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Writing Recipes


Sugarella
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I've thoroughly enjoyed reading this thread! It's obviously true that there are too many variables in baking recipes as they are standardly written for everyone to yield the same results, especially since home bakers and professionals have ready access to differing qualities of ingredients.

This is a bit off the topic of the thread but starting a new thread doesn't seem in order, to me, anyways. Correct me if I'm wrong. Let me start by saying I've been working on my own cake book for a while now, which will focus on design but will include recipes that I've developed myself over the years. (It's a looooooong way off though.) I tend to be very anal-retentive about explaining things, rather I explain EVERYTHING, and have been having trouble shortening my directions. They tend to be extremely long-winded and specify exact ingredients, (it has to be soy oil..... it cannot be canola oil... etc.) which up to this point I've been assuming would be confusing or too complicated to most readers, which is why I've been trying to shorten them. Or I may just come across as pretentious!? In addition, my recipes as I originally wrote them for the book don't look anything like other recipes printed anywhere. I CANNOT just write *cake flour*! I hate that about recipes! What kind of cake flour!?! %#@! :angry:

So, to that end, let me quote a few of you.....

One example that comes to mind is something I read in the book The Bakers Dozen. (Simplifing things) It was a group of serious ametuers and professionals in CA that met regularly to share baking info.. One of the items they tested was angel food cake..........and they got enourmous differences from each baker even though they all were using the same recipe.

I got a little discouraged when I ran into that problem when we tried to do the "Best Of" series here. The same recipe turned out different in each persons hands here too. I've made most of the cakes you did and I can honestly say I got different results.

This is an incredibly philosophical statement.  Of course it makes sense - there are at least ten ingredients in a cake recipe, sometimes more; you've got equipment to keep in mind, and then environment (temperatures, altitude).  Combine all possible variables for all of these items, and then take into account the differences in people, and you're hit with one of the craziest realizations - that you'll probably never make something in a recipe the way the original author ever intended.  Or one of the greatest mysteries - that food must be incredibly forgiving, for even the most complex recipes to work.  Which must be the case - because the threads where we test different recipes and get very similar results exist.  So either our standards are the same, or - ?  I'd love to hear what people think.

I think the problem is that most recipes are just not specific enough for different bakers to get exactly the same results. To take an obvious example, most recipes just specify volume of flour, without specifying how to measure that volume. Two people can make the "same" recipe, yet use flour amounts that differ by ~%20. That will have a pretty big effect on the cake.

Flour is the obvious example, but there is variability everywhere -- fat content and freshness of butter, type of veg oil, fat/sugar/cacao content of chocolate, pH of cocoa, weight of eggs, type of vanilla, heat distribution in your oven, and so on. And then you have the variability in method. What does a firm peak look like? How do you know your sugar and butter are creamed? Did you sift your flour? I think recipes can be precise algorithms that yield results that are, for all practical puposes, identical from baker to baker.

I think you're all right. Too many variables. People weigh and measure differently, flour protein levels vary from country to country, not to mention method needs to be specified to produce exact results. I know, for example, some of my recipes use Canadian yellow sugar, readily available everywhere, yet this exact product is not even availabe in the US. Close, but not exact.

So my question to all of you is, professionals and home bakers alike, would you actually prefer many more specifics being noted, as far as ingredients and what they are, or substitutions if those things specified are not available, or why one type of ingredient is being used versus another? Would you prefer methods being very thoroughly detailed, such as what sized pans were used and how they were prepared? And would you prefer step-by-step photos during the batter mixing process? Or would having so much text and detail accompanying a recipe make it appear more complicated and daunting than it really is and actually be a deterrent from trying it? I know some people will inevitably *tweak* a recipe the first time they try it, kind of like putting salt on your food before you taste it, but do you think chronicling my recipes in such a way might at least produce overall better results for a greater variety of bakers? Or would people just not bother with the recipes at all if presented in this way?

Any opinions and feedback is appreciated. :biggrin:

...... And on a lighter note.......

Welcome to the eGullet Society For Arts & Letters s_atan! No need to be scared........... I hope you'll find the time to participate more.

Welcome, s_atan, and I only mean this in good fun, but, How come Satan got a warm welcome and I didn't!?! :laugh:

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Hi Sugarella,

I suppose my preference is clear from what you quoted -- recipes should be as precise as possible. At the very least, weight measurements should be included in recipes.

