Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

22 February 2007

Recipes on the Web—A Lament, an Attempt at Obedience, and an Apple Cake Some of You May Want to Try

My editor told me the other day that they're probably going to want to remove most of the recipes from my upcoming food memoir. The book's too long, I think. They suggested that I post the recipes on my website instead. I'm sort of sad about this. I think that recipes are an integral part of one's story. Or mine, anyway.

And, personally, I prefer recipes in books to recipes on the web. I don't like that there are so many recipes out there in the first place. Whenever I google something I want to make, I get that sinking hopeless feeling akin to the one I get in bookstores when, having gone blithely in for something to read, it suddenly occurs to me that there are so many books. So so many forgettable books. How will I ever choose just one? (Worse, why should I even bother to add my little offerings to the pile?)

That said, I do bother to write, both books and this blog, and my attitude toward them is so different. The web is so ephemeral-seeming. Somehow it seems a waste of time. I keep thinking, I should be putting this in a book. And then, I start a new little collection of essays for some future book. Currently, I'm working on a collection of Genesis essays, which began with my last post.

I also don't like the relative lack of authority of web recipes. Of web anything. Recipes in cookbooks carry with them the personality and habits and voice of the writer of the cookbook. Reviews of cookbooks often include information about whether or not the recipes actually work. On the web recipes are just bodiless, personality-less voices, often without names. Often there is even a disclaimer that no one has tried the recipe out in a test kitchen, so the website is not responsible for whether or not they are reliable.

Then, on top of that, there are frequently comments, readers who have objections or suggestions about this or that. A recipe dialogue it becomes to me, rather than a real recipe, and, while that may sound like a nice thing, like those recipes of our grandmothers and great grandmothers passed down and edited in each generation, for me such recipes start to mishmosh together into something like the food at chain restaurants: a cacaphony of ethnic and personal influences that seems always to include cheese, pleasant sometimes, but in no wise distinctive or personal like the food from a friend's kitchen. I prefer to stop at each new edition of a recipe and get to know just that one entry into the food, before being bombarded with all the ways I could change it from how it was supposed to be. I like savoring not just the culinary instruction of each new voice but the personality and priorities that power it, the life behind the voice that wants things richer or lighter or quicker or more redolent of an almost forgotten memory of childhood.

And anyway, I never do exactly what a recipe says myself—even though I do listen to each voice, do weigh and consider each suggestion. So, having all those tongues weighing in on how the recipe might be better—or simpler, or lower in calories or fat or sugar, or more like some anonymous woman's dead aunt used to do it—makes my own contribution to the evolution of the recipefeel like just another of many, and thus voiceless. Recipes are important, I think, representing—no, incarnating—the evolution of a culture. Incarnating a memory of a particular woman in a particular kitchen. (Yes, I know there are men who cook, but that only really started being the case when cooking evolved from the love-chores of mothers and grandmothers into a profession that could generate glitz and fame and money. In the kitchens of the wealthy, the kitchens of kings and millionares and fancy restaurants where cooks are not cooks but chefs who are known by name, cooking became something I'm not particularly interested in. A confection. A set of rules. An oeuvre. A game for hobby-gourmets. Something with which to impress one's acquaintance and far removed from the homelier comforts found, if we are among the lucky, in the kitchens of our childhoods.)

If I want to use a recipe from the web—to get back on track here—I have to either print it up before I start cooking—a task often entailing copying and editing and pasting the recipe into a Word document so that it will print efficiently—or else run back and forth between my computer and the stove. Both tasks take me out of the kitchen, into the stress and chaos of that other life of mine, where I run here and there and cut and paste and fiddle with email and websites and all the voices of the world. Cooking is the opposite for me. It has always been, from my childhood, an escape from this sort of chaos. An inward act. I prefer to prop up the book right there in the kitchen with me, jotting down the changes I make to it as I go for future reference. A recipe isn't really a recipe, to me—isn't really one to which I will return again and again—until it's been baptised with spatters and rendered transparent here and there with droplets of grease and maybe even burned a bit at the edges, as most of my favorite cookbooks are.

