Not all recipes are created equal. And not all cooks or food writers are able to write recipes that work. I started reading recipes, like other people read fiction, for no other purpose than to learn how to write them and I acquired some tricks along the way. For instance, no matter how complicated a dish is, if the recipe is overly long or convoluted, it will not entice most people to make it. Conversely, if it leaves too much to imagination or experience, the novice cook might get lost half way through. And striking the right balance is far from easy.
I do love Jamie Oliver’s recipes because they are conversational enough to draw me in but they don’t indulge in minutiae. Some might argue they take too much for granted but I like the palpable enthusiasm behind them. Anne Willan’s are precise and slightly old-fashioned and they make me feel as if I am cooking in the cavernous kitchen of a French farmhouse. Thomas Keller’s books are works of art but most recipes are improbable for a home kitchen although some from his more down to earth books, like Bouchon, yield outstanding results.
With pastry, precision is key, both on the part of the writer and the cook – skipping, substituting or working intuitively come after years of practice. And to me, that is when the joy of following a recipe kicks in, when it becomes a launch pad for my creativity. Sometimes I will read a recipe and will immediately know the end result will not be worth bothering with, although it’s hard to say why – maybe a cluster of ingredients that don’t seem happy together or a cooking method that doesn’t make much sense, although these could also be intriguing elements that will dare me to make a dish.
Recently, I was reading a recipe for cherry pie in a very reputable publication. The writer lamented not having been able to reach the perfect, flaky crust until she came across the suggestion of par baking the bottom shell before filling it with fruit. Duh! But I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt – I know I can take my immodestly great pies for granted (4th July’s was stone fruit with the flakiest crust on both coasts!). While scanning through the recipe, I noticed that very cold butter cut into small pieces was called for, processed until it was the famously pea size. What it didn’t say was that to know you haven’t overprocessed the butter, the dough should look like marble, with the veneer being chunks of butter. What it also didn’t say was to refrigerate the crust before sticking it into a very hot oven – both minor points maybe but they make the difference between a good crust and a perfect one. It made me mad.
At the end of the day, once you have knowledge and understanding of technique, everything else comes intuitively. My favourite teacher on paper is Mark Bittman and his clear, easy to follow and fool-proof “How to Cook Everything”. Some of his recipes don’t even call for amounts because if the cooking method and how ingredients are prepared and are supposed to perform are understood, the rest should all be fun. Most of us have spent countless hours doing what we were told – in the kitchen, shouldn’t we just rule?