"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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So my question to all of you is, professionals and home bakers alike, would you actually prefer many more specifics being noted, as far as ingredients and what they are, or substitutions if those things specified are not available, or why one type of ingredient is being used versus another? Would you prefer methods being very thoroughly detailed, such as what sized pans were used and how they were prepared? And would you prefer step-by-step photos during the batter mixing process? Or would having so much text and detail accompanying a recipe make it appear more complicated and daunting than it really is and actually be a deterrent from trying it? I know some people will inevitably *tweak* a recipe the first time they try it, kind of like putting salt on your food before you taste it, but do you think chronicling my recipes in such a way might at least produce overall better results for a greater variety of bakers? Or would people just not bother with the recipes at all if presented in this way?

Any opinions and feedback is appreciated. :biggrin:

Well, I think I would welcome the detail (I am both pro and home baker as well as both pro and home cake deco/sugar artist) because you learn so much that way. However, I think you would want to give a regular write up of the formula then give 'the rest of the story', with all the additional detail y'know? That way you are illuminating the best of both worlds.

In fact, in the recipes/formulas I write I list the ingredients in the order I use them in one column then use a bracket } to signify which group of ingredients gets which set of directions in the next column. I try to make it as user friendly for moi as possible. I hate running my eyes & brain from the directions to the list of ingredients, & back & forth, & back & forth, agh.

But then again, not being able to get a hold of that special sugar you mentioned could likely deter me from trying the recipe in the first place...hmmm. But if you listed it as sugar in the 'short list' I probably maybe still would. Or say what will happen if we use regular white or brown sugar or how to make the special stuff. Because it is all a crap shoot after all. In the sense of 'taking a chance' on any recipe.

I vote yes for detail--'cause you are exposing the thought process as well as your science and methods behind the scenes which is rare and wonderful to get in cookbooks. But again your format is crucial to making it happen clearly.

I too have a book in process...some of my friends say it is an Erma Bombeck-y-ish kinda look at stuff plus the how-I-do-its. Which is very kind and too generous of them :rolleyes: I'll write it for my grandkids at least y'know?

But Sugarella, I think capturing all your details in an easy to use format is the best.

edited a bit for clarity's sake

Edited by K8memphis (log)
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I love specificity, and accuracy! Just yesterday I was making a recipe (the filling for Pain d'Amandes from the Village Baker's Wife) that I've made at least a dozen times before. Since I'm trying to be more accurate with my baking, for the first time I noticed that the recipe read:

2 T butter (2 ounces)

So, whereas I usually cut 2 T from a cube, this time I weighed 2 oz. WTF? 2 oz = 4 T. I know that! But I never noticed the discrepancy before. So what does she really want me to use? I went back to 2 T, just like I always use, but now I really wonder.

But on the specificity part, I like it when the author tells me exactly what she would use, and why. Then if I don't have that ingredient, or choose to make a substitution, at least I have a clue what I'm doing. I might be able to say "Well, if I'd used coconut vinegar instead of rice vinegar, this would have a slightly different flavor, but I don't think it's enough to make a big difference." Or, alternatively "This recipe calls for almond extract and all I have is vanilla, so if I make that sub it's really gonna be different, although it'll probably still be good."

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I agree with the sentiments expressing a desire for detail. I live in an area of the country where it's difficult to get 'exotic' (for lack of a better term) ingredients, and I do need to know whether it's crucial to have a specific ingredient, or whether something else can be substituted. Also, I get frustrated when I see things like "Use only the best-quality olive oil." How am I supposed to know whether the Colavita on my grocery shelf is good enough? I'm not a widely traveled person, so there are many things I've never seen or heard of, but would love to try.

I suggest that your specifics be explored in a sidebar-type box, or in an ingredients or methods discussion in the back of the book. The more details the better. If I can make superfine sugar in my food processor as opposed to purchasing it; that's great. But if a purchased product has attributes that I cannot reproduce at home, I would likely do whatever's necessary to find and purchase the product. Don't be afraid to use brand names!

