Sunday, October 18, 2009

What matters?

The wonderful French cookbook, "Je sais cusinier" has been translated into English. The English title is "I know how to cook."
There's good news and bad news. It was some of the bad news that prompted this posting.
There is an unwarranted degree of precision in the book - the recipe that calls for 1lb 8 3/4 oz of mushrooms, for example. That is as a result of a slavish and direct conversion from the metric measurement (700 gm) to imperial measure.
So, how much does that 3/4 oz actually matter? I am sure not much - although I haven't made the dish. When is a measurement really a guideline, and how can you tell? That's a conundrum, so I will try to sort it out - or at least talk about how I pay attention.
  1. Ask why there are fiddly bits at the ends of the measurements? Like the 3/4 oz at the end of the mushrooms. If it looks to be a critical ratio item (flour/fat/water in a bakers recipe, then obey it)
  2. If the recipe has (obviously) been converted from the metric system to imperial, you could do the conversion mentally and see if it started as round number (25/50/75/100 gm endings). If so, then there's a decent chance that as long as you are not baking you can round off the lb/oz amounts.
  3. Be careful with strong flavorings (herbs and spices especially) rounding can throw flavors off, so round down and adjust after tasting.
  4. Be careful with anything that is in a smallish quantity (salt/yeast/pepper...) again that can throw off the balance/effect of the dish. Seasoning is always to taste - most of us under season, but again be careful

The good news is that the author uses words like scant and generous to indicate the precision required for many items that are measured by volume. So you know that a scant cup of stock is about a cup but likely to be a bit less. That's a definite clue that you can wing it.

While I am talking about the book, there are a few "duh" moments. First the book starts with sauces. So important to French cuisine, so neglected by most of us. So it is good to have the sauces lumped (no not lumpy!) together so they are easy to find. However, that is a bit of a double edged sword because there are recipes that point you to several other sub-recipes. For example the "Candlemas Rolls" recipe looks like it has 6 ingredients, but 2 of the ingredients are actually complete recipes in their own right. So when doing the recipe for the first time, you need to have bookmarks in several places. I guess the author thought of this - the book comes with 2 built-in bookmark ribbons.

There are some interesting subtelties. For example when making a ham souffle, the oven is set to a constant 400F, while the cheese souffle starts at 350F for a while and then the oven temperature is raised to 425 for the last 15 minutes. The reasons are that the number of eggs and the ratio of eggs to bechamel sauce is different and that the cheese incorprates into the sauce while the ham doesn't. You would think that the same recipe base would work for both kinds of souffle (but it doesn't!). You need to get more lift before the browning stops the expansion wuth the cheeses version, I presume. It's things like this that can make French cooking intimidating - the patterns are not obvious. It's also this kind of attention to detail - and figuring what's important that seperates good cooking from excellent cooking.

No comments: