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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.