I recently made a much-revered cake from a book by a well-known author. She doesn't include any information about the expected texture of this cake, probably because the recipe duplicates a product widely sold in the New York City area. Unfortunately, I do not have access to it. My cake, which had very expensive ingredients in it, turned out mediocre at best... and I'm left to wonder whether I did something wrong --or maybe several things-- or whether I'm just not as crazy about this cake as everybody else is.

The more you educate me, the more I'm going to treasure your book. I've never minded being accused of reading cookbooks like novels.

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As PatrickS mentioned, I also like to see all ingredients in proportions and weights (specifically grams not ounces).

I think it's fine to include hard-to-find ingredients as long as you list substitutions. Along with these substitutions, I'd like to see an explanation of how it impacts the recipe. "You can subsitute with x, but it will change the finished product in such and such way."

Edited by sanrensho (log)
Baker of "impaired" cakes...
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Best way to handle specifying ingredients is to include an exhaustive glossary in the front or the back of the book, in which you discuss the different types of flours, oils, sugars, etc. You can then refer to them by name in the recipe without repeating yourself each time.

When you have found that only one ingredient works in a recipe, you can list it as: (no substitutes).

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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this is something i've given a lot of though (writing recipes for a living). i think a lot of how your write a recipe depends on your intended audience. writing for the experienced cook, you can assume a certain amount of knowledge and shortcut your descriptions. but if you're writing for a general audience, up to a certain point, the moreinformation you supply, the better. this is bound to irritate more experienced readers, but so be it. remember that we're writing more and more for people with less and less kitchen experience.

personally, i thought the recipe writing in the zuni book was brilliant. it may have been a little extreme, but the way she described how things looked, smelled, tasted and felt at every important stage of the recipe was very reassuring to inexperienced cooks. and i think it also teaches even those with more experience about the importance of using all of your senses when cooking, instead of blindly following the measurements and timing of the recipe.

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Hello Sugarella,

Perhaps it's down to whether you are producing an all-purpose recipe, helping the reader to baker better, or more simply, using easily found ingredients; or whether you are helping the reader to replicate a specific result in the home.

If it's the latter then I absolutely agree with you. We can't pretend that every great and extraordinary cake or dessert can be reduced to a generic recipe, to everyday supermarket ingredients available all year round, and I think that fraud is terribly wrong.

Nor do ingredients always have substitutions. Not long ago I was at an awards dinner where one of the judges, in that moment where they confess to you why your entry couldn't win (now there's a strange moment), pitied that I hadn't really considered substitutions enough. "For example, I made your Waterford soda bread with cornmeal instead of soft wholemeal flour and it made a perfect American-style cornbread. Why didn't you suggest something like that"? Though I utterly disagreed that cornmeal would make a good substitution, or even a passable cornbread (whilst I knocked back a couple of drinks in succession), I tried to gently explain that the soda bread recipe I wrote of was bound to a particular type of grain character, at least, and to change this ingredient would change the recipe entirely.

If you are writing to explain how you make what you make, you must be honest. If you are writing a recipe to show how to replicate a traditional recipe or celebrated dish, then you must be true to the original method. But really be prepared for heavy resistance both from publishers and editors. One way around it is to work at getting the very best result with slightly easier to obtain ingredients, and then in the intro or sidebar mention what qualities the rare ingredients would have given the recipe. But if you really, truly feel that a few special ingredients are essential, then go with your heart. A book written with that honesty and dedication will always stand out.

regards

Dan

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I agree with all above but weights in grams are a must. I have been so dissapointed in various recent books (even Dessert University) that have no weights. I think its helpful to know what sized pans were originally used, if only to know yield of the recipe. If ingredients are exotic it is nice to give alternatives, however, that is probably only necessary if you are writing to the general public.

I only use reicpes as guides so no matter if the author thinks that it is soy oil or nothing I may try something else. I like recipes like are in Bilheux and Escoffier books. Timelines are good as a starting point for production schedule. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel everytime.

Woods

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2 T butter is one ounce, not two.

Abra was discussing an error in a cookbook where the volume and weight measures were not equivalent:

ABRA wrote:

Since I'm trying to be more accurate with my baking, for the first time I noticed that the recipe read:

2 T butter (2 ounces)

So, whereas I usually cut 2 T from a cube, this time I weighed 2 oz. WTF? 2 oz = 4 T. I know that! But I never noticed the discrepancy before. So what does she really want me to use? I went back to 2 T, just like I always use, but now I really wonder.

