another!

In pastry they become more a set of rules yet if those eggs are slightly bigger than the recipes, then disaster could be looming.

Recipes are a source of inspiration, I find the best way to try and replicate something is to taste it first, then modify which we all seem to be doing any way. The best addition to any recipe is the taste buds as one chef said to me if you dont know what it tastes like raw how do you know when it's cooked. Surely recipes are only really time specific as the next influence trickles into the market place.

So my final remark is remember recipes are guides not rules even Escoffier was trying to teach us this, 100 years on and will still haven't learnt!

P.S. As for lemon Buerre Blanc made one recently I added more rind(Grated on the zester and sieved out before serving added to the white wine and vinegar and peppercorn infusion) to get the lemon perfume, and a little juice to sharpen at the end, as for the buerre blanc a bit of that a bit of this I made it too many times(it a bonus when theres a box of butter in the fridge)!

Perfection cant be reached, but it can be strived for!
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Excellent, and very well written -- this was really enjoyable.

The CIA Professional Cook book lists Choron as a Hollandaise derived sauce -- Hollandaise with tomato. Béarnaise is a Hollandaise derived sauce -- Hollandaise with tarragon (and a few other things). I don't want to offend anyone by naysaying Julia here, but I remember watching an Iron Chef episode where Mario Batelli served up an Eggs Benedict variant, and used a red-ish sauce -- I've been trying to dig into sauces lately, and I was kinda proud when I said, "Choron!" to myself when I saw that sauce... It appeared to be smooth, without the easily recognizable terragon/chervil/parsley bits in it, so I'm fairly sure it was Hollandaise, and not Béarnaise.

My Larousse agrees with Julia...Bearnaise with tomato.

“Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.” - William Cowper, The Task, Book Three

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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As a pastry chef I love following other peoples recipes. It lets me walk in someone elses shoes, see the world thru someone elses palate and thoughts. You can't escape yourself, your likings and dislikings, your prejudices..........your always stuck in yourself. To learn someone elses style, method and opinion is auesome, I grow more from others then on my own.

Isn't that why we are all here on a "foodie" site talking about food?

The more I converse with others online the more I realize how hard it is to communicate well. I used to judge recipes and the author of the recipes harshly. If the recipe didn't work, it was their fault. The fact that they "don't work" might be the author just not communicating literally enough. I tryed to do a series of "BEST OF's", best chocolate cake, best white cake, best banana cake only to discover how cruelingly difficult it is to get people to follow the recipe and the instructions of the recipe. You do have to follow those points exactly to reproduce something as written by someone else. Everyone wants to zig when the recipe tells you to zag. "NO, ZIG with the recipe" I tried to dirrect everyone. Don't wonder off and subsitute grapes for raisins. Be literal. But our own experiences prevent us from blinding zigging when everything we've known to date taught us this is the time to zag.

Dorie Greenspan comes to my mind when I think of a great writer of recipes. She writes so clearly and beautifully. She molds even other chefs recipes into words of art that guide the user to zig with the authors intent. The pay-off for following those recipes and instructions is bliss and thru that constant repetition of a blissful pay-off she manipulates people to follow her gentle teachings. That's brilliance! I'm certain I can never communicate that well..........heck I'm happy when I can get just one other person who follows what I was trying to write.

Writing recipes well, is an art form. For some reason everyone thinks they can do this well. After all your JUST conveying information. But it's definately the childs game of telephone passing a message on...........rarely does it end up intact as meant. The game is fun and worth playing but you have to bring your skill as a learner to the table as well as the author did. I've become more forgiving of authors who's recipes "don't work", maybe it's not just them.

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What a fantastic article! It made me chuckle in parts.

I try out new recipes almost every week. I will however read cooking magazines and cookbooks as literature.. skimming for inspiration to be applied later.

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I really enjoyed this article.

Following recipes have always been something I could immerse myself in. Almost like a trip. You follow the recipe, and spend a wonderful afternoon getting totally involved in the process.

I can remember looking at one of the Time-Life series, "A quintet of Cuisines" and seeing a brik- a recipe with egg cooked a phyllo type dough, eaten while the egg is somewhat soft. The triumph of "getting it right" brings a smile to my face today.

Regarding small sauce quantities, Madeline Kamman's, "the making of a Chef". provides a bulk recipe for the acid mixture in bearnaise. You can then freeze in Tablespoon amounts and make roughly 1 cup at a time.

