Recipes that “work”

Posted in John's Current Blog on July 4, 2023

Hanoi; 4th of July, 2023:

About a week ago when I posted my oatmeal raisin cookies on social media, Faith Willinger, whose seminal books on the foods of Italy — and where to find them — are marvelous, wrote on my page, “Your recipes always work.” It was a huge compliment and flattering. I have always prided myself on the fact that the recipes I have published have been checked by me three times. But my 4th book, “Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah: Dining at Home in the Lowcountry” (Clarkson Potter, 1997) was put together as I visited 15 homes — 5 in each city — where I looked at the d├ęcor and tableware and then proceeded to prepare a meal using fresh, local foods that were appropriate to the season and the setting. Ergo, everything I cooked, from the breads to the desserts, were made on the spot (We had but one day to photograph in each house) from recipes that I already knew how to make. But Faith’s comment had me wonder about the recipes in CBS (as I refer to the book), so I decided to cook my way through it, beginning with the first meal of cold curried squash soup, fried catfish, red rice, butterbeans and okra, and this simple plum tart which I began with (I have recently cooked the red rice and vegetables. Next up: the squash soup.) The tart is simply lovely and very easy to make. The dough is a little different from the usual dough I use for crostata, but this is more at a French tarte aux prunes. Nothing but plums and a bit of sugar as filling. The glaze is plum jam melted with a little bourbon. Thank you, Ms. Willinger, for your faith in me!

Cold Curried Squash Soup. Photo by Kelly Bugden

The above is what I posted on social media. I would be amiss, however, if I didn’t say that recipes are guides and there are many roadblocks you might meet on your quest to perfectly duplicate a written recipe — especially one that is accompanied by a professional photograph. In the late 90s I was working on a book of southern desserts and finally threw in the towel because even though I am a decent baker, I found that every bag of flour and every oven is different. The humidity of the day and the age of the flour and baking powder can affect results. Yeast is notoriously fickle and some sterile kitchens hamper growth; others have so many wild yeasts in them that no yeast need be added. When I am baking, I can usually tell if a dough is too dry or too wet and I can adjust the recipe as I go along. But translating those skills into a written recipe is a nearly impossible task. I always urge readers to read a recipe all the way through and understand all of the steps of the task at hand before beginning. And to assemble the “mise en place” — all the tools and ingredients — beforehand. And don’t be afraid to improvise. I’m sure that I improvised this tart when I made it in Charleston in 1996. I wrote down what I did, and probably cooked it again and again before publication. But I don’t know that recipes really “work” other than to give a roadmap that, when followed, should take the cook to the finish line with a dish that resembles what the author intended. But basil in Genoa doesn’t taste like the Genoese basil you grow in Arkansas and the “cake flour” I buy in Asia bakes up nothing like the soft southern flours like White Lily.

The raisin cookies that prompted Faith’s comment.

I’m honored that Faith has had success with my recipes, but I wonder what the oatmeal raisin cookies she makes using my recipe in Florence, Italy, where she lives, would taste like next to the ones I made last week here in Hanoi. And I’m sure neither taste like the ones I used to make back home in Charleston. The raisins available in all three places are very different.

And then there are the unfortunate editing/publishing errrors. In CBS, there is a recipe for ham biscuits — a classic southern bread stuffed with country ham tempered with chutney and mustard. It’s really a dually leavened yeast roll that appears at weddings and funerals throughout the region. We changed the menu from a big family dinner to a hunt breakfast for six and in doing so we (me, my editor, the copy editor) somehow forgot to halve the amount of liquid in the recipe. Errata cards went out with the book, but they often fell out of the book. I never had but one person say something to me about it. I guess, like me, they realized the recipe was too wet and added flour to make the dough right.

Here are some photos of the tart — in progress with the photo from the book and the finished product. The plums here are very different from the ones back home, but the recipe seems to have worked:

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