"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced" - Vincent Van Gogh
 

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Home baker here: No amount of detail is too much. I want weight and volume measurements. I want specificity. What kind of sugar, flour, and even the brand of chocolate. I want technique in detail, illustrations or pictures if possible.

We all know that all too often two or more people following the "same" recipe get quite different results. Some of that comes from differences in the materials chosen. For a very basic example: salt. One tsp of typical fine iodized salt in a round can, Morton's kosher salt and Diamond kosher salt all have different weights. We could run variations on this theme endlessly with ingredients. I've seen debates over using cane sugar vs beet sugar. When someone says walnuts, toast? don't toast? Tell us.

Without boring y'all with the details, I've found, for example, pastry requires very specific techniques to get particular results. Work the dough differently, different result. Give me the setting on a KA and the amount of time to cream the butter? I'm okay with that level of detail. If I already know how to do something, I can just skip your detail. But if I don't it's a big help to have it.

If a recipe is super specific, I can always choose to ignore some of the details or make changes.

"Half of cooking is thinking about cooking." ---Michael Roberts

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Thanks everyone for the feedback; it's appreciated. Like I said above, the book is mainly focused on wedding cakes and how to execute the designs within the book. I will include any original recipes I've got, but I expect anyone purchasing the book (assuming anyone does) will do so for the cake designs and instructions rather than for the recipes. Still, I think it'd be a shame not to include them just because they're not the focus.

this is something i've given a lot of though (writing recipes for a living). i think a lot of how your write a recipe depends on your intended audience. writing for the experienced cook, you can assume a certain amount of knowledge and shortcut your descriptions. but if you're writing for a general audience, up to a certain point, the moreinformation you supply, the better. this is bound to irritate more experienced readers, but so be it. remember that we're writing more and more for people with less and less kitchen experience.

Now, that's just it, I don't really know who the audience would be. Who buys these books? Is it home bakers who are hobbyists and practicing? The majority of people I've come across who make wedding cakes are not culinary trained professionals, so in that respect, of course they would benefit from detailed recipes. Do professional pastry chefs even buy design books? Somehow I doubt they do very often.

If I use myself as an example, I started making wedding cakes when a relative asked me to make hers. I was already a foodie, so that helped not make the first one a disaster, but I'd never decorated anything prior to that. I bought Colette's Wedding Cakes ( http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/031...6/egulletcom-20 ) and went from there. So for many years I was the type of hobbyist buying these books. Now, it'd have to be a pretty special book for the designs to impress me. And those books, versus cake decorating books in general, are very few and far between, in my opinion.

But I think because the general consensus in the responses here is that it'd help more than hurt, then I'll certainly go ahead & continue what I've been doing. If somebody doesn't want or need the info, they can skip over it.

But really be prepared for heavy resistance both from publishers and editors.

Why would that be? I can understand the production costs for a book with photographs on every page, but this seems pretty common with many of the recipe and design books I already own. I must be missing something?

~ Sugarella

Edit: OAF! I goofed on the link. It works, but it's ugly. :wink:

Edited by Sugarella (log)
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I've seen some books with a glossary in the back describing exactly what ingredients were used and alternatives to these products (Delia Smith Chocolate cook book is a good example - although I'm not sure if this was a version printed for a particular country converting UK products/measurements).

Personally I find it difficult if a recipe lists brands/exact products as I live in a rural area and I'm unlikely to be able to find that exact product. Another issue is international customers, I've bought books from the USA that are nearly useless in Australia as they are so brand focussed that we don't even have close alternatives.

As for the steps, there is wordy and then there is necessary detail!!

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Hello Sugarella,

A publisher hope to market books to the widest number of readers, and increasingly proposals are looked at not just by a commissioning editor but also by marketing and sales departments who will scrutinise it for potential risks. Yep, those same elements that give a manuscript its magical zest might cause some people involved in the production to lack confidence that it will sell at all. So if the sales department doesn't have confidence it can sell your book, then this could stop it being commissioned. But should you manage to have published a nice little pointless book that ticks all of the boxes yet dies at the bookstores, well, that will be seen as your fault too.

