Dear New York Times "Recipe Redux"

My short love affair with the “Recipe Redux” column in the New York Times Magazine came to an end on Sunday. Fascinated as I am with old recipes, I was thrilled to find a column that dug up ancient treasures like Chocolate Caramels (1881) and this 1904 bouillabaisse swimming in olive oil. The old recipe is followed by a modern update created by a chef, with only one rule, according to Amanda Hesser, the column’s author: “the chefs can improvise with flavors and techniques as much as they want, as long as they can later explain how they got from A to B.” Thus Chocolate Caramels have been transformed into Black-Sugar-Glazed Medjool Dates with Pecorino and Walnuts, while the bouillabaise becomes Olive-Oil Poached Cod with Saffron-Blood Orange Nage.

It’s not the painful inventory of each esoteric ingredient, or the exacting specifications that demonstrate you’re in the know (“dates” aren’t good enough anymore; only Medjool dates will do!), that pushed me over the edge. I’ve grown accustomed to that, since you can’t go to a bar without being forced to order not merely roast lamb but Happy Meadow Farms Lamb with Organic Creek Merlot Reduction and House-Grown Rosemary. And reading ingredients is fascinating to me.

What I can’t abide is “updating” that turns a perfect, simple recipe into a complicated production.

Things started to go downhill with June 6’s Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse (1989). I’ll let the description of the modern version speak for itself:

As with many old desserts, the beauty of the dish is its simplicity. Yet without fail, whenever I’ve sent chefs a dessert recipe from the paper’s 159-year archive, they’ve found this very simplicity troubling. Modern desserts seem to require acid playing against sweetness, crunch jarring the suppleness, bitter challenging creaminess — a flood of contrasting elements that manage to divert our 140-character-length attention span, even if just for a fleeting moment.

So it was no surprise that after making this six-ingredient mousse, Melissa Perello, the chef and owner of Frances in San Francisco, returned with a modern, layered delight: a 12-ingredient, three-part dessert, made up of a ricotta mousse, a strawberry-rhubarb broth, garnish and cookies

Why? Why? Why take a dish whose beauty is in its simplicity and turn it into a “12-ingredient, three-part” monstrosity? It’s one thing if you’re a chef trying to woo customers. It’s an entirely different matter if you’re a home cook trying to put a meal on the table or host a dinner party after work.

Last week’s Saratoga Potatoes (1904) were the end. Saratoga Potatoes are potato chips. (Who knew that’s where they came from?) For the basic recipe, you slice potatoes as thinly as possible, fry in olive oil, and salt. That’s it.

We are told that the updated version, Crackery Potato Bugnes, are “so easy to make and . . . turn out so professionally that you’ll soon be whipping them up for every dinner party.” My version of “easy,” however, does not involve two bowls, chilling dough “for at least one hour and as long as overnight” and . . . well, this:

Using a ruler and a pastry wheel (one with a zigzag edge is nice for this job) or pizza cutter, cut long strips 1 to 1½ inches wide, then cut the strips at 2-inch intervals. (Again, size isn’t really important and the shape is flexible — you can make long strips, triangles or squares.) Using the tip of a paring knife, cut a lengthwise slit about ¾ inch long in the center of each piece. Lift the pieces onto the baking sheet. When you’ve filled the sheet, just cover the dough with another piece of wax paper and keep going. Roll and cut the other half of the dough and place these pieces on the baking sheet as well, separating the layers with wax paper. You should have about 60 bugnes. Chill for at least 1 hour or for as long as overnight.

I won’t be spending two hours chilling and God only knows how many agonizing minutes cutting up 60 slices of dough into cute little shapes for my next dinner party unless a fairy brings me a maid with far more patience and time than I possess.

Ms. Hesser needs to send those recipes to me. As God is my witness she will get an updated version for those potato chips: Britt Farms Yukon Golds Fried in Real North Carolina Pork Fat with Roasted Garden Jalapenos and Garlic.

Hmmm–I need to work on that . . .

3 thoughts on “Dear New York Times "Recipe Redux"

  1. I have to say that if your recipe includes the phrase “using a ruler and a pastry wheel” anywhere in it, you forfeit the right to say “easy to make” anywhere else.

    Also, in a totally unrelated matter, someone posted this link and I thought of you:

    http://www.angryflower.com/aposter3.jpg

    In other news, I had my flu shot yesterday and am still running a fever of about 100. I really hope I'm feeling better tomorrow, but I'm afraid you might want to make a hotel reservation just in case. 😦 I'll call tomorrow and update you on my state of health.

  2. The apostrophe cartoon is BRILLIANT. I may have to make it my new icon.

    Thelma sits next to me purring, only biting me occasionally because I am paying attention to the computer and not to her.

  3. I enjoyed the post, Jami. This all reminds me of my fruitless quest to find a good, basic chocolate cake. Another Thyme had one, but they are out of business now. –Paul

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