Jul 072015

When a high-end cookbook recipe doesn’t work, how can this story have a happy ending? Somehow, it does.

First, a little backstory. Remember when Julie Powell started her career-changing food blog, The Julie/Julia Project, in 2002? It was about a government drone who makes every recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over a one-year period. Her blog led to the first blog-to-book deal and a subsequent movie.

After that, a whole bunch of people started blogs about cooking their way through challenging cookbooks. One of them was Allen Hemberger, a visual effects artist who spent five years cooking and blogging his way through the Alinea cookbook after dining there in 2008.

Hemberger is a little obsessive and a perfectionist — anyone would have to be to dedicate so much time and expense to recreating molecular gastronomy dishes. According to him, it was worth it.

“Over the course of the project, I’ve built precisely-controllable heating chambers for warming chocolate, learned how to import super-fresh fish from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan and washed more dishes than I could possibly keep count of. Every recipe in the book has offered new and unique opportunities for me to deepen my understanding and appreciation of the food I eat, how it is procured and prepared and how it can be used as more than just a source of nourishment, but as an expression of artistic creativity,” he explains on his site.

He trusted that all the recipes in the Alinea cookbook were correct. “I treated it like a bible,” he states. So far so good. Those of us who write cookbooks want recipes to be rigorously tested and for all the recipes to work, especially a high-profile cookbook from a renowned restaurant.

About 7:45 minutes into the video, however, he reveals that one recipe was problematic: a gelatin swirl that fell apart, no matter how many times he made it. Keep watching. He emails chef Grant Achatz, who suggests Hemberger come to the restaurant, where he will demo the dish. To Achatz’s surprise, when doing the demo, the recipe does not work.

But Hemberger is jubilant. He had already figured out that the recipe needed more gelatin. For him, Achatz’s mistake was confirmation to trust his intuition and take ownership of a dish. It meant he knew how to cook.

Now this is a fascinating situation. As recipe developers, we believe different things that sometimes conflict:

1. Readers should follow a recipe exactly to get a good result

2. Recipes should always work

3. Readers should experiment and change the recipe, to learn how to cook and to suit their own tastes.

Hemberger fell into a fourth category: he cooked so much from one cookbook that he knew how to fix a failed recipe. He was pumped. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund publication of a book about his process, called The Alinea Project. The book costs $100. A filmmaker also contacted him to make a film about his process. Hemberger is a new celebrity.

Why does his cookbook need to exist? To quote him, “While my blog contains the hyper-detailed intricacies of each dish, behind it have been questions I’ve asked myself over the years, insights I’ve gained and lots of other stories I haven’t gotten the chance to tell.”

Having read this story, what do you think about the recipe not working, and Hemberger’s reaction? Is it okay to to write recipes that fail, if readers fix them and become more trusting of themselves as cooks?

(Thanks to Cameron Stauch for alerting me to this story. Also, Hemberger’s not the only one who wrote a blog based on the Alinea cookbook.)

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  35 Responses to “Blogger Finds Famous Cookbook Recipe Doesn’t Work, but He’s Happy”

  1. I have encountered erroneous recipes on several occasions, and yes, some of them in high profile cookbooks. It bothers me, especially if I waste my time but when I do catch it before the fact or in time to fix it, I have the same reaction as Hemberger. That said, I fall mostly under the category of not actually following recipes to the T, especially if it something in which I have quite a bit of knowledge. I follow for baking mostly, but not for most cooking. When things go wrong and it was my fault, I admit that too.

    • It sounds like you are an accomplished cook, June, so you know how to fix a recipe. I do feel badly for less established home cooks who make something that doesn’t turn out. That happened to me a lot when I first started cooking in my 20s.

  2. It’s interesting. A friend who was an instructor to first year students at a chefs school found that if he gave the students just the ingredient list and then described to them how to make the dish (instead of following written instructions) the results turned out better. They learned to trust their intuition like Allen Hemberger. As I am in the process of writing my first cookbook I am conscious of trying to find a balance between readers who want something very detailed (ie. how exactly the shallot should be cut when any way is fine as doesn’t affect the recipe) to providing encouragement to veer from the suggested ingredients or apply the technique to some other style of cooking. I think it’s also worth remembering that the recipe may not work for everyone (as they are the variance) but the ultimate goal is to get it as finely tuned as possible so that it hopefully works for everyone.

