On Recipe Writing and 19th Century Chocolate Caramels

On Recipe Writing and 19th Century Chocolate Caramels

The last session I attended at this weekend’s food writers’ conference was a workshop on recipe writing. I figured as long as I’m writing a cookbook, I may as well make sure I’m doing it right.

During the session, we had quite a lively discussion about how much detail to give in the instructions, during which the instructor, Barbara Gibbs Osterman (coauthor of The Recipe Writer’s Handbook), regaled us with stories from her days as food editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There was the woman who called up because she’d roasted her turkey in the plastic packaging and wanted to know if it was ok to eat. The one(s) who melted an entire stick of butter before measuring out the two tablespoons called for. The one who wanted to know how much cream to add when it said to “cream together the butter and sugar.”

You get the idea: Most cooks today weren’t raised in the kitchen with Mom, Aunt Gussie, and Grandma, as at least the girls were a century ago, which means most of us need thorough, explicit instructions. But on the other hand, studies have shown that most home cooks won’t even attempt a recipe if the instructions are too long. So how do I make sure the recipe works as written, without scaring off the very people who most need the instructions? Beats me, frankly. Even Barbara threw up her hands at one point and said, essentially, no matter how hard you try, somebody’s going to have a problem with your recipe. All you can do is write clearly and make sure that if an ingredient is in the list, it gets used in the instructions.

Given all that, it seemed like quite the coincidence to come home from the conference, turn on the computer, and see Amanda Hesser’s occasional Recipe Redux column in the Times. The conceit of the column is that she pulls a recipe from the archives and hands it off to a well-known chef. They are instructed to use it for inspiration, as a jumping-off point, and create an entirely new recipe. This week, the recipe was Chocolate Caramels, from 1881. And the instructions were as bare-boned as they get—I’ve retyped it, but click through to the PDF for a glimpse of the way things used to be. (And check out the recipe for Pea Soup with Celery beneath it, which a friend pointed out doesn’t actually use any celery.)

Take of grated chocolate, milk, molasses, and sugar, each one cupful, and a piece of butter the size of an egg; boil until it will harden when dropped into cold water; add vanilla; put in a buttered pan, and before it cools mark off in square blocks.

I took this as something of a challenge. How hard would it be for me, an experienced home cook but a novice candy-maker, to follow a truly basic recipe? As it turns out, it was harder than I thought.

When I say “novice candy-maker,” I really mean “eats a lot of candy but has never made candy before, ever.” So I had issues, chiefly with timing. In the recipes I’m writing for my cookbook (which I know, I still haven’t announced officially—waiting on the contract!), I tell readers how high or low a flame to use. I tell whether and when to stir. I provide approximate times for each step. This recipe does none of that. I guessed at the flame (medium to start, medium-high to reach boiling, and medium-low for the actual boil). I stirred frequently and whenever it seemed the pot might overflow. As for the timing, well, it took a good 30 minutes before the mixture hit the firm-ball stage (when a bit of candy, dropped into cold water, immediately forms a ball that’s solid, but still squeezable). I assumed that’s what the recipe intended.

Maybe I should’ve held out for hard-ball.

It refused to set. Even after an hour cooling on the table and two more in the fridge, I was still facing a big pile of sludge. Oozing sludge.

Experienced candymakers: Please help me troubleshoot! Where do you think I went wrong?

And everyone with a sweet tooth: What on earth can I do with this 9×9 dish of Exxon Valdez? I’m sure I’ll think of something, but in the meanwhile I’m open to suggestions.

Oh, and for the record: I used semisweet chocolate, 1/4 cup of butter, cut into pieces, and about two teaspoons of vanilla. When I tasted the caramel toward the end of boiling the molasses flavor was overwhelming, so I melted an ounce of 70% cacao chocolate and stirred it in with the vanilla. Ultimately, the flavor is still more molasses-y than caramel-y, but that could probably be fixed.