June 06, 2008

Recipe Deal Breakers

Here's a great piece on Recipe Deal Breakers, that is, things that make you stop reading the recipe and not even try:
I WAS reading a recipe for apple strudel when I came to a sentence that stopped me cold: “If you don’t have a helper,” it began.

If a dish needs a helper, I need to move on.

Although I didn’t end up with a strudel, I did end up on a quest. I began asking good cooks I know about recipe deal breakers — those ingredients or instructions that make them throw down the whisk and walk away.

Whether for reasons practical or psychological, even the most experienced cooks have an ingredient, technique or phrase that will make them bypass a recipe.
I'm not an experienced enough cook to say that there are dealbreakers for me--I'm still learning an awful lot of techniques. But I must say there are some technique accomplishments that I am awfully proud of:

1) Jam, jam, jam: This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows me, but in the past 5 years I've gone from someone who laboriously fretted over the exact ratio of fruit to sugar to pectin, to someone who can let her strawberry jam burn, and it still tastes good. (Maybe I shouldn't be proud of that!) While what Mom taught me is true--you need to be precise in jam making--it's also true that once you understand the proportions you can experiment at will. The only preserved food that I've made that didn't work was an unfortunate batch of grapefruit curd. I like lemons better anyway.

2) Custard: My dad's favorite dessert is trifle. And since he's so d*mn hard to shop for, one year I decided to make him a batch for his birthday as my present. I was terrified--what if the eggs cook? what if the cream curdles? what if it tastes horrid? Joy of Cooking (which really is more of a technique than recipe cook book anyway) helped me out with their detailed instructions, and it really was delicious.

3) Risotto: My first birthday in the working world (wihtout friends or family nearby), I was sick with the flu, and was completely miserable. As it happened, I had recently borrowed from the library Nigel Slater's excellent cookbook Appetite. Appetite is one of my favorite cookbooks, because it doesn't give recipies; it teaches techniques. Nowhere in the book will he say "use 1 cup of flour"--he doesn't even regularily give temperatures. Instead of telling you what to do he tells you how to do them. Thus, his "recipes" are wonderfully lucid, if you take the time to read them.

So, anyway, I was sick as a dog, and feeling sorry for myself, and I cracked open the pasta and rice section. In it there was a photograph of a rich creamy bowl of risotto, and I just had to make it. The technique was so well described and thoughtful that I never have to look at a "recipe" for risotto again. It was completely delicious--a real sucess--and remains one of my favorite comfort foods. Again, with mastery of the technique, it becomes endlessly adaptable to your tastes, ingredients in season or on hand.

4) Baking: I am a terrible baker. Really, just awful. I have no sense of consistensy, proportions, etc. But I can make three things very well: Popovers, Bicuits, and Nigella Lawson's Chocolate and Stout Cake, from her book Feast. I can make these three things well, and dependably. But that's about it, baking wise.

SO, those are my sucesses. What are yours?

(Photo Credits: 1, 2.)


  1. Mags when I get back I'll teach you a damn fine lasagna that will blow your father's socks off. The secret is no ricotta, no mozerella, and a very nice beschamel.

    miss you so much


  2. Anonymous2:48 PM

    If there is one thing I can tell you about in great detail,it is the art of baking. I am a FIFTH generation baker, and I began doing so at the age of eight.Taught myself how to make yeast breads at 15 (insomnia cure), and until recently I made all of my own bread. Get ready to giggle: my great grandmother's maiden name was Honore. St. Honore is the patron saint of bakers!!My maternal grandmother's name was Martha Wilma and St. Martha is the patron saint of homemakers.Is it any wonder that my favourite household task is laundry, including hand laundry and ironing?
    I can highly recommend the Silver Palate cookbook. Steve would love a chocolate decadence cake. Also, the recipies do offer good technical advice. As for risotto, I can take or leave it but one of my specialties is rice cooked in homemade chicken stock, with steamed mushrooms or parsley. The other great cookbooks are the Sunset Magazine series, the Women's Day encyclopedia from the early 60's, Good Housekeeping, and any other old book. Reactionaries of the world, unite!(I HATE chi-chi fancy food.)Lemon curd is another specialty. I'll send the New Orleans recipie for champagne & gin cocktails.