Threshold ingredients

We all love “usable” cookbooks, but “usable” is different for everybody.  And one big part of “usable,” I’ve come to realize, is the availability of specific ingredients.  Each of us carries with us an internal dictionary of the ingredients we consider normal–the ones we know how to get without thinking about it–and a sort of anti-dictionary consisting of the ones we consider hard-to-find or exotic.  I think of these hard-to-find ingredients as “threshold” ingredients, but what I really mean is “beyond the threshold”–as in, the threshold I won’t cross to obtain it.

Every year, I try to expand my “normal” list of ingredients a little bit.  I think it’s pretty decent-sized now.  For example, I know where I can get red fermented bean curd, rendered leaf lard, and habanero chile powder.  At the supermarket, I know the weird corners where you find the malted milk powder, the agave syrup, and the canned hominy.  The week that Whole Foods finally got farro in the bulk section, a Red Alert went off in my brain.

On the other hand, unlike most of America, I can’t find the pet food, sliced bread, or breakfast cereal.  They’re just not on my radar.

So I suddenly realized, when revisiting the very popular Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, that the reason I didn’t find it as approachable as other people seem to was that so many of the recipes had at least one Threshold Ingredient.  Not other people’s thresholds, necessarily, just mine.  For me, Fruity Pebbles is a Threshold Ingredient.  None of my stores carry gelatin sheets (just gelatin powder).  Citric acidand glucose might be there, but it’ll take a knowledgeable stock clerk and long walk.  And till today, I’d never heard of feuilletine, which is basically crushed crepe flakes, and definitely not at any local market I can think of.

This, plus the heavily nested ingredients format (some recipes are little more than a list of 5 other recipes plus assembly instructions) made me leary of the book.  But I’m keeping it on theshelf, in the hopes that as my “normal” list expands, or as my hunger for radical desserts increases, the book will come within range.  And I should emphasize that I certainly don’t mean to disparage the book, or the thousands of readers who seem to have made it their own.

How about you?  What are your Threshold Ingredients?  What ingredient stands out in a list for you and shouts “Don’t Try This At Home!”?  It’s OK–you can share.  There’s no shame in it!

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