So, I'm not sure where my editor and I will end up in this debate. I'm also not sure how many recipes are too many. But, in the spirit of obedience—or, in any case, a trial run—I have decided to offer you all a recipe for the cake I made for my students today. The class I'm teaching this semester meets only once a week, for two and one half hours, so we make tea and I always bake something.

My friend Susan gave me this recipe as "Washington State Apple Cake. It's widely available elsewhere on the web, and, if you want to google it, you will find versions probably closer to how the recipe started out in Susan's kitchen. Her recipe had a rich cream cheese frosting, but I think that's overkill and also covers up the pretty, crusty, meringue-like top that magically forms on the cake—the best part of the recipe. So, I have omitted the frosting here. I have made other changes to the recipe in my version, such as cutting down the cinnamon significantly. Now I usually leave it out entirely. And I put the nuts on top of the batter rather than in it so that they get all toasty tasting. And I only use canola oil, which lends the cake a curiously intense walnutty flavor. The resulting recipe is, in other words, entirely my own.

Also, to save time and dishwashing, I do the whole thing with my food processor, starting with the apples using a slicing disk, then chopping the nuts, then mixing the batter. However, you can use a hand held mixer to make the batter if you don't have a food processor and then just chop the nuts and slice the apples by hand.

Crusty Apple Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice, sprinkle with the juice of 1/2 a lemon, and spread out in a buttered, floured 9 X 13 pan:

  • 5 or 6 apples, skin and all—or peel them first, if you object to skins
Food process or beat until thick and light:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 c. sugar
Add and continue processing/mixing until light and creamy:

  • 1 c. canola oil
  • 1 t. vanilla

Add all at once and process/mix until smooth:

  • 2 c. flour
  • [1/4 t. cinnamon—I often leave this out, for a purer, nuttier, more intensely apple flavor.]
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt

Pour, or rather scrape, batter over the apples, then top with

  • 1 c. walnuts, coarsely chopped
Press the nuts down slightly into the batter to make sure they will sink in enough not to fall off as they bake. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour—by which time the cake will have formed its distinctive meringuey crust. Cool in the pan. Unsweetened whipped cream—or whipped cream ever so slightly sweetened with sugar in which you have stored a scraped out vanilla bean—would be good with this, as a more formal dessert than the baked goods grabbed up in my class.

Hope some of you try this for the people you love through food. It makes a big cake—the sort of cake you might serve at a meeting of your friends or colleagues or at church more than at an intimate family meal (unless your family is huge). Whoever eats it will like the intense nut flavor and the interesting contrast of soft, tart apples with the crusty, nutty topping.

[Don't bother to tell me how it can be improved. I know it can and hope it will be in your kitchen. But let the details remain a matter between you, God, and the people you cook for. Do let me know what you think about getting recipes from the internet in your own experience. I'm not sure I'm on the right track on this. I know getting recipes from the web is widely practiced. So somebody out there must think it's the best contribution to culinary progress since—hm, got to pick just the right cliché here—poached eggs served on a bed of creamed spinach and onions, with a toasted and buttered English muffin on the side.]


Spring said...

I don't cook much, so I can't really say anything with much authority on my habit of only using recipes from the internet. But, I will let you know that if you pull a recipe from www.foodtv.com, they have a handy print screen feature, which will cut down on your cutting and pasting woes significantly.

One major drawback of printing recipes from the internet is that I either end up with a bunch of papers floating around my kitchen (which drives my husband CRAZY), or I simply throw away the recipe once I'm finished with it. But that may just be me and my major organizational flaws.

I found a blueberry pie recipe from the Food Network website that rocks my world. The filling is blueberries, flour, sugar, and lemon juice. I have it memorized now, but for some reason I still print off the recipe every time I make the pie. I'm also in love with Paula Deen's The Lady's Mac and Cheese.

I do have several cookbooks, but I don't use them, for whatever reason.

While I'm no cooking authority, I can provide you with a bit of blogging encouragement. The internet is actually quite a permanent place, more permanent than people suspect. One of the funny things about blogging is that entries tend to float around to places you never dreamed of when you wrote them. They can be forwarded through e-mail and linked to on other sites until your blog comes up in the top five on a google search for some goofy phrase such as "NBC5iWeather." I'm pretty much the only thing that comes up with phrase, actually. Which is unfortunate for NBC5iWeather (the Dallas NBC weather station), since most of my entries regarding their weather forecasting abilities are quite derogatory. It's likely that most of what I've written and am writing now will come back to haunt me in ten years when I apply for some government job. I'm also just a little bit afraid that Barack Obama could be some sort of terrorist (God forbid), and my loud support of him could get me blacklisted someday.

