Monday, 24 March 2014

A recipe book. Or not.

Just insert words and pictures

I get asked if I am going to 'do' a recipe book. Well, no. Not really. Why? Because no bugger is offering me any money to do so. Because I am an unknown in a vast field. Because, save for this meagre effort, I am awful at self promotion. But mainly because all my recipes are pinched from other people (just as they pinched before them). Alright, some are original assemblies of elements from other recipes (but also pinched). It's almost impossible to be truly original in cooking. Food is old. Eating is old and really rather popular. If it can be eaten it has been. If it can be pureed, freeze dried, sun dried, sous-vided, desiccated or flock sprayed, it has been. And that's just ONE of Heston's recipes for chips.

However! I have let the notion distract me. If I were to 'do' a book, what would it be? How could I compete for shelf space? What would my spine appeal be? In what manner would dear readers covet my covers?

Well, I finally have my approach.

I am very systematic in my approach to things. If I'm good at one thing, this is it. I like to make molecules; to break parts down to their simplest constituents and then rebuild. It's why I'm good at organising. You cannot cook well if you organise badly. OK, you can make a sandwich without fear of injury but a six course meal might mean you losing a limb.

I also notice that while recipes are obviously necessary they are problematic because they stop you thinking about the various processes involved. Why do you blanch the onion first? Why seal the meat? Worse are the calls to not overwork or overwhip or underbake without testimony or illustration to reveal when you are close to infraction. What are the parameters? I once saw an instruction to use water that was NEARLY boiling. FFS.

Also, and all too often, some recipes merely repeat instruction for reasons unknown., like wipe not wash your mushrooms. (Heston is very good at debunking cooking myths.) Mushrooms don't absorb water you know. Try weighing them before and after a deluge if you don't believe me. The web has been brilliant too at allowing the truly dedicated, fixated and pedantic to flash their wares. The Syrup and Tang site has so many pictures of macarons/macaroons at every stage of the process. BUT  of the mistakes and the successes. They do so you don't have to. I found it invaluable.

Great numbers of people, reticent and querulous as so many are when put before an oven, do just follow the written injunctions. They/you know no better.  It's all very well for Nigel Slater to tell you that recipes are only blueprints and encourage rule breaking but you have to understand them before you can break them and if this the first, and probably last, Mary Berry layered chocolate rum cake you've ever made and it's for Nanny Jones' 80th and Sainsbury's have no more of this good chocolate left... then you sure, as eggs are something Delia taught you to boil, aren't going to branch out on your own. Are you? Does it matter if the cake tin is 12" and not 8"? Where in the oven should it be? Does a fan really change the cooking time? Does opening the door matter? Nanny Jones says it does - but she's off her face on the rum. Your mother did warn you. She may be old but she's sly.

I want a book that's like a Latin Primer. Simple examples that illuminate future complexity. Let's say a dozen recipes that introduce you to all the basic techniques and the chemistry of cooking. Each step would be photographed. Overwhipping and underbaking would be demonstrated. You need to know the verbs and nouns before you approach the sentence  This would definitely include a loaf of bread. There are only four ingredients necessary in bread: flour, water, yeast and salt. So how come so many awful loaves? (For that matter, how come so many appalling martinis - where there's only three,if you include the twist and you really should be*). You need to know about gluten and how this is a matrix to capture the gas the yeast makes. Bread is a gluten foam that is hardened by heat; by baking in an oven. The book would explain all about gluten; when it's good to work it and when it's not. You want it in bread but not in pastry. I think I'd like a simple central recipe with annotations all around. You can read the instructions but also learn the reasons for the instructions. Maybe pages you could fold out? It's as complex as you want. A culinary Talmud if you will. After the simple recipe there would be further, more complex breads with other ingredients. I think this may work well as a tablet app.

There would also be a simple sponge cake recipe. The most basic cake used to be called a pound cake by the Victorians because it used a pound each of fat, flour and sugar. That's all cake is. But it's also what biscuits are... and pastry. What's the difference? What's 'short' mean in a crust? Probably need to know about gluten again. I want the reader to understand exactly why they are adding eggs, or baking powder or ground almonds. If you know WHY it's there, you will be able to remedy situations when you've forgotten to add it. Or if you can leave it out.

We need a little physics too... sorry... but if only to deal with cake tins. How often does the tin in your kitchen match the requirements of the book? I have a deep 8" square not a 10" round but the mix fits. Should I change the cooking time? And why specify 20-25 minutes if you're not to to explain what might happen in the interim? What's meant to be going down - apart from the middle when you take it out too early?

I'd also have a roast chicken (for cooking muscle and making stock), a meat pie (for pastry and slow cooking), some pan fried fish, a white sauce, and custard.

So that's my idea. I don't even have a name for it yet. Anyone fancy financing it? Anyone going to Amazon me a link to just such a book?


Postscript. My friend Bee (wonderful photographer - she makes the mundane beautiful) suggests this could be a simpler, more practical version of McGee. She's right.

*And the number of times I've seen bartenders lovingly strip off a piece of fresh zest and then twist it AWAY from the glass. Sheesh. It's about the citrus oils! That's the difference between a mediocre Martini and staggering home at 4am with a strange mobile number written on your hand.

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