    • That is fascinating about how students learned to cook without written instruction. Of course, that doesn’t work for a cookbook. It’s hard for chefs to write them, because what’s easy or intuitive or fun for you is not necessarily so for your readers. I don’t think they stress over how to chop shallots, but they might get confused when there are too many options. Chefs can think of 10 ways to make a dish, while recipes are just about one way.

  3. If a recipe fails, not by my own doing, I always suspect the publisher. Were the recipes adequately tested? Was the text copy edited? Properly proofread? Bloggers and self-publishers don’t get a pass, here. When a blogger’s credibility is at stake, why fling something out there that is inaccurate? I just read a blogged recipe for a spin on a lifelong favorite – green beans and almonds, and I SO hope it works!

    • The publisher is not in charge of testing, but yes, errors can creep in during the editing process. Usually though, it’s the author who makes the error in the first place.

  4. There was a time when I worked with a master French pastry chef. Knowing that I had written dessert cookbooks, he shared with me what he considered to be the 3 most important aspects of baking. Number one, technique. Number two, temperature, and lastly, recipe.

    I’m sure we have all had this experience. Someone preparing one of our recipes and “following it exactly.” Then being amazed at how different their results were from anything we had ever made or even visualized.

    This is why I teach cooking classes: sharing techniques and tips that are almost impossible to learn from reading a recipe. As Michael Pollan commented, “One session with a person is worth reading 10 recipe books.”

    • True. I have been to a local Baker’s Dozen meeting here where several people made the same recipe for pound cake and the results were different. Some had a finer crumb, some had a break on top, some were domed, some were flat, some were dark and some were light.

      The problem with cookbooks is that you’re not there to guide students when they have questions. You have to anticipate them all.

  5. Recipes that fail aren’t much fun — we make our own mistakes/experiments already, at least I do! Recipes should be written clearly with enough detail that IF followed accurately, the recipe works. A few months ago I followed a cake recipe from a national women’s magazine that made at least twice the amount of frosting needed for the cake. It would have been ok if the frosting could have been kept for another cake, but it was a meringue that needed to be made and served. That is really annoying and wasteful to a consumer. On the other hand, I subscribe to the idea that recipes are an inspiration and starting point for your own tastes and available ingredients. Not so sure people want a failed recipe to learn from, yet there are also happy accidents that work out!
    This was a great piece Dianne, and a very well done video.

    • Yes, that happened to me too. I made a cake from the Epicurious website and had so much icing left over that I made another cake just to use up the frosting! (Fortunately I needed to bring dessert to a dinner.) I couldn’t figure out how they could get so much frosting on a cake. I couldn’t.

      I don’t like recipe that ask you to make too much sauce or dressing and then tell you to “save it for another time” either.

      Thanks Rosemary. I can’t take any credit for the video, but I agree, it’s very professional.

  6. I am a stickler for recipes and specifically ratios in recipes. To me, if you already know the technique, then it’s not so much the description of how to cook the recipe, but rather the ingredients/amounts that count. For example, I know how to make pastry cream, and I don’t need to read how to make it in a recipe (unless you have some fancy new way of making pastry cream that I am not familiar with). What I want to see is your ratio of milk to yolks to starch. If that’s off, then I get annoyed because either it’s a typo or the recipes weren’t tested, and both of those cases make me sad. This could be a remnant of pastry school training: they distribute recipes without any directions or instructions, and therefore the handouts are just the ingredient list. You are expected to know or to learn the technique, and you are supposed to know how to put together the recipe based on the ingredient list. It could also be because I’m a chemist, and so I think in formulas and I always convert recipes to grams (or moles when I was a chemist). I work out the ratios to better understand what is happening within the recipe.

    • I didn’t know this about pastry school, where they just hand out an ingredients list and students have to figure it out. Cameron mentioned this also. It’s an interesting way to teach, but I can’t see it working in cookbooks. How handy that you are chemist, Janice!

  7. A reader of “Baking in America” wrote me a couple of days ago to say that my recipe for Blueberry Buttermilk Scones didn’t work. The dough was too wet and unworkable. I compared my manuscript with the printed recipe and was horrified to find that there was, indeed, 1/4 cup too much buttermilk in the book’s recipe. So I rushed down to the kitchen and remade the scones with the correct amount of buttermilk and a few other changes. The recipe now works and I’ve posted it on my blog (www.thebakingwizard.com). Whew! I’ll make the changes in the Kindle edition.

