Recipe Reproduction Snafus

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Old recipe collections get me all excited.  The nostalgia of recreating a drink or dish that was enjoyed in days gone by leaves me scratching my head sometimes, though.  Oftentimes ingredients in popular use are not the same throughout history.  Tools, methods of preparation, and even measurements may not even be the same. While going through my deceased grandma’s recipe file box, I ran across several recipes calling for Oleo and had to ask older family members about what in the world this modern vegetable fat butter-replacer was.  This reminded me of how often recipe results differ depending on whether you use margarine, salted butter, or unsalted butter.  Oftentimes a recipe just calls for “butter” without specifying even salted or unsalted.  When a recipe calls for flour, modern flour is probably no where near what was used a century ago.

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If you are “stomping through the Savoy” like San Francisco bartender Erik Ellestad, recreating all the drinks from Harry Craddock’s collection of recipes from London’s Savoy hotel, you have run across defunct ingredients like Forbidden Fruit, Hercules, Caperitif, and Kina Lillet.  Bartenders have tried to recreate these and myriad other ingredients in an effort to sample what a cocktail might have been like “in the good ‘ole days,” but there’s always that nagging feeling of just not hitting the mark exactly.

Product recipes must often change or die as markets evolve.  Sometimes ingredients are no longer allowed or fall out of favor.  The FDA ban on Tonka beans lead to the demise of Abbott’s bitters.  Some swear by the better flavor of older versions of Campari when its red color came from cochineal bugs instead of artificial food coloring.  American whiskey distillers stood by their 100 proof standard of quality for years, but now the market has changed to lean more towards the lighter 80 proof bottlings.  So even if you follow a recipe calling for a specific brand, the resulting flavor today may not be what it was “back in the day.”

The author picking "yellow-ripe" key limes in Baja California Sur, Mexico
The author picking "yellow-ripe" key limes in Baja California Sur, Mexico

When my husband and I were operating our bar in Baja California Sur, Mexico, we had access to the most amazing flavor-packed organic citrus fruit I have ever had in my life.  I realized that my recipes had to be altered to account for the different level of sweetness and acidity in our local fruit.  Also adjustments had to be made for recipes that may have just called for “the juice of half a lime.” Recipes were not the same using our local small, tart key limes compared to the larger Persian limes often found in the U.S.  A recipe calling for the juice of an orange is going to be different depending on whether you use a Florida juice orange, a tangerine, or a navel.

Years ago while recreating food recipes from an old English cookbook, I discovered that a British pint (20 ounces) is not the same as an American pint (16 ounces).  Old cocktail books often mention measuring terms such as a “wineglass,” “pony,” or “jigger.”  Debate exists on exactly what each of those were.  Bartenders can’t even agree on what a “dash” means.  When trying to reproduce cocktails recently for a cocktail competition, talk erupted about how to ensure the drink we were creating was exactly what the submitter intended when we didn’t know what brand of bitters he used, what version of a “dash” was meant, and if the “spoon” was a standard teaspoon or something larger.  If this much detail can be missed in a modern day recipe, imagine how off we probably are trying to reproduce a drink or dish from a 100 years ago.  It sure is fun to try, though!