I am a cookbook cook. I didn’t go to culinary school; I didn’t apprentice with a chef. In fact, I don’t, most of the time, have the confidence to just throw a few things together without measuring.
I can, however, read a recipe. I can read a recipe in the same way a musician reads music--I can taste the dish in my head. This is really the only skill you need in order to cook, this ability to read with imagination. That’s not to say that I don’t make adjustments as I go along because along with imagining a recipe, you also need to imagine improvements as well. Here’s where experience guides you, I suppose. After countless dishes and innumerable recipes tried or discarded, a sense of where a recipe might go wrong (or right) emerges.
I have Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated to thank for my obsession with measuring. His unrelenting exactitude and almost pathological precision in cooking produces recipe after recipe that not only reliably work but which are imbued with an air of scientific mission as well. How wonderful to be able to quantify and control the messy business of cooking! How amazing to predict a successful outcome each and every time if (and only if) Mr. Kimball’s detailed instructions are followed exactly! I am helpless in the face of such towering authority.
Yet I still stealthily make minor adjustments to the recipes I read and substitute what I have on hand for what I don’t have. Sometimes I read a recipe once and then can’t remember where I initially found it. So I recreate it as best I can and sometimes my recipe strays so far from the original once I find it again that suddenly it can be considered my original. Yet I still continue to measure (forgetting my somewhat arbitrary decision in the beginning to add a teaspoon here and a tablespoon there) and find myself now tied to a recipe that I’ve foolishly written down and therefore, must follow exactly from henceforth. And, of course, that makes me feel like a complete nutcase.
I just can’t give up those measuring spoons (Japanese, calibrated, purchased from Williams-Sonoma nearly ten years ago for what was then the astronomical sum of twenty dollars). I’m addicted, I think, to the predictability of success. If I believe truly (and I do) that I can discern a jewel of a recipe amongst the dross, I always am compelled to follow its instructions to the letter. John Thorne writes about his mother and describes how she always first checked a recipe taped to the cupboard door even though she’d made it over and over again. I share that same insecurity. Actually, it should be called a neurosis, I think, given the patent silliness of this checking and re-checking of favorite recipes. If I were running back into the house to check whether or not I’d left the stove on, people might mention professional help or medication. Recipe checking though is regarded as normal.
Professional chefs have tried to remedy this troubling problem that I think most home cooks seem to share, most notably Julia Child in her wonderful (and physically unwieldy) book The Way to Cook. She offers one master recipe for a dish and then enumerates variations, some subtle and some branching off into an entirely different direction. A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider is similar in technique although I haven’t had as much success with her recipes as I have with Julia’s. And even Jamie Oliver attempts the same educational project in Jamie's Dinners but his scope is much smaller with just one chapter devoted to improvisation in cooking. Pam Anderson, former editor of Cook's Illustrated and author of How to Cook Without a Book, is perhaps the most comprehensive proponent technique over recipe although she seems to be a bit conflicted: the following year her book entitled The Perfect Recipe came out in its second edition.
Each of these chefs, however, in stark contrast to Kimball and brilliant but crazed writers like Rose Levy Beranbaum of The Cake Bible, aims to demystify the art of cooking and to encourage the home cook to attempt techniques that are second nature to the professionally trained chef. Julia, in particular, essentially seems to be saying that the authority invested by the reader of a cookbook in its author is misdirected; there can be no “perfect” recipe. A “perfect” recipe will always be a matter of personal taste, and although a gifted chef can offer guidelines to the reader, ultimately, that perfection will always reside in individual execution (which by its very nature will change from one meal to the next). Julia Child and the rest of the writers I mention want to give the confidence the reader has in the chef back to the reader. Alas, I have yet to embrace that kind of confidence. I read and research and continue to measure. Maybe one day I will be free of the tyranny of the recipe, even when that recipe is my own.