Baker, Cook, Writer, Pursuer of Gastronomic Joy

Recipe Riffing

There was a time in the not-too-distant past where the thought of “eyeballing” a measurement or substituting an ingredient – let alone multiple off the cuff changes – would have had me giving a look of skeptical fear at such brazen culinary risk taking. Part of what has long been comforting about cooking for me has been the loving arms of a recipe always there to guide me towards guaranteed success. If I did everything right – scooped the flour into the cup before back-of-the-knife leveling, brought out the 1/8 teaspoon for that little bit of allspice – I would be rewarded with exactly what was promised. I had similar feelings about acting. I loved doing plays where I had the script to tell me exactly what to say, the director to tell me where to stand, with the same expected from everyone else I interacted with as my character through the course of the play. But when it came to improv games I nearly always opted out if I could. I certainly never joined the improv troupes of my high school or college. And no class filled me with more anxious anticipation than the required improve class I would have junior year. A dogmatic adherence to rule-following and generalized anxiety combined to make me unwilling to abandon the comfort of the page.


But just as a semester’s worth of improv helped get me intuitively incorporating humorous callbacks via space-work, a pandemic’s worth of cooking has gotten me fiddling with ingredients, temps, and times so intuitively I sometimes don’t register I’m doing it. I try my best not to tweak too much on the first go at something, especially when it is not of my culture or akin to the repertoire I have been frequenting for years. Any adjustments made there are more out of grocery-based necessity, and even then, I’m more likely to put a dish off to a time when I can really try it as it’s meant to be. We’ve all seen those comments on recipes that are something along the lines of “This is awful! I changed every ingredient and did an entirely different cooking method and it didn’t come out right at all! Why Would anyone print this?!”, clearly ignoring the essence of what makes that dish work because they didn’t take the time to really get to know it in an act of gastronomical hubris. But once I’ve familiarized myself with a dish in both theory and practice, I start to shake in unmeasured amounts of cumin, substitute sour cream, Greek yogurt, buttermilk, or whole in whatever ways feel right, and re-arrange mixing methods for results more to my liking. By the time we sit down to eat and I’m asked what’s in it, a glance at the inspiring recipe is only so helpful as I try to recall what got increased, decreased, nixed, or added. And while I am trying my best to write down the times new things work and what exactly I did, it is difficult to quantify the feeling of a mount of salt in the small cup of my hand when it hasn’t encountered a measuring device, or how the edge of a spatula should feel when testing some bread to flip. I shake and stir as my body tells me is right.



Even as I felt my cooking more frequently depart form the page, I was sure that when baking, I would still be recipe-bound. Surely there would always lie the manifestations of my love for direction. Yet there, too, ingredients and measurements are now occasionally taken as suggestion, and I find myself relying more on my knowledge of what I am making and what we like and adjusting along the way, than finding a recipe that feels perfect because it has what I want. If I know I want a cheesecake that uses fewer eggs and different cheeses than the recipes we have for the kind we want, then why not just do that? If I’m looking at the crust and my gut is telling me I should add more pistachios, chances are I should add more pistachios! The world will not burn (unless I put them under the broiler to toast and forget about them…in which case it very much might).


As I’ve noticed this development in my cooking style, I find myself thinking of the stories my Mom has often told me of her mother’s way in the kitchen. As she tells it, my Grandma on her side made few things particularly well. Many things were burned, and many pots boiled over. But what she did make well was quite good, and not what you would expect. She couldn’t make a pot of rice, but she had a darn good lemon meringue pie. It was the simple things that never came out quite right and the classically complex where she excelled. I often wonder if perhaps it was because these dishes were known to be tough that she took extra care to devote time and attention to them that was not usually given to the nightly dinner, and this allowed such technically notorious dishes to actually turn out well. Perhaps too, it was clearing the mental space to work in harmony with the ingredients, to be present in the process that helped her alter when the weather or quality of ingredients called for it in order to still turn out right. Dinner can sometimes feel like a daily surprise with prep time sneaking up on you, but a dish for a special occasion is an activity in itself. In either case, she was not doing a lot of creative tweaking in the kitchen. If anything, deviations from a recipe were likely damage control.


The relationship with recipes on my father’s side of the family, though, was a different story. It’s been told that Nana, my great-grandmother, was an accomplished cook. At least good enough that she would get asked for her recipes. But no matter how closely these were followed, they would never be able to come out the way Nana could make it. It turns out that this was not purely nostalgia and idealization playing tricks on the tongue, but purposeful sabotage. While she shared what looked to be the recipe, she would omit one ingredient or alter an amount so that she alone would be the only one to truly know how to make this dish. She would even carry her own spices around with her so she could add them at her will. She was not so much a recipe-riffer as a recipe gate-keeper, not letting the real one be released to even be riffed upon.


In this way I have felt close to my family matriarchs as I carve my own new relationship to recipes, the main difference being that my neglect to set a timer and rely on a semi-regular check in with the clock has not (yet) resulted in burnt rice, and my failure to accurately share recipes is not purposeful. Regimented mise en place-ing has fallen to the wayside in favor of chopping in order of sauté time and putting years of dance and movement classes to use as I efficiently pivot between the pantry and the island to measure and re-shelf spices, extracts, and oils. It is all the highs and lows of a mini-marathon. There is no taking a break once the journey has begun. The object in motion (me) must stay in motion until all dishes are on the table. Any spare time not spent fiddling, riffing, or actively stirring is filled by cleaning-as-I-go, interrupted by spurts of remembering what I had forgotten I had mused would go well just in time and gliding over to prep and cook it to be ready in time with everything else. I replace the comfort of a recipe and assured quality achievement for the performer’s high of improvisation and inspiration. And just like any improv show, perfect re-creation is impossible, as I neglect to take note of my additions and substitutions, barely able to list the complete list of ingredients when asked as we gather around the table, still mentally in the grooves of cooking motion.

I’m working on documentation when it matters in hopes that I’ll be able to share some of the work I’ve done honing flavors these many months of daily cooking. Every once in a while, I make an effort to decipher the scant info a managed to jot in my notes app, or even on paper in my meal-planning book, and transcribe them into something actually followable in the future. But without this newfound capacity for culinary risk taking, such recipes wouldn’t be there to be worth documenting anyway. So, I hope to maintain a moderation between creativity and fastidiousness, continuing to try the new and unexpected while taking care to remember it so it can be shared. And maybe I’ll set timers again, just to be safe.

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