Several times per day, we get people who come into the shop, recipe in hand, asking for something like “five ounces of Gruyere, please.” That’s great, and we are thrilled to have the business and very happy to help. However, more often than not, whoever came up with the original recipe more than likely is not an expert on cheese. That is not their job. “Gruyere” is quite a big category (as is Cheddar, Manchego…), and they are almost never specific about which brand they used, how old it was, and what time of year it was made. Did they mean five ounces of weight or volume? Shredded or in one piece? Was that five ounces with the rind or without? All of these things make a difference in the final taste of your recipe; sometimes drastically so. We try to be helpful and ask what the recipe is so we have a better idea of what they actually might need and sometimes customers are extremely receptive to this, but sometimes not so much. “The recipe calls for five ounces of Gruyere and that’s just what I want.” Sigh, I just hack them off about 1/3 lb. of whatever will make them happy.
We have actual experts that work here that can be extremely helpful if you just give us a chance. The point of this to me is that recipes should be looked at as more of a general guideline for your dish, rather than an inerrant bible that can never be deviated from out of a fear of failure.
I recently listened to an eye-opening interview with world-renowned chef, Jacques Pépin. Jacques Pépin gets it.
He spoke at length about his famous recipe for poached pears in caramel sauce.
“If the recipe had been followed to the letter, the finished dish would have been a disaster, but understanding the idea in the platonic sense behind the dish enables the cook to adjust and compensate for ingredients, temperature, humidity, et cetera.” It seems to me that you must first get the feel of what the finished product is supposed to taste, look, feel, and smell like, then experiment a little to tweak things until you achieve your goal. Who knows, it may come out better than the original!
I have been trying lately to make a very traditional Breton pastry called a Kouign Amann for the shop. It is quite difficult (for me). Attempt one was a total disaster and I turned the failed experiment into something more like scones. They were good scones, especially with butter, but a complete failure as Kouign Amanns go. My next attempt came out much better, but the dough was way too dense. They were delicious, but not nearly as airy as they should be.
I’m on my third attempt now, and I realized that I need more flour, I have to wait for the butter to soften more before I fold it, I need a better rolling pin, and I generally suck at laminating the dough. But I will get better because I’ve never done this before and I am not afraid to fail. I learn more each time I do.
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