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As I was looking through my mom’s red recipe book, a question came to mind.
It’s a book filled with recipes she’s collected over the years — your typical family keepsake. I stumbled upon “Cake (for cake custard),” which is one of my grandma’s sister’s — my Banu Ma’s — signature creations.
Cake Custard is a sponge cake that has been soaked in custard. The custard is then topped with custard or fruit, and served with jelly. It might seem easy, or even boring, but the perfect custard and perfectly soaked cake make it all come together.
The recipe said, “One large spoonful of flour, one large teaspoon of sugar.” I laughed. Although I’d grown up watching my mom and grandmas cook using inferences and instincts, I’d learned to cook predominately with cookbook recipes — specific volumes, no guesswork. I found the recipes of my aunties and grandmas, which were filled with seemingly random instructions and measurements, absurd.
Is a good recipe required to look exactly like the ones in today’s cookbooks. Cookies that ask you to pack brown sugar; cakes that tell you how to adjust your flour level; and banana bread recipes that include a half-cup of chocolate chips. What is the secret to a great recipe?
(Submitted By: Nasima Fanty)
It seemed impossible to convert these recipes into Banu Ma’s. But I determined it was possible. My Banu Ma made a delicious Cake Custard, which I was able to confirm from personal experience. Although I trusted her to make it for me, I wasn’t sure I could trust her written instructions.
Her only other recipe that I had tried was for a cumin-laden spaghetti. It turned out to be a success. But measurements like “one biryani-spoon of soy sauce,” and an omission of cooking times and even some steps — which, while not critical, I had to have conveyed verbally (I asked my mom) — required me to make some inferences on my end. I was left to my own devices for much of the recipe. I also knew that baking recipes, which have specific techniques and chemical leaveners, were more delicate than those for savoury foods.
Half-jokingly, I told my mom about my plans. She noticed my apparent hesitancy and assured me that Cake Custard had been a hit when she made it before. I was unable to recall my mom making it so her comments were not comforting.
My experiment started with my expectations checked.
(Submitted By: Nasima Fanty)
I began to rummage through my utensil drawer in search of a large spoon with the right depth. After finally finding one, I continued my search. To ensure that I wasn’t over- or under-packaging the ingredients, I measured out the flour and sugar. To get the best experience, I used a teaspoon to add baking powder and vanilla extract.
Although I was able to get the cake into the oven, it was a “bake until done”, recipe that I didn’t expect. I still needed to calm down. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and had my cake tester ready. I trusted the tester and took the cake out at 12 minutes.
Then — as per my mom’s instruction, rather than an instruction in the recipe — I left the cake out to cool overnight. The next morning, I took a huge sniff of it and then stopped. “Mom! Does it smell like eggs?” I called.
“Oh yes, it smells weird and tastes strange before you add the custard. Don’t worry!” She said, “Don’t worry!”
I found the answer I was searching for.
The final product, just like Banu Ma’s cumin-laden noodles, smelled and tasted incredible. The strawberry jelly was delicious with the custard-infused cardamom cake. Everything about it was perfect, from the texture to the taste to the way it held up in the freezer.
I began to reflect on the success and my initial skepticism about the recipe, which was based largely on it reading differently than the recipes I accepted as the norm. Banu Ma’s recipes were something I’d been using for years, having been taught by North American cookbooks which have, historically, not included BIPOC representation. Contrary to what they thought, a recipe doesn’t lose validity if it uses measurements and cues that are not standardized. It is also valid if the recipe was handed down through oral tradition rather than written. It is common for family recipes to be passed along to close friends and allow for certain things and others to easily be clarified between the writer/reader. Despite my doubts, I had everything I needed to make this recipe work. It was clear to me that Banu Ma, as well as many other people we turn to for traditional recipes and family favourites, are amazing recipe developers.
Maybe their recipes actually are better?
Instead of telling you how much of a specific ingredient to use, your auntie or grandma might advise you to search for a desired color or smell. It makes more sense to give instructions than to specify how much. Recently, I had to add almost a teaspoon of asafoetida in a recipe calling for an eighth teaspoon. Ours was very old and had lost much its distinctive pungency. It can happen to many ingredients in any one of our kitchens.
We look for the right measurements and proportions when we prepare a recipe. Although family recipes might use small amounts of ingredients, they are not necessarily precise. However, when applied correctly, the key proportions work. They were likely written to be easy to understand and can be used by generations. They did maybe the most essential jobs that recipes have — they were passed down.
Family recipes are wonderful because, if you’re lucky enough, the recipe developer is available to you. Before the pandemic, I would often join Banu Ma at the kitchen. I can vividly recall watching her make sev, sweet vermicelli dishes, and nearly fainting when I saw the amount of sugar and ghee that went into them. I also loved that she let me make bhajias that my parents would not allow me to attempt. It’s something I miss, but we can still communicate via phone and video until we get back together. Even if I or anyone else has to make do with what is available, one of the great things about family recipes are the opportunities to discuss how it went and perhaps even share a revised version with your family. If a recipe does not turn out the way you wanted, you can complain to them.
Do not get me wrong. I still have plans for a comedy about some of the more ridiculous instructions. But I also plan to keep the red recipe notebook handy more often when I make Gujarati dishes. I will treat it and the recipes within it with greater respect.
High school student Nasima Fancy lives in Toronto. She is often found writing articles about politics, history, comedy, and entertainment.
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