Even Great Recipes Aren’t Perfect

by Elizabeth Skipper | February 27th, 2013 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips
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recipe boxI wrote about recipes and their pitfalls last year. Today I’m writing about why even great recipes aren’t foolproof.

Recipes can be tricky things. There are people who say, “Oh, I can’t cook, but I can follow a recipe.” Guess what? If you’re following recipes, your results are going to be hit or miss until you’ve had enough practice to know when a recipe is leading you astray. It happens with even the most trusted sources. There is no substitute for in-depth cooking knowledge, whether it’s learned in the classroom or in the kitchen.

I was making a cake recently for a donation, and wanted a simple recipe for a gold cake. One of my usually highly reliable cookbooks yielded one which claimed to yield superior results for only ten minutes more work than using a mix. Sold! However, I experienced problems both making the cake and the frosting. Why?

In the directions for creaming the butter and sugar, the recipe gave approximate times for how long it would take depending on whether you were using a hand or a stand mixer. Going by the recipe, using a stand mixer, my butter and sugar should have been just about ready in five minutes. In fact, they were far from sufficiently creamed at that point. Because I knew how fluffy the mixture should have been, I continued beating them for about another five minutes until they were at the right stage, but I was puzzled about the discrepancy.

Fast forward to the ganache frosting, which called for chilling about an hour, stirring occasionally. It was cold outside, so I put the bowl on a piece of porch furniture. Ten minutes went by and I stirred the frosting; ten minutes later, I stirred again. After another ten minutes, it seemed ready, so I brought it in to put on the cake. Mind you, this is thirty minutes later, not even close to an hour. At first it seemed perfect, and I gave it a last good turn before putting the first dollop on the cake. Oops!

My gorgeous ganache was no longer spreadable, but more the consistency of fudge. Ever try to spread fudge? I couldn’t spread it thinly and it was starting the tear the top of the cake. Of course, I had to leave in ten minutes to deliver the cake. What to do?

A number of ideas ran through my mind. “It’s setting up/it’s too cold… if I heat it up again, it’ll be too thin and runny. Maybe if I run it under the broiler? Nope, that risks scorching it. No time to heat it gently in a low oven… heat the spatula with boiling water to heat the surface of the frosting? OK, boil some water, put it in a tall container so I can heat the entire length of the spatula… heat, wipe dry with a paper towel, spread, heat, wipe, spread, repeat…”

Long story short, it wasn’t the look I wanted, but that did the trick. I was able to spread the ganache on the cake, although, shall we say, the look was rustic. But what happened? About an hour, according to the recipe, became less than half that time for the ganache to set up.

How cold was it in the test kitchen of the recipe writer? How cold was it on my porch? And returning to the cake, why was that timing so off, as well? In that case, I think it was the butter. The recipe didn’t call for room temperature butter, and mine hadn’t been out of the refrigerator very long.

Recipes are a cook’s best approximation of describing how to duplicate a dish he or she has made. For this reason, they can only be so precise. The writer doesn’t know if your bowls are metal or glass, shallow or deep, nor what kind of pots and pans you have. Are you trying to use a balloon whisk when the writer was using a flat whisk? The writer doesn’t know if you’re using a gas or an electric stovetop, what kind of burners you have, or if the oven temperature is calibrated properly.

Imagine telling someone how to paint a picture. You can specify the size canvas and describe how to prepare it. You can say which color paints to use, but if there’s no Prussian blue, will Cobalt blue do or can the right color be created by blending? Is the artist’s sense of perspective the same as yours? Telling someone how to recreate a dish is no different.

There are so many variables in writing a recipe that to cover them could take pages and pages, and at some point you must stop. Writing a good recipe isn’t an easy task, and even the best written recipes aren’t guarantees of success. The skill of the person following the recipe matters, too.

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