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Reading recipes

"mistakes can sometimes have wonderful outcomes" Barbara Sweeney

I think I have sort of done this a long, long, time ago, but a couple of recent things made me think I should have another go at it. I might have a few things to add.

I started to think about this whilst reading through the introduction to a new 'bargain' cookbook purchase Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables by Matt Wilkinson - and I will talk about the whole book another day. At the end of the introduction he had a fairly long list of things to do when reading a recipe - and I think I will take his list as my starting point. However, initially I put it aside because of the 'done this before' notion. But then I watched that video on Monday of Canadian Jamie gamely making Julia Child's stack of stuffed pancakes. He made so many mistakes along the way - not all of them to do with the recipe I admit - but many of them were. And yet, at the end he produced something utterly delicious of which he said:

"Would I recommend it? Hell yes I would - it's fantastic - love this thing - it's real good."

So perhaps the main thing to take to heart about reading recipes is 'don't despair'.

Back to Matt Wilkinson's list - I'll use his points along the way as headers for each section.

"After you have chosen the dish and recipe you would like to cook, sit down, have a cup of tea or glass of wine and have a pen and notepad at the ready."

When I looked for pictures to illustrate that particular dictum I did not really find one that fitted his advice. This one is the closest I came to it, but although she has a cup of tea in her hand and the book. she is not relaxing by sitting down or being serious by having a notebook to hand. I did find these two as well, but they also are not quite right. The lady on the left might just be taking a break and reading a book in the kitchen. And she's not about to write anything down. The one on the right might be close I guess. There could be a drink to hand with the olives in the background. All of which leads me to believe that this is not a common approach - the drink and the notepad that is.

The thing is though, that this kind of approach is surely not for your everyday meal. Your everyday meal is just flung together higgled piggledy and very possibly not from a recipe. No I think - and this goes for the rest of Mr. Wilkinson's tips - these recommendations are really only worth pursuing when you are making something new and special.

Read the ingredients list and method thoroughly

Absolutely and this is always the first thing that any writer on the subject says. At one point when Canadian Jamie had made some mistake because he appeared not to have read the recipe properly he mentioned that many people asked him if he read the recipes through before beginning, and he claimed that indeed he did. David being a cynic has, I think, decided that it's all an act, and that really he is a professional cook who knows what he is doing. In my life I have been accused of being naïve occasionally. I prefer to say trusting because I believe him. Well I've done it myself. Even though I have read the recipe at least twice and constantly refer to it whilst cooking, I am still capable of leaving a step out - particularly those, it seems to me, that tell you to put one part of some part of the whole aside when you have finished that particular step. In the heat of the moment it is possible to forget.

Have a sip of your chosen beverage, then read the recipe again.

I must admit I like the idea of sitting down with a 'chosen beverage' and perhaps something to nibble on too. It makes the whole process more relaxing. Although simultaneously it means you are taking the whole process very seriously which I'm guessing could leave to stress.

Now write out the ingredients list with measurements of those you need to go and buy. Have another sip.

As you can see the pictures don't quite match his tips because obviously they are things that people either don't think are important enough to write down or they are so unusual that they never thought to illustrate them. After all there are plenty of 'How to read a recipe' pieces on the net, so you would think there would be an equal number of appropriate illustrations. I don't have a notepad when I read a recipe, but these days I might make a note in the book if something needs clarification.

But yes, you need to check whether you have all the ingredients. If it's an Ottolenghi recipe you probably haven't. Indeed at this point the recipe might have to be abandoned because there is no way that you can get hold of a particular ingredient within a reasonable time-frame, reasonably close by or at a reasonable cost. But yes 'have another sip'.

Then check that you have the correct ingredients, method and you know what to purchase.

Same thing surely? And he has omitted to mention that you also need to check whether you have all the equipment you will need, and if you haven't, then how are you going to improvise? He's also omitted to mention that up to this stage you have to do all of this well in advance of cooking your dish, because you may well have to go and shop. And shopping always - like cooking - takes longer than you think. And have you checked the time involved? Is there that little statement that is so easy to miss - 'marinade overnight' - or similar such things. This has occasionally been my downfall and prompted a rapid change of plan on what I am going to cook.

Now write out the method in your own words, not copying, but your own words. Sip number three

Well here is Nigel writing it all down, but they, of course, would be his own recipes.

