Epic fail – anatomy of the recipe that didn’t

I recently tested a recipe of such surpassing inscrutability that I felt it merited a post of its own.  Like last week’s memorable disaster it was a sort of pie.  But unlike last week’s, the fault could not be chalked up to user error.

Kitchen equipment

This one was a pork pie, with ground meat enclosed in puff pastry (yum! I thought.  Foolproof!).  Since I’d already made the puff pastry, I figured it would be a cakewalk.  What it turned out to be was a veritable glossary of mistakes not to make when you’re writing a recipe.  Let’s begin:

  • Ingredients in the instructions but not in the ingredient list:  Having assembled all my ingredients, I proceeded confidently to the recipe.  But when I got to step 7, I read:  “Line the bottom and sides of each crust with 2 pieces of prosciutto.” Prosciutto?!  No one said anything about prosciutto! Surprise!  I skipped it.
  • Ingredients in the ingredient list but not in the instructions: The recipe called for a tablespoon of orange zest, but no zest was to be found later on in the recipe.  I guessed, and added it to the meat filling.
  • Incorrect yield: The quantity of puff pastry, rolled between 1/8″ and 1/4″ thick,  was supposed to yield 8 pies, including pastry lids.  I rolled it thinner than 1/8″ and had only enough for 6 pies and 3 lids.  (Offering the weight of pastry used would have helped.  But equivalent weights were offered for every ingredient except the pastry.)  I improvised lids out of scraps.  On the other hand, I had four times as much filling as I needed.  I made sausage patties to use it up.
  • Specialized equipment: I don’t fault the author for using cake rings, actually, though she should have said what size.  But if you call for specialized equipment, you cannot have an…
  • Alternative that doesn’t work!: The alternative was a muffin pan.  Good choice, I thought.  Everybody has those.  Then I started trying to follow the instructions: line the muffin holes with parchment paper, tie with butcher string, insert 6″ circle of pastry into holes, freeze, line insides with parchment and pie weights.  This leads us to…
  • Inadequate testing:  The laws of physics did not endorse this recipe.  There is no way to stuff a floppy 6″ circle of pastry into a flimsy 3″ parchment cylinder to create a cup shape.  You can do it if you semi-freeze the pastry into the hole first, and then add the parchment–so that’s what I did.  Once you’ve got the parchment cylinder in place, there is no way you are going to get more parchment–and weights– inside that 3″ cylinder to line the pastry.  I don’t see how this recipe could have been tested in a muffin pan.  I have to guess that the author simply baked it in her cake rings and then wrote the alternative, thinking, this ought to work. 
  • Unexplained technique:  “Stamp a 1/4-inch hole” in the pastry lids.  With what – my 1/4″ hole stamper?  You’d need a very strong straw, or a knitting needle or something.  Whatever it is, it needs to be described.  I simply cut an X.
  • Technique required but not offered: We’re instructed to affix the (frozen) lids to the (pre-baked) crusts.  How?  “Press gently”.  This is like trying to stick plastic to wood.  You can press all you like, but it’s not going to stick without adhesive.  Egg wash might work.
  • Timing inaccurate: The pies were done 15-20 minutes before the stated time.  This turned out to be mostly a blessing, since I was now horribly behind and the mob was at the door.
  • Didn’t look like the photograph:  Needless to say.  The author’s final product was a smooth-sided, golden little pot with a neatly vented lid on top, a bit like a chef’s toque.  My wavy-walled, falling-apart, top-askew pie tasted fine, but was not even near ready for its closeup.  The point is that it can’t have been tested as written.

The results? Edible, even tasty, after I fixed the recipe as best I could on the fly.  I’m comfortable working with puff pastry, and I’m used to salvaging dinner out of recipes that are turning sour.  But I don’t think the normal weeknight cook should have to go through this after shelling out $29.95 for the book.

If you’ve read my reviews before, you know I don’t like to go to the dark side, much.  Mostly, I try to appreciate what the author was trying to accomplish.

But what bothers me about a case like this is that I just know the home cook will blame herself for the inevitable disaster that ensues when she tries to scale the fortress of this recipe.  That’s just not right.  Yes, sometimes our own ineptitude is to blame (I think I’ve demonstrated that decisively.)

But sometimes, it’s not you.  It’s the recipe.

I’m not disclosing the name of this recipe or the book it’s featured in for now. The review will likely be running in a few weeks.  

Post a comment


  • PatriciaScarpin  on  April 26, 2012

    That is one book I would love to avoid.

  • geoff@kupesoftware.com  on  April 26, 2012

    I've found that not every recipe in glossy cookbooks have been tested. It seems quantity wins over quality in a haste to publish a book. I can't claim all my recipes on my blog are 100% accurate, but I will describe what I did in as much detail as one should need to follow along. If I'm using a cookbook recipe I often make notes for next time, both on my blog and in the book 🙂

  • Lambsears  on  April 26, 2012

    Poorly (or un) tested recipes in costly cookbooks is a huge bugbear of mine. It happens far more often than it should and once you've coughed up the money for the book you've not got much come-back. At least with recipes on a blog or website it is possible to have a big whinge with the owner.
    And you are so right – the cook will generally blame her/himself when it's not their fault at all.

  • geoff@kupesoftware.com  on  April 26, 2012

    I used to tell my students at the Northwest Culinary Academy that I could easily write one cookbook after another simply by correcting the recipes in other cookbooks. I wasn't kidding. Many, many recipes are poorly written, simply wrong, inadequately tested, or completely untested. So along with preparing the mise-en-place for any given recipe (especially with an author you are unfamiliar with), it's also advisable to go over the instructions and correct them before beginning. …Susan

  • TrishaCP  on  May 2, 2012

    To @lambsears, you can only have a big whinge to blog owners if they don't censor comments to their blog when their recipes don't work! It is disheartening when this happens, but sadly, I have seen this happen.

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