Thursday, January 03, 2008

Recipe Writing: Part 2

This article was previously posted on the Dining Hall forum.

Welcome to the second half of the Recipe-Writing column. In the first half of this article, we looked at (a) why recipe writing is worth thinking about in the first place, (b) crediting the source of the recipe, (c) the ingredient list, and (d) accessorizing a recipe.

In this article, let's talk a little bit about (a) the method section of the recipe, (b) the recipe introduction and (c) testing of recipes. To reiterate what I said in the first article, there is no "correct" or "perfect" way to blog or write a recipe, and these are just some aspects to consider.

Method Section of a Recipe
The method section contains the steps involved in making the dish and usually follows the ingredient list.
1. Striking a balance between being too verbose and being too brief: There are two main situations in which someone will read the method section of a recipe- one is when they encounter a recipe for the first time and are reading it to get a general idea of how the dish is made, and the second is when they are actually making the dish and using the recipe as a protocol for doing so. In the first case, a conversational, detailed method might be useful and enjoyable; in the second case, a brief and to-the-point instruction list might be more desirable. The best way out is a careful balance of both.
2. Arrangement of steps: The recipe writer has to decide whether to use numbered preparation steps or write it in continuous sentences, paragraph style. This depends on personal style but in general, numbered steps make it easy to find one's "place" while in the middle of cooking the dish. If the paragraph style is preferred, each major portion of the recipe (eg. procedure for making the dough, making the stuffing, assembling the samosas) could be written in separate paragraphs. Shorter sentences are easier to read and understand.
3. Chronological listing of steps: It is good to write the steps such that someone who is making the dish is able to do so in a way that is efficient and time-saving. For instance, place the "pre-heat the oven" or "start boiling water for pasta" step in the beginning so that time can be saved later in the recipe.
4. Ease of understanding: (a) Keeping it simple: Cookbooks are often written with a particular audience in mind; some cookbooks are intended for beginners while others are written for cooks with more advanced skills. In the case of food blogs, our recipes might be used by people whose culinary skills vary widely, so it is best to keep things simple. Culinary terms like "braise" and "blanch" are useful to convey a specific method in one single word, but only if the reader knows what these terms are! (b) Keeping it logical: Explain the reason for doing something. For instance, in an okra stir-fry recipe, one might say, "Do not add water to the stir-fry at any stage, otherwise the okra will become too sticky". This helps the reader understand why something is done in a particular way.
5. Providing visual descriptions: Find ways to describe difficult-to-measure steps such as consistency of a batter or the stiffness of a dough. "Fry the onions" is too skimpy on information. A note about how long the onions should be fried- "until brown at the edges/ until completely browned/ until translucent" would make the instructions much more unambiguous and useful.
6. Accuracy: Make sure all ingredients are accounted for, and that the ingedient has the same name as in the list. Since the average blogger does not have an editorial staff at her/his disposal, it might be a wise idea to spend a few minutes carefully re-reading the recipe to ensure its accuracy. Include common pitfalls ("The spices burn easily while toasting, so keep an eye on them") and ways to rectify a mistake ("Add more chickpea flour if the batter looks too thin").

The Recipe Introduction
Take any popular well-loved dish. Whether it is chocolate cake, samosa or fried rice, there are hundreds of recipes for these treats on websites, and dozens more on food blogs. Yet, when we find a popular and common recipe on any of our favorite food blogs, we are eager to read about it. One feature that can make the difference between just-one-more-recipe-for-XYZ and this-one-I-have-to-try is the recipe introduction, or what is technically called the recipe headnote, which precedes the actual recipe. This is really a feature where a blogger can make a recipe his/her own and allow one's personality to shine through. You can display your writing flair via many features in the headnote, which can be a little paragraph or a whole essay. A personal touch in the recipe introduction can create drama and interest, and give readers a sense of eager anticipation. It is the reason that makes cookbooks as enjoyable to read as the most dramatic novels. Some features of the recipe introduction are all about the personal touch:
1. The origin of the recipe: Maybe the recipe is a family favorite from a century ago and has been passed down from your grandmother, who told you about the time she learnt it at her mother's knee. Maybe this dish was born only last night, when you got home from work at an insane hour and found 4 lonely ingredients in your fridge and put them to work imaginatively. The origin of the recipe can put it into perspective and bring it to life.
2. Memories: They can tug at the heartstrings like nothing else. Memories of a childhood spent in mango orchards, the first dessert that you and your sweetheart ate from the same dish, the festive lunch made by a favorite aunt five years ago that you can still taste in your mind, the first time you encountered some exotic cuisine…all these are human interest stories that make a recipe very special.
3. Travel/ Geography: It is wonderful to celebrate the terroir , or the "sense of place" of an ingredient or a dish. Maybe you ate this salad on a much-awaited trip to Europe, or maybe you made this recipe up when you were on a hike. Maybe the dish comes from the land where you spent your whole childhood and that you know like the back of your hand. Discussing these aspects can make the post informative and absorbing.
4. Humor: Maybe the making of the dish was an interesting (mis)adventure worthy of being chronicled...humor is an intangible thing, but we all know that hilarious posts are memorable ones! Not everyone has a knack for humorous writing but for those who can carry it off, it makes their blogs very popular and fun to read.
5. Finally, an event-specific note: If the post is an enty for a food blog event, one could add a few lines about why you chose that dish, or what the theme of the event means to you. That makes the entry much more interesting to read.

Apart from the creativity of the recipe introduction, it can be useful for other, more practical reasons:
1. A synopsis of a complicated recipe: The typical recipe for a biryani is a mile-long and quite intimidating, but if the recipe introduction says something like, "Saffron-flavored rice is layered with spicy vegetables and fried onions", it suddenly makes the recipe more approachable.
2. Mentioning peculiarities in the recipe, something that varies from the usual: For instance, "moong dal is usually cooked, but in this recipe, a small amount of moong dal is simply soaked and added to the salad to add taste and texture".
3. Mention special, out-of-the-ordinary equipment, techniques and ingredients, perhaps also giving useful links for their descriptions or places where they can be procured.
4. Other useful or interesting information includes notes on nutrition, unusual facts about the dish or trivia about the main ingredient.
5. Finally, a note about the success of the recipe is very useful in letting readers know whether they should try it. How did it taste? Did you like it or love it? Did you lick the bowl clean? Will you make it again? Would you change anything if you made it again?

Testing of Recipes
The recipes contained in cookbooks are supposed to be (and expected to be) rigorously tested. In that sense, blogs differ from cookbooks. We (in general) make no claims as far as the testing of recipes is concerned. Some blogged recipes are favorites that we have cooked a dozen times before. Others may only have been tried once or twice. Just like the children's game Telephone, as you make a recipe again and again, it can end up as something quite different from the original. Luckily, blogs do offer us an opportunity to keep updating recipes as we try them over and over again, simply by editing the post. As you play with a recipe, maybe using whole-wheat flour instead of AP flour in a bread recipe, or using beets instead of cabbage in a salad, you can record the variations, and their success (or lack thereof), with or without pictures, and update the original post. If you change something (like the proportion of rice flour to wheat flour, say) and find that it works better, that update would be useful the next time anyone wants to use the recipe. If your blog is your personal cookbook (as mine is for me), this can be especially useful for future reference.

I will close this article with a quote (that I found in this book) from the cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum: "A good recipe ultimately makes you feel as though its author is a friend, standing by your side, cheering you on and sharing in the joy of its creation".

References and future reading:
1. The Recipe Writer's Handbook by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker
2. History of Recipes
Note: A big thank you to Indira for encouraging me to write these articles in the first place- it was a great learning experience!

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