Writing 101: Does Your Cookbook Measure Up?

This time of year, about 80% of what I do in the kitchen is based in tradition.

Anyone who says the people get all of their recipes from the Internet these days needs to take look at my bookcase - or those of my friends.

Most of the baking I do for the holidays is based in family favorite cookie and bar recipes. (I'll be honest: I don't do a lot of cooking around the holidays, it's mainly just baking.)

The trouble with this is that old recipes (and a certain number of new ones, for that matter) tend to list ingredients by the way you used to be able to buy them. You often see recipes calling for "a can of sweetened condensed milk" or "a package of chocolate chips." And all of those probably made perfect sense to the people writing them - and their contemporaries.

And the same is most likely true of how you've written out all of your recipes - you've written them for a contemporary audience (as you should).

Don't get me wrong: I think that hand-me-down recipes are incredible. I probably use them about 70/30 over new cookbooks (though that doesn't stop me from acquiring new cookbooks...). Today, though, as companies ever-so-subtly shrink - or enlarge - the contents of their packages, there can be all sorts of issues when you're in the kitchen. Not sure what I mean? Well...

  • The can of tuna I opened for lunch, yesterday, was 5 ounces - the ones I grew up with (which, really, looked the same) were 6 ounces.

  • The standard package of chocolate chips I buy (when not shopping at Costco) is 12 ounces, but the chocolate chip cookie recipe I use calls for "one 6-ounce package" of chocolate chips.

  • The boxed cake mix the mother of a friend of mine uses as her standard base for Christmas cakes has - at least in some areas - changed from 18 ounces to 15 ounces.

I've gotten good (or at least better) at trying to check actual quantities before beginning a recipe, but in some cases it's pretty difficult. I think we've all heard the stories of a great aunt saying that the only measuring cup she ever used was a teacup that she kept in the pantry - and all of her hand-written recipes are based on that. How in the world can you replicate that? I'm a firm believer that time in the kitchen passing recipes from generation to generation is incredible - I know that I feel much more tethered to my past when I'm using the recipes that were handed down, possibly a little worn around the edges, and hand-written or typed out. I'm also a firm believer in making sure that the next generation can actually use the recipes. So, please, if you're working on a cookbook and you come across a "one can of..." or "one packet of..." notation in one of your recipes, do yourself - and everyone who will using your recipes - a favor and make quantity notes. Unless, of course, it's a secret recipe - or the one ingredient that no one knows about but your great aunt. (Though I'm not sure why you'd publish one of those in a cookbook in the first place...)

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