One of my favorite cookbooks is very ancient, and its in another language. It's one I inherited from my mother when she passed away. Despite its lack of modernity, something about it keeps calling me to explore and experiment, to find undiscovered treasures that will fill our tummies with joy. In doing this, I have had to use a rather lateral, if not, creative approach to making these vintage recipes usable, 100 years on, and on a different continent to where it was originally written. Some recipes are great as they are, but many need some work before I can call them my own.
So rather than looking at a vintage recipe and dismissing it because it calls for a ton of rendered chicken fat or margarine that would give you a heart attack just by looking at it, perhaps see if you can still honor the original intention of the recipe and modernise it to work with what you have.
1.Translate: in some cases, you may need to translate your vintage recipe from a different language. I have a huge German lexicon of a cookbook, and its all in German, so before I can start anything, I have to translate not just the ingredients but the method also. Watch out, as this step can be tricky. There may be subtle language nuances that you don’t want to loose in translation so get some help from someone who may have a good understanding of cooking terms in that language, as Google Translate may miss some of those subtleties.
2. Update measurements: Many recipes have been written using imperial measurements which may not be applicable or might seem like a foreign language to you. Here is a chart that can help you covert your recipe measurements into whatever system you feel comfortable with. There are some apps that will do it as well. Note down the new measurements clearly so you can easily refer to them when you use the recipe next.
3. Explain and Expand: I have often looked at vintage cookbooks or even hand written cooking notes from my mother, and they tend to be skimpy when it comes to the method. Decades ago, there was perhaps an assumption that foundational cooking know-how was something that was passed on from one generation to the next. Thus, cooking instructions in a cookbook assumed a certain level of understanding about how things worked in the kitchen and were consequently rather lean. So look at your method carefully, perhaps test the recipe out, and take note of the actual steps and method details, including any details in the instructions that you think would be useful to someone less familiar with the recipe. You may also want to watch the person who gave you the recipe or others who are familiar with it, so you have a live demonstration of the method.
4. Swap and change: there are Information about our health has certainly changed, and there may be some ingredients that are in your original recipe that are less favourable or less healthy, for example, margarine. It can be a good idea to swap like-for-like ingredients with what you use on a regular basis. In my original oat-cookie recipe, it called for margarine, so swapping for butter was an easy and tasted better. However, there are some ingredients that cannot make a direct 1:1 swap with, such as swapping wheat flour for coconut flour. Swapping almond meal for flour is going to give me a different result, and may not even work in some recipes. So you may need to research your quantities before doing the swap. The other thing to keep in mind is that some of the original textures or flavours may change slightly when you swap out the ingredients, so it may take some trial and error to see what outcome you are happy with.
5. Vary it: You may wish to take a completely different take and use the recipe as inspiration rather than following it exactly. You may use the spices used and the idea as a base, but you might want to do a gluten free version, or a vegan version. This is all ok, and there are many other people who are modernising recipes, to fit with current lifestyles, climate, seasons, your location and what’s available, and food preferences. Pinterest and recipe websites can provide lots of good inspiration for taking a modern approach to vintage recipes. For example, the German equivalent to Christmas Cake is Stollen, which is very heavy and called for 400g butter and 250g nuts, amongst a great deal of fruit. When I tried to get the backstory on it and ideas from my aunt, she suggested that for a hot Australian Christmas, a lighter version of the Stollen with less nuts and butter would be a better idea, which guided my choices in how I approached the search for a varied recipe.
6. Include photos: Many vintage recipes were written and collated without images or photos, as they were expensive or not eve possible to include in cookbooks. If they have come from a grandma’s note pad, then there will definitely not be any photos, and you may just have your memories or those of relatives who have also made the recipe. Certainly draw on these resources as a way of understanding the recipe better. Its particularly useful to take photos or record audio and video material, especially when its a recipe that may only be used on special occasions or once a year. That way, you cannot forget how to do it if methods and steps are recorded with images and videos.
Honouring vintage recipes can be a great way of remembering our ancestors, traditions and heritage, even if its our interpretation of what existed long ago. Recipes were born out of necessity, what was available, current knowledge and culture at the time. And as someone carrying on tradition, we do the same thing, we use what's available to us, what works with our climate and lifestyle, our health and our preferences. Then we call it ours!