Finding Recipes that Work

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

These days, following a recipe feels like a luxury.

If you read cookbooks with any regularity, you’ll get one message pounded in: Real cooks don’t follow recipes. Real cooks eat quiche they pulled out of thin air. Cookbooks promise they’ll teach you how to cook without books, how to improvise incessantly. (Although why, you should wonder, would we cookbook authors want to teach you the one thing that would put us out of business?)

But when you face supper prep after a long day, or need to whip something up at 10 p.m. for the next day’s meeting/bake sale/school snack, a recipe feels charmingly secure in its promises.

Until, that is, you trip over the directions.

Usually this stems from one of two problems: Increasingly these days, you’ll trip over directions in cookbooks by TV chefs, written in haste to attack a market now dominated by celebrities. They rarely have decent copy editors and recipe testing. Too often, I think, things look easy on TV but are inadequately explained in recipes for novices, leading to serious frustration. And even more experienced cooks may read a recipe, think it doesn’t sound quite right but decide to trust the author–and end up wishing they’d trusted their instincts.

The other problem may come from using older recipes full of terms recipe writers are highly discouraged from using today.

Never again will we be allowed to tell the cook to “cream the butter and sugar together,” because invariably someone will search the ingredient list for cream. And yet, it offers such a better picture of what happens than the now-standard “beat,” as in “beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.”

I often wonder how many readers understand the nuances of the way we write recipes today, following the standards. Do you know (and pay attention to) the difference between “1 cup packed basil leaves, chopped” and “1 cup chopped basil?” The former means you measure the leaves before chopping; the latter, after chopping. Some recipes are flexible enough that it won’t matter, but in others, it makes me wish we followed the European model of weighing most ingredients.

And despite the usefulness of some of the standards, a good recipe shouldn’t have to be so regimented. While it’s nice to have the ingredients listed in the order in which they’re used, for example, it’s stifling to read a recipe that has lost the writer’s soul–one that dryly spells out the mechanics of the thing without offering any concept of the cook behind the pen, of the human touch that makes any food great, not just edible. It takes us too far back to the days of “domestic science,” when recipe writing first became sterile. I want to hear the writers’ idiosyncrasies in the kitchen and to sense their presence behind me as I work. When space permits, and without going overboard, I want to know not just that I should beat the butter and sugar together, but how they will look, sound and feel, and maybe even smell.

When I want lovely recipes, unstilted and full of life and wit–and that work–I think especially of three writers: the Brits Elizabeth David and Nigella Lawson, and Laurie Colwin. Of them, only Lawson is still living, and she writes recipes perfectly suited to today’s cooks (and she does, happily, still call for you to cream your butter).

Elizabeth David deserves not to be forgotten in this country. A British author who died in 1992, David opened so many eyes to the glories of Mediterranean food through her evocative, opinionated writing. Although her Mediterranean books are classics, I especially like English Bread and Yeast Cookery, a big book full of scholarship about the history of English breadbaking, complete with classic recipes that do indeed work. Her recipe below for a yeasted quiche crust has long been one of my favorites.

And for opinionated, hear her on vanilla in English Bread and Yeast Cookery: “It may be noticed that neither vanilla sugar, vanilla essence nor vanilla in any form is called for in any recipe in this book. This is because vanilla has not, or should not have, any place in cakes and breads flavoured with other spices and enriched with fruit. Vanilla, true vanilla that is to say, is an exquisite flavouring on its own, but quarrels with other strong flavours. As for synthetic vanilla essence, it is sickeningly all-pervading, and ruins everything into which it goes. Almond essence, provided it is the true, concentrated essences of bitter almonds, can be used in yeast tea cakes and buns, but is very difficult to find in this country. When you do find it, remember that it is very strong and must be used in the smallest quantities. Imitation almond flavouring is as repulsive as artificial vanilla.”

I don’t actually agree with her entirely on vanilla, but after reading a passage like that, it’s hard to argue.

Lawson’s more sensual, earthy writing, and Colwin’s down-to-earth, harried-cook prose are more gently opinionated than David’s, but they’re all great fun to read and re-read, and their recipes inspire confidence. A cook can’t ask for more than that.

First published in the Independent Weekly, July 27, 2005

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