Recipe Mistakes

A recipe mis­take can be down­right dan­ger­ous.
Take the case of Aunt Vertie’s Sugar Cook­ies: a con­fec­tion that appeared in a 1991 issue of Gourmet.
Unable to find win­ter­green extract, the magazine’s testers sub­sti­tuted win­ter­green oil in that recipe: a sub­stance sold in some phar­ma­cies to treat sore mus­cles.
Although the small amount called for — a quar­ter of a tea­spoon — is not con­sid­ered toxic, Gourmet’s edi­tors were con­cerned that, if a larger amount was used in error, it could be harm­ful to a person’s health.
The result: they sent let­ters to 750,000 sub­scribers warn­ing them of the poten­tial prob­lem.
A year later, a recipe in Great Cakes (Bal­lan­tine Books) by well-known Amer­i­can baker Car­ole Wal­ter, included the poi­so­nous plant lily of the val­ley in a list of edi­ble flow­ers that could be used as a gar­nish.
The pub­lisher recalled all copies of the book, then cor­rected the egre­gious error in new edi­tions.
Most mis­takes in recipes sim­ply result in fail­ure.
Infa­mous among these was the con­fus­ing pre­scrip­tion for the aptly named Choco­late Neme­sis in the first edi­tion of the River Café Ital­ian Kitchen (Ebury Press) by U.K. restau­ra­teurs Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers.
Named “cake-gate” by the British press when the book came out in the early ‘90s, vague instruc­tions for this pop­u­lar dessert at the duo’s Lon­don restau­rant resulted in what was described by one cook as “a floppy cow pie”.
Gray’s unhelp­ful response to what she called “a chal­leng­ing cake” made the prob­lem worse. She responded: “It’s a recipe you need to make a cou­ple of times before you get it right.”
Boda­cious British TV celebrity cook and cook­book author Nigella Law­son may be lovely to watch but her recipes don’t always yield lus­cious results.
The Choco­late Orange Cake in the first edi­tion of Feast (Knopf Canada) required beat­ing but­ter with sugar in its method but did not list but­ter in the ingre­di­ent list.
After a much-publicized brouhaha, this typo was cor­rected and the new recipe is but­ter­less.
It’s no sur­prise that the most glar­ing mis­takes are in bak­ing, a fact noted by Ali­son Fryer who has been man­ager of The Cook­book Store in down­town Toronto since it opened 25 years ago.
“Bak­ing is far less for­giv­ing than cook­ing,” Fryer notes. “It’s chem­istry and you can’t fool around with that. There’s no room for error.”
She describes the inci­dence of mis­takes in cook­books as a cycle that’s gone in waves.
“In the early to mid-‘80s, recipes weren’t tested as well,” she says cit­ing the famous Sil­ver Palate cook­books as “a clas­sic exam­ple of cater­ers writ­ing a cook­book.” She men­tions “some of the cookie recipes where reduc­ing large to small quan­ti­ties just didn’t work.”
Dur­ing that era, she reck­ons 30 to 35 per cent of cook­book recipes did not work.
In the 1990s, she explains, “We moved into a phase when cook­books were more painstak­ingly edited. Recipes were well-tested and the num­ber of mis­takes dropped to about 10 per cent.”
She insists there’s a “method­ol­ogy for recipe-testing and most cook­book writ­ers had begun to under­stand this con­cept.” Also, “Pub­lish­ers didn’t want to make changes when a book was re-printed.”
At the end of that decade, how­ever, there was a new haz­ard.
“With the rise of tech­nol­ogy, we see that not all word-processing pro­grams are cre­ated equal,” she adds. The result: “Lines would be dropped. Things that should have been a table­spoon became a tea­spoon – frac­tional mea­sure­ments have long been a prob­lem.”
Hap­pily, says Fryer, “We’re back up to about 20 per cent.” Not so hap­pily, she notes, “We Cana­di­ans tend to blame our­selves first when a recipe doesn’t work.”
She cites books by Chris Kim­ball and his team at Cook’s Illus­trated mag­a­zine as reli­able. “Their recipes are tested about 30 times. They have the resources. It costs money to test recipes.” I espe­cially rec­om­mend The New Best Recipe (America’s Test Kitchen) – a defin­i­tive book by those dili­gent cooks.
Here are some other rec­om­men­da­tions for trust­wor­thy sources on which Fryer and I agree.
Any­thing by my late men­tor Julia Child, espe­cially The Way to Cook (Knopf) or Ital­ian food maven Mar­cella Hazan.
“Early Martha Stew­art books had kinks in the recipes but her new books on bak­ing, cook­ies and Great Food Fast (Liv­ing Mag­a­zine) are really good,” says Fryer.
She also cites the Joy of Cook­ing by Irma Rom­bauer and Mar­ion Rom­bauer Becker (Simon & Schus­ter), the Bon Appetit Cook­book (John Wiley & Sons) and tomes by Cana­dian cooks Bon­nie Stern and Rose Mur­ray.
Fryer offers this advice: “Invest in a scale to weigh ingre­di­ents for bak­ing.” I’ll add this: When bak­ing, use mea­sur­ing scoops for dry ingre­di­ents. Scoop flour etc. from its con­tainer, then level sur­face with a knife.

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  1. Jill-ann
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Is there a web­site were you can see if a cook­book recipe includes mis­takes (and per­haps solu­tions? Last night I made “Honey Bread” out of Mar­cus Samuelsson’s “Dis­cov­ery of a Con­ti­nent”. It called for 7 cups of flour and 6 CUPS of honey. As you can imag­ine that is NOT ACCURATE! After the ini­tial attempt clearly wasn’t right, I retried it with 6 TABLESPOONS of honey and it’s pretty good.

  2. admin
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Jill-Ann, you’ve brought up one of my big beefs about pub­lished recipes. Esti­mates are that about 50 per cent of them actu­ally work. I had a ter­ri­ble expe­ri­ence last year mak­ing an apple torte fea­tured on the cover of Bon Appetit mag­a­zine. I don’t know of a web site that specif­i­cally deals with this. Some­one should step into this fray and start one. You per­haps? This would be a great con­ver­sa­tion for Twit­ter methinks. Btw, I find Cook’s Illus­trated — their mag and books — to be the most reli­able recipes I’ve found although not always the most inspired. Jamie Oliver, Cana­dian Liv­ing — and, of course, mine — are other good ones!