Who Follows Recipes, Anyway?

Most of the things I cook, I make from memory. After standing next to my grandmother enough times while she made beerocks, liver and onions (which is delicious if you do it correctly), kritharaki, our family recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing, and all sorts of other random things, I internalized the recipes. They are the sorts of things I know I should write down, but haven’t yet. I’m the only one left in the family who still cooks, so if anything happens to me, our recipes will disappear. That’s reason enough to scribble things down or blog, right? If I blog about it, my family’s recipes will be immortalized in some kind of nebulous internet cloud, and someday my daughter’s daughter will be able to look me up and find everything online, with pictures. Right after she parks her hover car, of course.

That’s not to say that I’m not constantly checking little things, like how long do I cook brown rice? Is it Israeli couscous that has the same cooking time as white rice or am I thinking of something else? Do you stir it–or keep it covered and zealously guarded against pot-peekers? Do I use the same amount of yeast for panettone as I do for cinnamon rolls? But I check these things online more often than not. It’s difficult to find a cookbook that can answer quick and random questions as easily as the internet.

In our house, cookbooks are our coffee table books. We keep them near the kitchen table, and while we’re waiting for something to finish cooking, or sometimes even while we are eating, we’ll flip through them and admire the ingredients more than the actual finished product. “Look at all that lamb,” my husband will drool as he flips through the Greek Culinaria, or we’ll have a mock debate over which is more universally useful– butter or olive oil (Both! Why choose?). Or we’ll gaze at the sausages and cheeses of the German Culinaria and argue amiably about why German food isn’t as popular as I think it should be. Spaetzle, people!

Magazines are flipped through in much the same way. “Oh, that’s what you do with pea tendrils!” Or if we are looking through Lucky Peach, “Where do you even get liquid nitrogen?” because for quite a few issues there, there was a lot of foam. We were quite relieved when they went back to street food.

Because I cook mostly from memory, I have a really difficult time following a recipe. If it’s cookies, I halve the butter. Well, perhaps in nearly everything I halve the butter. I’ll switch one meat out for another, use water instead of milk, use a dash of salt instead of a teaspoon. I simply can’t leave recipes alone. Even if I set out to follow a recipe to the letter, I usually end up arguing in my head with the author of whatever recipe or cookbook I am following using for inspiration.

The only exceptions are David Lebovitz (anybody who doesn’t like him can go kick rocks) and Deb Perelman (the Smitten Kitchen genius). I use up leftover bananas in banana breads almost weekly, and had grown tired of using the same recipe for  years, so when I saw that she had made a Double Chocolate Banana Bread I thought I’d give it a shot. I’d already trusted her before with a Grapefruit Pound Cake amongst other things, so when I saw that the recipe called for only one cup of flour I paused. My faith was shaken. I did check online to see if anybody had reported any errata, because one cup of flour seemed absolutely crazy pants. But then I went ahead and followed her recipe blindly and can honestly say that it was one of the best banana breads to come out of my oven in a long time. No whisky frosting necessary.

Perhaps it’s because Perelman is so meticulous in her recipe development that I can let go and trust her in the way I would trust my own senses? I’m not really sure why I can trust Perelman and Lebovitz and not other cookbooks. I can see why home cooks often make projects out of following a specific chef’s cookbook as a sort of challenge. I wouldn’t be able to do it, though. It would be sheer torture, like wearing strappy sandals on a mountain hike.

Oh, Fannie Farmer! What would I ever do without you?
Oh, Fannie Farmer! What would I ever do without you?

I do have one very unfashionable, very out of date cookbook that I reference all the time. If I need to remind myself of the difference between a brisket and a shank, or if I need the milk to flour ratio for a cottage pudding, I have my 1965 edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Her spine has fallen off and she is held together with masking tape (a very poor choice of tape, I might add), but I found her at an AAUW book sale when I was a teenager and will never give her up. She is like the WASPy grandmother I never had but was always curious about. But even so, I’ve never listened to her like I would my own internalized grandmother. It’s just not in me.




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