"We say 'what's the recipe?' when we really mean 'How exactly did you do it?' ........The recipe is the totality of the activity, the real work... the recipe is to spend your life cooking." Adam Gopnik.
I decided to commemorate my mother's birthday with a cake that she always loved to make, a sponge cake filled with strawberry quark cream. However, I could not find the recipe. Leafing through her original handmade recipe collation didn't help. It wasn't there. She usually cooked from recipes, but perhaps this was something that she created herself, so there may not have even been a written recipe.
It had to be that cake that I made for her birthday, as this cake was the one she made for everyone else on their birthday. It was up to me to piece it together from a range of sources. I had my memories of watching her make it, I had my taste memory of what the flavours were, I could remember some of the key ingredients, and I had similar modern recipes I could draw on.
The cake that I finally produced was pretty close to the one she would make, but perhaps I had improved on it and made it my own. This is how I did it:
- Search for similar recipes: I had to google different variations of strawberry quark sponge cake, and searched Pinterest for some time to find something that I thought was similar. There were almost endless variations to a sponge recipe, but I just had to pick one to start with, try it and see if the texture, consistency and flavour was what I was after, based on my memory of what it was like to bite into the sponge. In the end, I found a sponge recipe that I liked, and had good consistency. It didn't matter too much that it wasn't exactly the same, but it was a suitable recipe to work in with the recipe as a whole.
- Identify key ingredients: I had watched my mother a few times when she made the cake, so I knew it had a few hallmark ingredients that were indispensable. They had to be included, or it would not work. If you know these ingredients, write them down. Even if you know the brands, that can be helpful in sourcing original ingredients or working out suitable substitute or equivalent brands. For my recipe, the key ingredient was quark. The original product had not been produced for some time, but had managed to find some organic quark that was being sold in one of my local shops. I tried it out and it worked beautifully. If you are trying to source specialty ingredients, it may take a while to find who might stock it. Make phone calls to the stores where you might think it can be stocked, or ask others who might cook with those ingredients too.
- Produce Seasons: The other essential ingredient for the quark cream was berries, and I wanted to make this cake at the end of winter when berries were extremely expensive and not in season. If fresh produce features in your recipe that you are trying to re-create, bear in mind that it may not be available all year round. On top of that, it may not be something that your grocer gets in regularly. So have a chat to your green grocer about the produce ingredients that you need in advance, and make sure you know where and when you can get those ingredients.
- Source ingredients on line: some specialty ingredients are so hard to get that it may be easier to source ingredients on line. For example, I am looking for edible wafer paper for some biscuits I am preparing to bake, and the only place I can find it is on line at some baking supplies sites. If you have to order a larger amount than what you are using in your recipe, ask if any of your friends or family need some too and want to share the cost.
- Trial and error: Once I had all my ingredients, I just had to try it out, based on a similar recipe I had found. I played around with proportions, tasted, added, then tasted again, until I thought I had recreated something that was close to what I remembered. Don't be hard on yourself to try and try again, learning as you go. My first one was good, but it needed more cream, but my second one was not so good because I added too much cream and left out the eggs! Its ok to work it out as you go.
- Draw on your own knowledge and skill: You have to draw on your own knowledge, skill, experience and feeling or sense for what is going to work. If you have a basic knowledge of how to put things together, and you really can't find a similar recipe, then you just have to use your templates of past experience in a broader sense, and pluck up the courage to just give it a go.
- Write it down: Every time you make another attempt, write down what you have done, and you have a record of what has worked and what has not. This is so important, as you need to be sure that the next time you make it, that you have a recipe to go my, even if its your own. Refine the recipe as you go, and then once you are happy with the result, record the final version and include it with your recipe collection.
Re-creating recipes from memories is possible. There is a great deal of anticipation in the process of doing so with regards to whether your creation will meet the standards that your memories have outlined. And it can feel like you are taking a big risk, as it can feel that there is a high chance of failure that its going to fall short. But it doesn't have to be exactly the same, it can be your version. Your interpretation of that memory is part of your unique food story and the narrative that defines who you are.