The food writer Nicholas Clee has written an article on the Guardian blog, saying the idea that recipes can be followed to the letter and result in a perfect dish is a modern myth. I’m not sure this makes recipes a swindle exactly, but it is undoubtedly true that they all need a degree of interpretation, and that you won’t be able to follow a recipe until you’ve learnt some basics about how cooking works. In Clee’s book Don’t Sweat the Aubergine, he therefore provides ‘why you do it’ sections and information in the belief that understanding how a dish works is more important than a set of instructions. His blog The Sceptical Cook has extracts from the book, including a brilliant piece on how to cook aubergines.
When preparing ‘Early Vegetarian Recipes’, which re-produces recipes from as early as 1690, exactly as they first appeared, I was very aware that the instructions often made no sense to the modern chef, since there were no stoves and pans had to be placed ‘on the fire’ for hours at a time to cook the dishes. And whenever I talk to people about the book there are some who say the book would not be for them as they would be unable to interpret the recipes.
Nonetheless some of the recipes do contain very detailed instructions and one of my favourite recipes in the book is not a favourite because I use the recipe, but because it is a lovely piece of historical food writing. It is an 1866 recipe for Toast in ‘Vegetarian Cookery by a Lady’:
Procure a nice square loaf that has been baked one or two days previously, and with a sharp knife, cut the requisite number of slices, about a quarter of an inch in thickness; place a slice of the bread on a toasting-fork, about an inch from one of the sides; hold it a minute before the fire; then turn it, hold it before the fire another minute; by which time the bread will be thoroughly hot; then begin to move it gradually till the whole surface has assumed a yellowish brown colour; turn it again, toasting the other side in the same manner; then lay it upon a hot plate, spread rather less than an ounce of butter over, and cut it into four or six pieces; if three or four slices are required, cut each slice into pieces as soon as buttered, and pile them lightly upon the hot plate on which they are to be served, as often in cutting through several slices with a bad knife all butter is squeezed out of the upper slice, and the lower one is found swimming in butter.
Warming the bread gradually on both sides, greatly improves the quality of the toast, and makes it much lighter.
The butter used should not be too hard, as pressing it upon the toast would make it heavy.
Dry stale bread may be dipped in warm water, and toasted gradually before being buttered.
Another of my favourites from the book is a recipe I do use a lot, but which I am constantly re-interpreting, so that it turns out differently each time I do it! It’s a recipe for Lancashire Spice Nuts, biscuits flavoured with ginger, treacle and caraway seeds. Sometimes they come out hard, the texture of ginger nuts, which I guess is how they were intended, but sometimes I get something similar to German Lebkuchen with a soft, cakey interior, which suits the spices and which I rather like. One of these days I’ll come up with my own definitive version, but in the meantime, here’s the original, by Charles Walter Forward from 1891:
1 ½ lbs flour
½ lb treacle
¼ lb butter
¼ raw sugar
1 ½ oz ground ginger
½ oz caraway seeds
½ oz carbonate of soda
3 oz orange peel
Warm the treacle, add to it the butter melted, the sugar, spices, soda and orange peel minced fine. Pour the mixture into the flour, knead into a dough, roll it out and cut into rounds with a small cutter. Bake on greased tins in a slow oven for about 10 minutes.