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Great article!

The part about the choron was my favorite. It really got under my skin that you decided not to make it. I kept thinking you would. It became an element of suspense.

You kept bringing it up again... at once giving me hope and further dashing my hopes that at some point you would set the recipe straight.

I became obsessed with it... which says a lot about how I follow recipes. I have an almost unhealthy compulsion to follow recipes exactly and completely. But it wasn't perhaps until you put it in those terms that I realized my rigorous interpretations border on obsessive compulsion.

And it still bothers me that you didn't make the choron.

Edited by fiftydollars (log)
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  • 2 weeks later...

There are times when I love recipes, and there are time where when i completely dispise them. At home I have shelves full of cookbooks, mostly for the pictures;however, if i am stooped i will read the fine print and attempt to replicate. It usually never turns out the way the book said :wink:

At the restaurant for consistancy purposes we have this big old binder full of everything that we have ever made, with a few exceptions. At the top of every page is the title and then underneath follows ingredients and quantities. 3 eggs, 1 yoke, 1tb salt, 1 tsp pepper, 1/2 cayanne pepper, 2tbs dijon, 2tbs lemon juice, handfull minced shallots, 5lb crab meat, 1 cup bread crumbs.

thats all, for every recipe no instructions what so ever.

so the new guy in the kitchen just throws everything in to a mixing bowl and mixes

little does he know that you need to mix everything except the crab meat and the bread crumbs, then add the meat and combine and break up, then at the very end fold the bread crumbs in to soak up access moisture.

at the end you might have a very clumpy crab cake, or you will have a rediculously delicious, nicely crafted crab cake meal.

Animals eat, men and women dine, and men and women of good taste dine well"

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As a pastry chef I love following other peoples recipes. It lets me walk in someone  You do have to follow those points exactly to reproduce something as written by someone else. Everyone wants to zig when the recipe tells you to zag. "NO, ZIG with the recipe" I tried to dirrect everyone. Don't wonder off and subsitute grapes for raisins. Be literal. But our own experiences prevent us from blinding zigging when everything we've known to date taught us this is the time to zag.

you are so right. I don't know how many times I blamed a recipe (= the writer of that recipe) when something did not turn out right. Many of those times I would have zagged instead of zigged.. changed just little tiny things in the recipe.. things you think they will not matter for the final result.. but ofcourse they do.

Sometimes this is because I think I know better, and sometimes it's because of ingredient limitations.. you know, use what you have instead of use what the recipe says.

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Not using quantities in weights makes me crazy, and I wish people were more specific about the pans. Give me volume. I've done the crazy 15 muffin recipes before and wanted to scream. It happens alot with resturant recipes, you can't just divide everything in 1/4 and expect it to work. pans are different, btu's are different, ovens are different (no, I don't have a pizza oven. no it will not be the same from the old whirlpool.)

But I have to admit to the tendency to tweak almost every recipe I try. If you want a chuckle go read some the the reviews on Epicurious. "I left out the raisens, and added ginger.." Or " I don't like tarragon so I used parsley, I don't understand why everyone was giving this recipe 5 stars" and on and on. Sometimes the recipes don't even belong in the same food group when they finish. funny funny.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Great article!

The part about the choron was my favorite. It really got under my skin that you decided not to make it. I kept thinking you would. It became an element of suspense.

You kept bringing it up again... at once giving me hope and further dashing my hopes that at some point you would set the recipe straight.

I became obsessed with it... which says a lot about how I follow recipes. I have an almost unhealthy compulsion to follow recipes exactly and completely. But it wasn't perhaps until you put it in those terms that I realized my rigorous interpretations border on obsessive compulsion.

And it still bothers me that you didn't make the choron.

You'll be happy to hear that I did, at long last, make the choron.

To start with, as I said, I decided not to make it because it seemed like overkill. But I have to admit that I also didn't think it sounded very good. Paradoxically, that's actually the reason I decided to try it. The point of this whole thing is to get myself to move outside my usual cooking boundaries, so it seemed like the perfect test of my resolve.

I used the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking because I'm familiar with the hollandaise/bearnaise technique from that book. Essentially, I made bearnaise without the tarragon (because I don't like tarragon) and added a spiced tomato sauce that I already had on hand. I served it on sauteed scallops and shrimp, and -- lo and behold -- it was really good.