I guess what I'm saying is that my meager opinions are catalogued well. And I'm not quite sure how to feel about that.

Spring said...

P.S. Is today your birthday? Because my Episcopal Church planner tells me that it's the day of Polycarp.

If it is, happy birthday!!!

Patty Kirk said...

Those Episcopalians. They always get things slightly wrong. I mean, I love the Catholic mass, but I can't bear the Episcopalian liturgy. It's like listening to music that is slightly out of key. The correct saint day for Polycarp is 26 January, which is also the national holiday of Australia. Perhaps that's why the Episcopalians changed it—so that we wouldn't get mixed up in our celebrations.

The proper food, by the way, for celebrating Polycarp's and my day is bread. Here's why. According to eye-witness accounts, poor Polycarp, when they finally managed to kill him, smelled like bread baking in an oven rather than like burning hair and clothes and flesh. I like that detail of his martyrdom. I won't add a bread recipe here but will instead recommend the book that I follow religiously in making bread: Carol Field's THE ITALIAN BAKER. Clearest book on real bread out there. Sourdough breads with a chewy crusts and a dense crumb full of irregular-sized holes. Start with the bread from Puglia.

Katy said...

I don't cook much from the Internet, and I'll tell you why. It's because my mom's stacks of sticky books appeal to me much more than the neatness of the Internet. I KNOW those recipes (my mom's) work and are delicious because there are so many little splashes or grease and hints that they have been used over and over and modified and such. The page with no writing on it and that doesn't fall open naturally when you flip the cover might NOT be the one you want to use. The recipe I want to use is the one that you can tell is awesome just from looking at the smudges on the page.

I guess I usually just figure the Internet might get it wrong. I'm just as likely to find a recipe from someone wonderful like Paula Deen as I am to find one from someone who doesn't have a freaking clue what they are doing in the kitchen.

That's all I got.

darby said...

i'm disgruntled with your editors. they're wrong about the recipes.
i hope they read this.

Spring said...

That is too funny about the bread detail. Don't you feel sort of cannibalistic when you eat bread on your birthday? I wouldn't be able to bear it. I usually get strong cravings when reading about particular foods (and even when NOT reading about particular foods, such as that time in high school when all I wanted was a caesar salad for several weeks as we did a unit on Caesar, or that time in college when I inexplicably craved yogurt-covered pretzels the whole time we read Milton's Paradise Lost). But I believe reading about a body smelling of bread as it burned would completely ruin the whole bread genre for me. Especially if burning flesh and hair is mentioned nearby.

At any rate, happy very late birthday. :) And thanks for the cookbook recommendation.

Spring said...

Another P.S. January 26 on my Episcopal calendar is Timothy and Titus. haha. It's completely messed up.

Jennifer said...

If the voices of the few have any influence at all, I'd like to pipe up my support in the 20 millionth war of "Kirk vs the Pruning Shears". Not merely because I have eaten your apple goodness (and oh, how dearly I miss having both you and your food in classes). The merits of books over screens are boundless, and one would think that publishing editors would be aware of such truths -- perhaps they don't cook, but just sit around and chew on fibrous rejected manuscripts?

Most of the best reasons for publishing the recipes have already been posted, so I won't waste valuable net space restating them. But I have to say, separating the essays from the recipes that inspired them seems little short of parasitic ... removing the juice of the essay to leave behind a still beautiful but drier husk. Bah. I have to admit, it's the trend towards minimizing that scares me away from publishing companies. And most hairdressers.

treetalkthai said...

Hi, Patty.
I am a tactile person. I really like the hands-on experience of a "real" cookbook. I do have some recipes that I found on the internet (and love them!), but I really do prefer books.

Maybe the fact that I'm 42 comes into play...I'm not wired like the younger generation.

I appreciate you sharing so many deep and sacred things. Your writing speaks to me.