The Overwritten Recipe: Another Book Edward Gorey Forgot to Write and Illustrate

If you are reading a recipe, and the instructions seem over-written to you, the novice recipe reader, you should bear in mind that the person who wrote the recipe is probably trying to save you some angst by being so precise. Don’t sign angrily and insist that the writer is an asshole or just trying to get your goat. He or she is trying to explain to you why you should take step A before step B, lest you veer in the wrong direction and wind up in the Museum of Tsuris. It is true that longwindedness in recipes can be due to mere literary preciousness, or culinary pretention, but in my own case? It’s really just that I’m trying to convey to my reader, in entertaining manner, the good reasons why something is done a certain way. In other words, I’m not trying to piss you off, I’m trying to be helpful, dammit.

Conversely, an underwritten recipe can be nearly useless. We’ve all seen old index cards tucked into books or found in boxes of random stuff in our grandmother’s junk drawer. The recipe is titled, “Angela’s Spice Cookies — very good!” and it’s a list of ingredients but then there’s no instruction for how to combine them. The card’s text ends, “Bake in hot oven for 12 minutes.” Thanks, Angela.

I’ve also met another sneaky bastard, the Secretly Underwritten Recipe, that you really have to watch out for, because it’s a sneaky bastard that can ruin your day. This is the recipe that comes from a normally reliable source, but that turns out to have some crucial ingredient or step left out. Like, it tells you that you need four eggs to make the recipe, but then doesn’t tell you what to do with them. Ever. Or it neglects to advise you that not only should you grease the pan, but that you should put some parchment paper down before you pour in the batter, otherwise you will never get the cake out of the pan.

I am thinking about all of this because the other day I was doing some online research about madeleines. Specifically, I was wondering, “Can you make madeleines without a madeleine pan? I mean, of course you CAN, but is there any reason to seriously feel bad about not using a special pan?” I arrived at the conclusion that if what you want is little puffy lemon cookies, you should absolutely not feel bad about not using a madeleine pan. But in the process, I stumbled on a website maintained by a young woman who clearly has it in for food writers who use more than one sentence to describe a process.

At we read the madeleine recipe of Deb Perelman (Smitten Kitchen — an exceptionally fine blog, known to everyone who’s reading this, I am sure, except my mother, and, Mom, even you might even like reading Smitten Kitchen, if you were in the right mood, because Deb Perelman’s pretty flippant and sassy about cooking). Goutaste Lady (E. Grossman) feels that Deb Perelman uses too many words to write her recipes, which makes me think of the Emperor who moans that Mozart used too many notes. Grossman pouts, “I finally found one that looked just about right, except that this chef clearly has way too much time on her hands! Who has time to read – let alone WRITE – paragraphs of instruction??”
It makes me think of the Emperor who moaned that Mozart used too many notes.

The reason why Perelman uses those words is to get you to create a thing that is Correct, that is not a Disappointment. There are reasons why she wants you to combine ingredients in a certain order. Like, science reasons.


I can’t always explain them, but I know for a fact that there are reasons why we combine certain ingredients together at certain times. It isn’t just that recipe writers are persnickety for the fun of it.

There are really good reasons why Smitten Kitchen has been such a success: Perelman’s writing is clear and precise and works to make intimidating enterprises less intimidating. She’s following in the footsteps of people like Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer and Ethan Becker (Joy of Cooking), and Julia Child — someone who Ms. Grossman should have heard of, what with being such a Francophile and all. Where would any food writer today be without these people, who used a lot of words in their recipes, as role models? It is nearly unthinkable.

Deb Perelman doesn’t talk down to her readers and she doesn’t dumb recipes down needlessly or pointlessly. She assumes that someone wants to make something and then says, basically, “Ok, is this easy? Is it hard? Can it be done in a tiny kitchen, possibly an ill-equipped kitchen?” Then she goes about and explains how the thing can be made, whether it’s churros (which she had assumed were a pain to make, but assures us are totally easy, but even so, I’m not gonna bother, well, maybe someday) or babka (which is a pain to make, no matter how you do it, but it is worth doing, and the SK recipes are a good way to go). It seems clear to me that she assumes a certain level of competence in the kitchen, but it’s also clear from the comments that if a novice baker has a question, she’ll answer it, no matter how obvious the answer may seem to her or her more experienced-cook fellow-commenters. Many, many of the comments on Smitten Kitchen are written by people who would never have tried to bake or cook at all, if not for her website. Even I — I’m pretty comfortable in the kitchen, but when I am daunted by the prospect of baking a particular thing, I will turn to Smitten Kitchen for reassurance that I can do this.

Ms. Grossman’s recipe for madeleines may work; I don’t know, and I never will, because I don’t want to make madeleines. I know that her attitude is amusing. But I also know that there are recipes where if you get too flip about method, the product will fail. The end result will not be what you want. There is, for example, a real difference between “folding in” an ingredient and “mixing in” an ingredient. God help Ms. Grossman if she ever decides to make something involving whipped egg whites. If she decides to just mix them into her flourless chocolate gateau, instead of carefully folding them in, she is going to wind up with a very, very fallen cake. And there will not be enough whipped cream in the world to make up for the fact that she didn’t respect the ingredients and how they have to be handled.

So, missy, don’t get all high and mighty about those overwritten recipes. Because, come the day when you really, really fuck something up in the kitchen, and you’re crying and screaming, “Why did this happen to me? Why does God hate me?” you will seek out that overwritten recipe, and it will calmly explain to you, “If you are not careful with this step, your cake will fall/your butter will taste burned and you will have to start all over/your beef will be tough and stringy and you will want to just throw it to the dog rather than serve it to your loved one on your anniversary.” Ms. Grossman, be flip. But respect the people who’re doing the heavy lifting, to whom you will run crying like a baby in times of trouble and sadness.

In the meantime, I will keep a light on for Ms. Grossman in a small room in the northern part of the guest wing (where visiting scholars may rest their weary heads) of the Museum of Tsuris.


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