This Book Free *Only* With Any 2 Jars Purchased

Occasionally I come across posts by people who have benevolently shared their favourite recipes with the internet, only to have somebody try it, alter it in some vital particular, and then whinge (on the internet) that it didn’t taste very good.

I will confess before I begin that I have – once – done this myself, commenting that a stir-fry sauce came out rather too sweet for my taste and only remembering some time later that I’d used preserved ginger rather than root. I still think it would have been too sweet, but I will admit guilt in this case. And I can see how frustrating it must be for the poor poster, who is left muttering, ‘Well, if you didn’t put the cocoa powder in how do you expect it to taste chocolatey…?’

At the same time, I have some sympathy for the experimental cook, particularly with some of the more outlandish recipes you get out there. It can be a great help to know that one can tamper with a recipe without having too adverse an impact upon the resulting dish.

Tonight, for example, I am making a ‘West Country Casserole’ from the ‘Schwartz Herbs & Spices Seasonal Hints and Menus’ booklet. It is in the oven at the moment, and I have already altered the recipe in the following three ways:

– the recipe calls for bacon. I got to the fridge and discovered that the bacon was off. Rather than risk food poisoning, I left the bacon out.
– there were several quantities that I didn’t bother measuring. It’s unlikely, for example, that I put in exactly 28g plain flour, 170g carrots or 113g mushrooms. (I am not making any of those up. They’ve obviously converted directly from ounces.)
– none of the herbs or spices (there are three in total) called for were produced by Schwartz, as the recipe specifies.

*pauses to eat it*

And indeed it was excellent, despite the alterations I’ve mentioned above.

Experienced cooks will be screaming by now: of course the Schwartz recipe book wants you to use Schwartz products, and of course it won’t make any difference if you don’t. Of course it’s OK to leave the bacon out: that’s the point of stew/casserole/hotpot. You can leave out any given ingredient, or you can substitute something for something else, and it will still taste wonderful. But to some extent the knowledge of what you can and can’t leave out, of what an ounce of flour looks like, and that most people can’t tell the difference between granulated and caster sugar, is something that can only be gained by experience. You don’t start out cooking knowing all that; you pick it up as you go along.

Not everybody knows this stuff. And for this reason sometimes it’s very helpful to see that an intrepid fellow-cook has got to a recipe before you and has made those mistakes for you. There are remarkably few people who actually want to cook a dish exactly as specified in the book or in the post. There are dietary restrictions, monetary restrictions, practical restrictions. Maybe I don’t have dark soft brown sugar: will the dish be inedible if I use light soft brown sugar? Maybe I don’t have a waffle iron and don’t want to get one just for this dish: would the toastie maker work? Maybe I am cooking for a friend who can’t eat milk products: can I use soya spread, or will it stick to the tin and burn? Maybe I can’t get hold of Bosnian Vegeta: would a bouquet garni do?

It’s extremely useful to know just how far you can stretch a recipe, to see whether it’s even worth cooking in the first place. If it is dust and ashes without seven-year vintage oak-smoked Kazakhstan paprika only available from a very exclusive little shop in York then I’m not going to bother.

And so the commenter who crashes in and says ‘This macaroni cheese recipe was horrible. I couldn’t get Gouda so I used Wensleydale with cranberries instead’ is, perhaps, doing more of a service than the poster thinks. Though they should still think twice before posting.

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