I'm really not sure about this step in the process. I see the virtue of reading thoroughly and if you don't understand something, then sure, go and look it up and make notes on the recipe if you think you need to. Because it is true that some recipes require clarification:

"Is this recipe framed this imprecise way because there is a happy latitude - or rather a scary freedom - for interpretation; or because the writer isn't capable of expressing him or herself more accurately? It starts with simple words. How big is a 'lump', how voluminous is a 'slug' or 'gout', when does a 'drizzle' become rain? Is a 'cup' a rough-and-ready generic term or a precise American measure? Why tell us to add a 'wineglass' of something, when wineglasses come in so many sizes?" Julian Barnes

Not all recipe writers are equal. Elizabeth David for example is often notoriously vague. Yes one does assume that the recipes have been tested over and over again before publishing, but mistakes can still be made and recipes misinterpreted.

"I know a Canadian novelist who once tried to make pesto from dried basil ... You have to feel sorry for cookbook writers. They construct their best recipes, they get friends to road-test them, the publisher's editors add their tablespoonful, and then - something like this happens." Julian Barnes

As part of my last job I had to write a lot of procedures for different job lots. I rapidly learnt that you had to spell everything out literally to the point where you almost needed to say as the first instruction: "Turn on the computer - it's the button on the left at the back." Not quite, but you know what I mean. One cannot assume that people know what 'fold in the egg whites' means. Fold? Or - when my mother and I were first confronted with an ingredient called 'a clove of garlic' we did not know which was the clove - one of those small segments or the whole thing? We guessed correctly but it was indeed a guess.

So yes there is some merit I guess in writing out the recipe in your own words, but I find his next instructions very scary:

Close the book and do not open it again. Use your notes to cook from.

I don't think I could do this. Even with a book I find I am constantly checking and rechecking what I have to do. Because fundamentally I have no faith in myself, which, if it came to making notes, would extend to having no faith that I had actually included everything in the original recipe in my own version.

Mr. Wilkinson gives a few reasons for taking this enormous - and, I have to say, very individual step:

When you write the method in your own words you will understand it more clearly when following the steps.

Possibly true - but surely you could just read the recipe a few times until it is clear in your head, and make notes on the page if you need to. But then you come to his second reason:

You don't dirty your precious cookbook with cooking marks

Which is the exact opposite of Yotam Ottolenghi's exhortation in his book Shelf Love:

"We want you to take these recipes and make them your own, turning this cookbook into a handbook - one to write and scribble on, to stain with turmeric and fold down pages. We want this book to be that book, the most haggard looking book on your shelves, indicating that it serves its purpose and then some."

Words that I have taken to heart as you can see from this page from that book. And I have found it a very useful thing to do.

And his last reason?

You are starting your own personal cookbook. You can adapt the recipes to your liking and they are to hand when and if you need them in the future.

No, no, no. That would be a bit like those display folders stuffed with recipes from here, there and everywhere that I shall probably never make again because I don't know what is in them. There is no index, there is no order, accessing the contents relies exclusively on my memory - which is failing. Much, much better to write your adaptations and notes on to the original recipe page. At least you know where to look then. Which means of course that your recipe book needs to have plenty of spare space in which to write. Which is is not true of my faithful old Penguin recipe books from the gurus. But back then I just did as I was told by those masters of cooking, and although I use those recipes again and again, I now know so much more about cooking that I can just go with the flow. And, of course if your cooking source is the internet as shown on your iPad whilst you cook, well then you can't really make notes. So long live cookbooks.

A couple of little things about recipes - and I find myself noting this in my cookbooks these days - timing.

"as a general guide, you should add an extra 15-20 minutes to the total cooking time." Sarah Mayoh

Actually, if it's a cake I often find I'm adding on more than that. Really though it's a case of taking the stated cooking time as a guide. And as to the preparation time - well double, maybe triple it:

"I never attend to the estimated preparation times that some recipes helpfully include. Even if generously based on a multiple of what a professional cook might take, they are always over-optimistic. Cookbook writers, it seems to me, fail to imagine the time a punter takes holding up a tumbling tablespoon and wonder if the piled contents are better describes as 'rounded' or 'heaped; or glossing the word 'surplus' in an instruction like 'trim off the surplus fat'." Julian Barnes

And somewhere I found an unexpected benefit to reading recipes. It helps children learn to read.

Which is why it is so important to be clear and not use big or unusual words when writing them. Imagine you are writing for a child - or an idiot. Then you might get one of those wonderful outcomes.


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