Are personal recipes more usable?

When I asked last week which cookbooks and authors offer the most usable recipes, I got some interesting responses. Some people listed cookbooks that really are teaching cookbooks for true beginners, while others listed authors whose recipes are easy to refer to and cook from once you know what you’re doing. It should be fairly easy to identify the former sort, though there aren’t many — assuming it’s possible to learn to cook from a book at all. But I had a harder time seeing what the easy-reference, quick-idea works have in common.

Then a friend pointed out that Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook is one of her favorites in part because Katzen doesn’t lock a cook in; she gives a basic formula and then, usually, offers variations. Flipping through the cookbook again, I realized that it isn’t just that Katzen offers specific variations; it’s that her entire style encourages you to go your own way. She handwrote her recipes and decorated the margins of the pages, and her tone is that of a friend passing on her recipes. You couldn’t possibly think you were meant to take her advice as gospel — not that she isn’t reliable, but that she doesn’t come off as remotely prescriptive.

What’s more, though, she doesn’t even consistently offer linear instructions. Look at, for example, this recipe for lentil soup: Continue reading “Are personal recipes more usable?”

Why are recipes so hard to use?

Yesterday I baked (with help from my daughter) the citrus-almond cake from Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton’s Feast in a Day, which ran in the New York Times Sunday Magazine the week before Christmas. We had a third of a very large gift box of oranges and grapefruit that needs not to be wasted, and, well, enough with the cookies, you know? It intrigued me; it’s made with ground almonds, olive oil, and a whole puréed orange and lemon. And it was wonderful. In fact this might be my ideal cake: It’s got a complex, fruity flavor (I prefer fruit and nut desserts to cakes generally anyway), the sweetness is balanced by the slight bitterness of the orange peel, and it’s dense and moist without being at all heavy.

But I found the recipe itself, at least in the print magazine, annoying. It was printed in tiny type and crammed off to the side of the page to make room for photos of, I don’t know, olives or something. (I know what an olive looks like. I’m not impressed.) I had trouble figuring it out initially, and it was picky without explaining anything. I had the distinct impression that while the point of the article was that you could cook a feast in eight hours, nobody thought you actually would try to cook any of this.

The more I thought about it, though, the problems with this recipe are the problems with practically every published recipe these days. They’re too wordy and dense to be skimmed or consulted quickly by an experienced cook, but they don’t give a real beginner enough help to be successful. They’re didactic without teaching. The problem isn’t Bittman and Sifton (Bittman, when he has the space, does an excellent job explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you really need to pay attention to); this is the standard way recipes are written. Continue reading “Why are recipes so hard to use?”