These days, following a recipe feels like a luxury.
If you read cookbooks with any regularity, you'll get one message pounded in: Real cooks don't follow recipes. Real cooks eat quiche they pulled out of thin air. Cookbooks promise they'll teach you how to cook without books, how to improvise incessantly. (Although why, you should wonder, would we cookbook authors want to teach you the one thing that would put us out of business?)
But when you face supper prep after a long day, or need to whip something up at 10 p.m. for the next day's meeting/bake sale/school snack, a recipe feels charmingly secure in its promises.
Until, that is, you trip over the directions.
Usually this stems from one of two problems: Increasingly these days, you'll trip over directions in cookbooks by TV chefs, written in haste to attack a market now dominated by celebrities. They rarely have decent copy editors and recipe testing. Too often, I think, things look easy on TV but are inadequately explained in recipes for novices, leading to serious frustration. And even more experienced cooks may read a recipe, think it doesn't sound quite right but decide to trust the author--and end up wishing they'd trusted their instincts.
The other problem may come from using older recipes full of terms recipe writers are highly discouraged from using today.
Never again will we be allowed to tell the cook to "cream the butter and sugar together," because invariably someone will search the ingredient list for cream. And yet, it offers such a better picture of what happens than the now-standard "beat," as in "beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy."
I often wonder how many readers understand the nuances of the way we write recipes today, following the standards. Do you know (and pay attention to) the difference between "1 cup packed basil leaves, chopped" and "1 cup chopped basil?" The former means you measure the leaves before chopping; the latter, after chopping. Some recipes are flexible enough that it won't matter, but in others, it makes me wish we followed the European model of weighing most ingredients.
And despite the usefulness of some of the standards, a good recipe shouldn't have to be so regimented. While it's nice to have the ingredients listed in the order in which they're used, for example, it's stifling to read a recipe that has lost the writer's soul--one that dryly spells out the mechanics of the thing without offering any concept of the cook behind the pen, of the human touch that makes any food great, not just edible. It takes us too far back to the days of "domestic science," when recipe writing first became sterile. I want to hear the writers' idiosyncrasies in the kitchen and to sense their presence behind me as I work. When space permits, and without going overboard, I want to know not just that I should beat the butter and sugar together, but how they will look, sound and feel, and maybe even smell.
When I want lovely recipes, unstilted and full of life and wit--and that work--I think especially of three writers: the Brits Elizabeth David and Nigella Lawson, and Laurie Colwin. Of them, only Lawson is still living, and she writes recipes perfectly suited to today's cooks (and she does, happily, still call for you to cream your butter).
Elizabeth David deserves not to be forgotten in this country. A British author who died in 1992, David opened so many eyes to the glories of Mediterranean food through her evocative, opinionated writing. Although her Mediterranean books are classics, I especially like English Bread and Yeast Cookery, a big book full of scholarship about the history of English breadbaking, complete with classic recipes that do indeed work. Her recipe below for a yeasted quiche crust has long been one of my favorites.
And for opinionated, hear her on vanilla in English Bread and Yeast Cookery: "It may be noticed that neither vanilla sugar, vanilla essence nor vanilla in any form is called for in any recipe in this book. This is because vanilla has not, or should not have, any place in cakes and breads flavoured with other spices and enriched with fruit. Vanilla, true vanilla that is to say, is an exquisite flavouring on its own, but quarrels with other strong flavours. As for synthetic vanilla essence, it is sickeningly all-pervading, and ruins everything into which it goes. Almond essence, provided it is the true, concentrated essences of bitter almonds, can be used in yeast tea cakes and buns, but is very difficult to find in this country. When you do find it, remember that it is very strong and must be used in the smallest quantities. Imitation almond flavouring is as repulsive as artificial vanilla."
I don't actually agree with her entirely on vanilla, but after reading a passage like that, it's hard to argue.
Lawson's more sensual, earthy writing, and Colwin's down-to-earth, harried-cook prose are more gently opinionated than David's, but they're all great fun to read and re-read, and their recipes inspire confidence. A cook can't ask for more than that.