But I still think it would be overkill on top of lemon beurre blanc.

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Janet,

What a wonderful piece! I, too, was chuckling as I read, because I cannot seem to resist the urge to tweak. My palate calls, and I answer. Or my mental mouth disagrees with what's on the page. Or, even more frequently, it's "Dammit, I thought I had enough of that in the pantry -- let me see what will have a similar effect..."

My test kitchen chef is a stickler for the recipe formula, and I can actually sense her temperature rising when I talk to her about "winging it." I remind her that to me, a recipe is a guide. 'Course, I also use this approach to many of the recipes we test for our site, so I'm forever making scribbles of notes. She's going to hurt me one day... :wink:

But then again, I see two such personality types as a perfectly symbiotic relationship: Without one, we'd have no rules, and without the other, we'd have no innovations.

Bravo.

Kind regards,

Jennifer

Jennifer L. Iannolo

Founder, Editor-in-Chief

The Gilded Fork

Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

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  • 4 months later...

You may think I've given up on my resolution to follow recipes, but that is not the case. I've just become a little more selective in choosing recipes to follow. My latest was gazpacho from La Cocina de Mama by Penelope Casas. For those unfamiliar with the book, it's a collection of family recipes from some of Spain's best chefs.

But before I get to the recipe, a little background on my gazpacho quest. I first made gazpacho from a recipe in a magazine way back when I started cooking. It was the fairly common tomato-juice-with-pureed-and-chopped-vegetables type of recipe: a sort of V-8 on steroids. It was a good and serviceable recipe, and there is nothing wrong with it, except that it's not terribly authentic. (As I came to discover, most gazpacho recipes out there are not terribly authentic.)

Then, after years of making the same recipe with the occasional minor alteration, I tasted a fabulous gazpacho at a short-lived Spanish restaurant near my office. No chunks of vegetables floating in V-8; this was a thick puree with perfectly blended flavors and a haunting undertone that I knew on some level, but couldn't quite place.

I had it as often as I could while the restaurant was open, which turned out to be not nearly long enough. The truly sad thing was that it didn't occur to me to try to analyze the gazpacho while I could. I had to rely on my memory, which was not very complete.

So I began a search for a gazpacho recipe that seemed similar. None were -- time after time, I'd see the same variations on V-8 plus diced vegetables. Sometimes the recipes would call for thickening with bread or almonds, and I tried a couple of those, but they still didn't seem to be what I remembered.

When I saw a new Spanish cookbook, La Cocina de Mama, I automatically checked the index for a gazpacho recipe; there was one. It was different from any others I'd seen -- no cucumber; no onion, even. Tomatoes (lots of tomatoes), one red bell pepper, garlic, a small chunk of bread, sherry vinegar, olive oil, plus a dash of salt and sugar. An optional dash of cumin, and that was it.

I bought the book, and picked up two pounds of tomatoes at the farmers' market. As it turned out, the recipe couldn't have been easier -- prep consisted of quartering the tomatoes, cutting the bell pepper in chunks, and chopping the garlic. Throw half the tomatoes and everything else except the olive oil into the food processor. Puree. With the motor running, add the remaining tomatoes. (I have to say, I don't get the rationale for this step, but I was going to do it exactly as written, so I did.) Then pour in the olive oil slowly so the whole thing emulsifies. Strain, and you're done. The result was a silky smooth soup that tasted like the essence of summer. The cumin provided that remembered undertone of flavor -- barely there, but spectacular with the tomato.

The only flaw -- a minor one -- was the sugar. The tomatoes I used were not very acidic, and I wondered about adding sugar. But I was determined to follow the recipe exactly, so I tossed it in despite my misgivings. The soup was, as I expected, too sweet, but that was easily remedied with a touch more sherry vinegar. The second time I made it, I omitted the sugar, and the soup was perfect.

My only regret was finding this recipe at the tail end of summer, so I only made it twice before the beautiful vine-ripened tomatoes faded from sight. (This is not a recipe for anything less than spectacular tomatoes.) Now I'll have to wait until next summer to try it again.

After all that, was it the gazpacho of my memories? Not really -- that soup was thicker, more coarsely pureed than this one. But on some deeper level, it was what I was looking for. And maybe there's a time to give up a memory.

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