    • How terrifying, Greg! This is what every cookbook author fears. They sure look appetizing on your blog. How good of you to make the correction right away.

  8. Testing enough to make sure a recipe works well IF MADE AS DIRECTED is essential–that’s the cookbook author’s job. The necessary testing is hard, tedious, repetitious work and expensive, but there’s no shortcut. The buyer/reader shouldn’t have to know how to cook or fiddle to make the dish come out right, though these skills will certainly help ensure desired results when recipes are not well documented. One more thing–a top-quality recipe must not only work, but be extraordinarily tasty: I always shoot for “best of type,” hoping that my version of caramel pudding or herbed potato soup or fudge sandwich cookies will become the cook’s go-to recipe because it’s the best one of that sort they’ve ever tried. (I don’t always succeed, but do get this response fairly often–which always makes my day!)

    • There are few people who are as rigorous in testing recipes, Nancy. You are not of the school that thinks readers would want to figure out a recipe themselves. You have the traditional approach: leave nothing to chance. You assume if readers want to fiddle with it, they will, but as the writer, you have to be precise and trustworthy. It’s my philosophy too.

  9. As a cookbook writer, this is my worst nightmare. All I can say is that everyone I talk to who writes cookbooks (including me) does ample testing (both ourselves and with outside testers) and editing. But, mistakes do get through the editing process. All of us have “errata” pages on our blogs in case there are problems. So far, I’ve only found one problem in my first book (a pan size was listed at 9″ when it should have been 8″). Am kind of terrified to see if there are any in my second cookbook (it’s not out yet).

    That said, I keep hearing complaints about books full of recipes that don’t work. I honestly don’t understand what’s going on with those books. My publisher (Chronicle) requires recipe testing as part of the contract. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but I guess some people are not doing this as much as one would want them to.

    • I wonder if Chronicle defines what constitutes recipe testing? For many authors, it means they made the recipe to their satisfaction. That could be just once. And it probably makes sense to them, but they do not represent the target reader. Probably most of the errors are fixed in copy edits — at least we hope so.

      Hey, it might be your worst nightmare, Jeanne, but a failed recipe gave this guy the confidence to start a Kickstarter campaign for his own book!

  10. I fall into the category of reading the ingredients, visualizing the outcome and then cooking. At one point in my cooking “career” I finally realized that if I didn’t want to burn my garlic and actually wanted garlic flavor in y food, I should NEVER add it the skillet with the onions that are to be browned – which practically every recipe does. I add it once the onions are done and stir for max one minute That is just one of the changes I always make to recipes. However, baking: I stick to the recipe and I always blame myself if it doesn’t work!

    • Oh yes, that’s a good one. I have burned the garlic so many times. I think one of the reasons is that I am loathe to add the amount of oil specified, when it seems excessive. And high heat, of course. Your solution makes sense.

      And guess what, it is not always your fault.

  11. Well I tend to be the sort of person that is going to end up tweaking every recipe to my own preference somehow anyway and make it my own. That being said though, the first time through a new recipe from a big cookbook, I wouldn’t be too happy after all the time and expense if it was a complete and utter failure. I’m ok with, maybe this could be a little better if I….a,b,c. But if it’s not even salvageable, I’d be less than thrilled.

    • Some recipes are more tweakable than others. It’s all part of the process of trying to discover what we like, what works, and sometimes going for what we have on hand. I’m all for it, but not because a recipe has failed the first time. There’s a difference between “failing” and “I would prefer it a different way.”

  12. Dianne, I’m overjoyed to read this post as I’m currently writing my first cookbook on a fussy subject: baking with alternative and gluten-free grains and flours. I’m having each recipe tested by 2 different testers and my head is spinning with how many variables there are. Different flour manufacturers grind the grains differently. Ovens are wonky and most home bakers don’t have a separate thermometer. People measure differently. Baking vessels’ materials conduct heat differently. And on top of that, people will be swapping ingredients they don’t have access to or are allergic to. Despite my rigorous testing, I know problems will arise. I can only pray that my readers will be as clever and forgiving as Hemberger! Thank you so much for opening this up to discussion.