COOK'S NOTES: This recipe is from Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery (with the addition of U.S. measurements). The notes are hers.
Tarte Aveyronnaise or Roquefort Quiche
For the yeast pastry: 5 oz. of plain, preferably unbleached, bread flour, 1/4 oz. of bakers' yeast, 1 whole egg, 1 teaspoon of salt, 3 tablespoons of thick ripe cream or unsalted butter.
[U.S. equivalents for yeast pastry: About 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour and 1/2 teaspoon dry yeast.]
For the Roquefort filling: 3 1/2 to 4 oz. of Roquefort, 2 whole eggs, 4 tablespoons of milk, 3 tablespoons of thick cream, seasonings of nutmeg, freshly milled pepper, and salt if necessary. Roquefort is a salty cheese, and needs very little seasoning.
A 10 inch removable-base tart tin or two 6 to 7 inch tins.
To make the pastry: Cream the yeast with a couple of tablespoons of tepid water. Warm the flour in a bowl, add the salt, then the whole egg and the creamed yeast. Mix all the ingredients into a light dough. Add the cream (or butter, softened but not melted) and with your hand beat the dough into a soft batter. Dry this by sprinkling it with a little flour, form it into a bun, cover the bowl with a plate or cloth. Leave in a warm place for approximately 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in volume and is light and spongy. Break it down, sprinkle again with flour, reshape into a bun. Unless you are going to use the dough at once, cover the bowl again, and this time leave it in a cold place--not the refrigerator--until next day.
To mix the filling: Mash the cheese to a paste. Add the cream. Stir rather gently until the two are amalgamated. Beat the eggs and the milk--the blender can be used for this operation but not for mixing the cheese and cream--and amalgamate the two mixtures. Gentle stirring with a fork or spoon is necessary now, and there is no cause for worry if there are a few recalcitrant lumps of cheese in the filling. They will smooth themselves out during the cooking. On the other hand, over-vigorous whisking can curdle the cream and the cheese, a minor disaster which does not affect the flavour but results in a rather flat filling when the quiche is cooked.
When the time comes to cook the quiche, butter and flour the tin, work the dough into a ball, put this into the centre of the tin. Sprinkling the dough with flour from time to time, press it out gently with your knuckles until it covers the base of the tin. Leave it, covered with a sheet of polythene or paper, in a warm place for about 25 minutes, until it has again become very pliable and is sufficiently risen to be gently pressed out again to line the sides of the tin.
To bake the quiche: Have the oven turned to 425˚F. Spoon the filling into the dough-lined tin, and put this quickly on to a baking sheet on the centre shelf of the oven.
Bake for 15 minutes before reducing the oven heat to 375˚F, covering the filling with buttered paper and cooking the quiche for another 10 minutes.
Serve quickly, before the filling sinks.
There should be enough for four to six people, depending upon whether the dish is to be eaten as a first, a main or a savoury course, and upon what else is to be offered.
Correctly cooked, and eaten hot and fresh, this Roquefort quiche is one of the most delicious things I know. Given the present price of Roquefort cheese it is also something of a luxury.
1. There is a good case for the use of two small tins for this quiche, rather than one large one. It is a question of synchronization. In small tins the yeast pastry and the fillings are ready at precisely the same moment, whereas in one big tin the filling tends to cook more quickly than the dough. To a certain extent this depends upon your oven. It is in any case a wise precaution to use the buttered greaseproof paper covering as directed.
2. Roquefort varies a great deal in quality. If it is very strong use a little less, and make up the difference with extra cream or milk.
3. It is not easy to suggest a substitute for Roquefort, which is unique as a cheese. It has to be remembered that it is made from ewes' milk, and that blue cheeses made from pasteurized cows' milk are totally dissimilar in flavour and texture. Possibly the best one to use instead of Roquefort would be Bresse Bleu. This is milder and rather cheaper. There is also a creamy Danish cheese called Blue Castello which makes a lovely filling. I have not found English blue cheeses very successful for this dish, but experiment is always worth while and could well result in something really interesting in the way of a dish based on one of our own cheeses. I have, for example, had quite good results using a well-matured farmhouse Cheddar.