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All You Can Eat

Trend-setting restaurants, Northwest cookbooks, local food news and the people who make them happen.

May 18, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Whose fault is it when a recipe doesn’t work?

I sat in on a French pastry class at PCC last week, where instructor Laurie Pfalzer gave us a skillful demonstration on how to make mouth-watering pate brisee and gougeres and crepes — all much easier than you might expect — and then gave us something entirely different to think about. One of the students asked Pfalzer for advice on a souffle-like cake recipe that had been baffling her. She tried it again and again and it never seemed to work. What, she asked, was she doing wrong?

There was a chance that the non-stick pan the woman was using was the problem, Pfalzer said — the cake didn’t have anything to grab onto as it rose. But also, “There’s always a chance it’s the recipe,” she said.

“The first time it doesn’t work I’d assume it’s my fault. The second time it doesn’t work I’d assume it’s their fault. The third time is just to make sure it’s their fault.”

It reminded me of something I’d found in my years of testing recipes at home before printing them in the paper: Some cookbooks are complete duds. Some of them have recipes that clearly haven’t been properly tested or edited before going into print. They might be missing key steps, or oversimplifying a professional recipe to the point where it won’t work at home.

Pfalzer’s advice? Rely on cookbook authors with a great track record of successful recipes that work for the home cook. She’s a fan of books by Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz, and I’d second those nominations. (I once spent most of the summer happily working my way through Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop.” ) I also count on Jerry Traunfeld‘s cookbooks and on recipes by Jess Thomson (more soon on her new gem, “Pike Place Market Recipes.”)

There’s also the point that Beth Howard reminded us about in her pie-baking talk: Not all recipes can be written to the point where they’re one-set-of-directions-fits-all. A pie’s success depends on the humidity and on the quirks of your own oven and a dozen other factors, and you just have to know how to assess the dough. Similarly, a writer in The Guardian recently argued that you need to know how to cook rather than how to follow a recipe. That’s true sometimes — if I’d been reading from a book rather than watching a pastry chef like Pfalzer at work, I doubt that cream puffs would seem as unintimidating as they do now. But plenty of times it’s not as complicated as that, it’s just a problem on the other end.

Which cookbook authors do you trust (or avoid)?

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