    • Hah! You may have to invite readers to your home to bake, as Achatz did with Hemberger! Best of luck, Alanna. It sounds like a challenging project.

  13. I always look at recipes as “suggestions” rather than exact calculations. People make mistakes. And it’s good to know that even professional chefs don’t get it right sometimes.

    • You must cook a lot. That’s great, but not necessarily true of the average cookbook reader. Of course, the average cookbook reader isn’t going to attempt any recipes in that cookbook.

      Yeah, there was a bit of shaudenfreude there when the recipe failed, I have to admit.

  14. When I was living in Mexico, there was a particular Chef I admired. I had tried other recipes from her cookbook with great results until I tried her shrimps with mango sauce. When I looked at the amount of chili required my cooking instincts told me that could only be wrong but I decided to trust the recipe anyway. I like spicy food but when I tasted it I thought I was going to lift off and have a heart attack. It took a great amount of liquid for my heart to stop beating so fast. Even then I thought maybe my European taste buds were not appropriate for this recipe. So I called a Mexican friend who was visiting to taste it and when I saw her face changing colours and tears coming to her eyes, I realized I had been right all along. We couldn’t stop laughing but it was a big mistake. I decided to try the sauce again but this time reducing greatly the amount of chili and then it was wonderful. Just the right balance between spicy and sweetness. I think more care should be put on checking for possible mistakes once the book is out.

    • I’ve heard this kind of thing from other people too! It’s so typical that you would first blame yourself — because you expect the recipe writer to be accurate. You did the same thing the blogger did. You figured out how to adjust the recipe so it would work and you could enjoy it.

  15. When I teach cooking classes ….especially baking…I start off asking how many of students have calibrated their ovens lately….most of the home cooks and bakers do not ever have their ovens calibrated…..therefore, the temperature will be different than the recipe calls for….The important messages to non experienced bakers is to not expect perfection with the first trial of a recipe…but keep repeating it with what they have learned from their own experiences in their kitchens….and kitchen equipment…And keep making adjustments. Also…in today’s world of cookbook writing…the photography is so enhanced with lighting, fake coloring and fancy settings that a home baker or cook envisions their end result of a recipe to look just like the one in the cookbook….it is most discouraging for an inexperienced baker or cook to see and compare their product not looking what they see in the cookbook they bought because they loved the photography….and hoped they can produce the same in their first effort..

    • Yes, exactly, Maja, my food stylist friends will get mad at me, but when I speak to home cooks at events I always tell them there’s nothing wrong with their food when it doesn’t come out looking like the photo. Sometimes it seems like we have impossible goals for our readers.

  16. I have 2 experiences with recipes that were wrong. One was in The Cake Bible, and the other was one of Deborah Madison’s books. In both cases, I had all of the ingredients ready to start, and found something in the recipe that seemed off. Believe this or not, on both occasions I found both of their home phone numbers, picked up the phone and called them. I spoke to them each, and they apologized and said that they knew about the error, and were correcting it in the next printing! It was pretty exciting.

    • I’ll say. What a great story, Ellen! You had big ovaries to call them! And they were probably mortified but relieved that a new printing was coming so they could make the change.

  17. I give a one-hour presentation on how recipes fail to communicate. Communication of recipes is a multi-faceted issue based in history, regionality, convention, terminology, personality, and experience. No matter how well a recipe is tested, there will be a certain group of readers for whom the recipe will not work. This may be further compounded by an editor that makes unapproved changes to a recipe prior to printing.

    Recipe communication is further aggravated by the simple issue that knowing how to follow recipes is different than knowing how to cook. As the article states, when Hemberger went off the recipe and used what he referred to as his intuition,”It meant he knew how to cook.”

    The general public feels that they have to follow a recipe in order to cook when the opposite is true. It is much better to learn how to cook than to learn how to follow a recipe. Here is a paper I presented in Oxford this summer about the subject as it pertains to culinary schools.

    • These are excellent points, Peter, for home cooks using a cookbook. In this case, the recipe really did not work, and there’s no way editors would know that, because publishing houses don’t test. I like your point about how knowing how to follow a recipe is different than knowing how to cook. Indeed, because there are so many cooks who don’t follow recipes at all.

      Re this is better than following recipes, yes perhaps, but so many of us would be unemployed if people didn’t follow them.

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