As Russ says (and this absolutely nails the current thinking in cook book publishing),

Remember that we're writing more and more for people with less and less kitchen experience.

and though you identify a market that desperately wants a detailed specific book, unless a publisher can identify that market too you'll have difficulty getting your book accepted. At some point you concede that your manuscript must be a joint project between you and your publisher in order to get into print, especially on an illustrated book where the publisher (at some risk) will pay large production costs. Sometimes smaller publishing houses offset this risk on specialist books by setting a higher cover price and assume that sales will be small. You might get a text-only science book with cover price of $150, very specific yet intended for a small market. But it's my experience that most publishers prefer a lower cover price and aim for higher sales, as this will encourage bulk purchasers (book clubs etc) and foreign editions - areas where the publisher will quickly recoup costs before royalties. Foreign editions are also affected by how difficult it is for a reader to obtain ingredients, and the text length affects translation costs. You might say, "well, I just want my book published locally", but that wouldn't be your call.

But...that doesn't mean, "write to order". It means that the publisher sees your manuscript as a potential product that they will print and market, and will need a confident commissioning team to get it into print.

regards

Dan

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The majority of people I've come across who make wedding cakes are not culinary trained professionals, so in that respect, of course they would benefit from detailed recipes. Do professional pastry chefs even buy design books? Somehow I doubt they do very often.

Your either doing a book for people with some skill already or your aiming for beginners. My perspective (for what little it's worth) I think theres plenty of good sources for beginning decorators. Mainly articles in magazine (several online sources too).........some of them are quite good showing cute cakes that are in the reach of an in-experienced decorator.

Speaking as a professional, I LOVE good design books and buy them for inspiration. Collette Peters can't publish them fast enough for me. Brauns' book and Wooley's book sold well too I'd guess, among professional decorators. I don't care if they have recipes in them, I probably won't try them because I already have my favorite recipes. ....just my opinion........

So if your making an advanced decorators books I don't think you need highly detailed recipes. If your making a book for in-experienced decorators details are good, but too much will probably scare people. Personally I think theres a couple of really good recipe writers out there. My favorite has to be Dorie Greenspan, she combines simplisty and complexity perfectly.....on the opposite spectrum RBL's recipes make my eyes glaze over.

I think the Whimsical Bake House book worked really well appealing to both beginner and advanced decorators. I wonder how their sales were..........I'd guess they sold very well! I think this is an example of a really well done book, it has something for everyone.

So which level are you writing for?

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danlepard: Thanks very much for explaining all of that. It's very helpful to know.

Wendy: The book is very advanced technques and designs but explaiined in a way that people with less experience (but not beginners) could actually do the cakes. It's always bugged me when instructions for things (all things, not just cakes) are rated beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc. because a lot of people can jump right to advanced if they've got a real interest and do well.

I should probably not have used the professional vs. hobbyist analogy because it isn't really fair..... if you sell a cake I guess you're a professional even if you're just starting out. What I meant was, what I gather from most people I've met online who do cakes is that the majority are not trained pastry chefs (neither am I)....and being on their own trying to find good recipes I figured the more details the better.

The lengthy instructions on the design pages, however, I'm not budging on! :smile:

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I too would like weights of ingredients, for baking at any rate. And notes and thoughts about the recipe (as well as any weird phenomena one can expect at certain midpoints -- "The mixture will look curdled and disgusting" -- are helpful to my cookin' soul.

However, I (personally) HATE when a recipe writer says, "No substitutions." In fact, I usually take it as a personal challenge, if I'm interested in the dish at all. Not, mind you, to the point of substituting cornmeal for wholemeal flour ( :shock::huh::biggrin: ) but... I built most of my real cooking skill through fixin' recipes -- to fit my own fat-free thing when I was into that; converting meat dishes to veg for my partner A.; de-allergizing dishes for various sensitive friends. DON'T tell me in that arrogant tone that I can't do something; make a recommendation if you like, or tell me something you tried that HASN'T worked, instead.

Also -- divvying out ingredients by stages of the recipe? As in "For cake", "For filling", "For frosting"? Yes, please. Incredibly thoughtful and considerate; ditto with ORDERING ingredients as per recipe use. And if something is divided, for pity's sake, don't just say "divided," especially if it needs to be into precise amounts. List 'em separately.

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