Everything you never knew you needed to know about recipes.
My most embarrassing recipe mistake — A big lesson learned
I was attending Giuliano Bugialli’s cooking school in Italy. In my defense (and just so you know), I was truly a novice cook and just starting to learn the basics. The group of fifteen would break up into teams, each making a dish, which would end up being part of a huge feast. I volunteered to be the leader of my group (my first mistake!) and to make one of the more complicated dessert recipes: “Timballo Di Ricotta” (little ricotta budino). Bugialli: “These timballo are really small soufflés, but Italians prefer them to be unmolded, so they do fall a little.” (Notice the word “fall”– mine never rose!)
Below, you’ll find the recipe ingredients, and how I made a disastrous mistake.
(TAKE NOTE — I WASN’T PLANT-BASED BACK THEN, and these are oh, so delicious!)
12 oz. whole milk ricotta, drained
1-1/2 oz. candied orange rind, cut into very small pieces
1-1/2 TB dark or light rum
½ cup plus ¼ cup superfine sugar
4 extra-large eggs, separated
Pinch of salt
1 TB potato starch
Grated rind of 1 small lemon with thick skin
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Granulated sugar as needed
About 2 TB confectioners’ sugar
Strips of zest of 1 medium-size orange with thick skin
My team and I first prepped all of the ingredients (as we were taught by Giuliano), and then I put all the ingredients together to make the budino batter. I quickly read through the recipe and dove right in.
Here are the instructions for the batter:
Be sure the ricotta is very well-drained and smooth. Soak the candied orange rind in rum for one hour. Add ½ cup of sugar to the ricotta in a large bowl and mix very well. Add the egg yolks, one at a time and mix as each is added. Then, add salt, potato starch, grated lemon rind, and cinnamon. Cover with plastic wrap, then let rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour before using.
(Do you see the instruction to “Add candied orange zest” yet? — NOPE!)
I made a rookie mistake and simply added the ingredients in the order listed on the recipe ingredient list. I didn’t really read the recipe instructions thoroughly. As a result, I did not know exactly what to do and when.
Next steps in the recipe:
Butter eight custard cups and coat them with granulated sugar. After the ricotta mixture has rested in the refrigerator for an hour, NOW…drain the candied orange rind and add it to the ricotta, discarding the unabsorbed rum. Beat the egg whites with the remaining ¼ cup sugar in a large copper bowl with a wire whisk until soft peaks form. Gently fold the whites into the ricotta mixture, then ladle into cups, etc., etc. Bake until timballo are golden and very puffy, about twenty-five minutes.
When Giuliano saw that I added the soaked orange zest to the batter before refrigerating it, he went nuts! “What did you do? You didn’t read the recipe!” He said. “Yes I did!” I cried, “See, I added all of the ingredients in the order they were listed.” Then, he made me read the recipe to him and I saw my mistake. He explained to me that the drenched candied orange strips would weigh down the batter and prevent it from rising. “No problem,” I said, “Can’t we just take the orange zest out with our fingers?”
“NO!” Giuliano was adamant. “You will deflate the batter and make even more of a mess. We’ll just have to cook it the way you did it. It will probably never rise.”
Now, I was deflated.
Fast forward: we’re all sitting down to dinner in Giuliano’s magnificent dining room, tasting the seven plus dishes made by the group. Every thirty minutes Giuliano commanded me to go check on the budino and see if they had risen (remember — as noted in the recipe, the budino should rise in twenty-five minutes). One hour later, the budino still hadn’t made their move! Giuliano took me to the kitchen and told me I had to entertain everyone until the budino were ready! So, I told funny jokes and we laughed and waited… and waited… and waited.
An hour after dessert was supposed to be served, and about one and a half hours in the oven, we unmolded the budino and presented it to the students. IT WAS DELICIOUS! It was flat and not as airy as intended, but everyone loved it. And best of all, Giuliano never told the group how I had messed it up.
PRO TIP: Don’t tell anyone when you mess up. They might not realize it and the dish can still come out delicious!
This was one of my first lessons about how to read a recipe. You must actually read the recipe over and over again until you get it.
Here are some tips (and potential pitfalls) for following a recipe that will ensure the recipe works for you. This will make you a fabulous cook!
1. Choose your recipes wisely! When you see a recipe that piques your interest, first, read it all the way through.
Does the recipe make sense? In the spirit of “short and concise,” recipes can lack in detailed descriptions, cooking technique explanations, visual aids, and other tips and tricks to making a recipe work — especially on Instagram.
Ingredients: Do you have all of the ingredients called for in the recipe? Are there any unusual ingredients you can’t get right away, or that you may have to order? Are the ingredients out of season? If so, make this dish for another time, or find a substitute that might work.
Timeline: Are there ingredients that need prepping a day in advance, e.g., soaking beans or nuts, sprouting grains, making a vegetable stock? Take this into account if you want to make the recipe immediately.
Equipment: Does the recipe call for a piece of equipment you don’t have, or give instructions on how to make it without that specific tool? If not, move on to another recipe.
Are there reviews from people who have made the dish before?
Side note: Since my site is so new, please feel free to ask me any questions you may have about the recipes, and review the recipes once you make them. Your feedback is very important to me and much appreciated.
Consider the source (but not always): I love making recipes from my favorite chefs’ cookbooks. Usually, these recipes are very dependable, as they are tested repeatedly, until perfect. Plus, they may have been made in the restaurant kitchen hundreds of times and are patrons’ favorites. Chefs typically have professional editors who make sure the recipe is clearly written without mistakes. But, mistakes still happen! READ THE RECIPE ALL THE WAY THROUGH! Recently, I was plant-basing a recipe from a cookbook created by an incredible chef — one of the best in the world. I read through the recipe and saw what looked like a mistake. The recipe called for making a sauce from one of the ingredients in the salad, which would also be used to serve with the salad. The salad ingredients ended up being one-third of the recipe and the sauce was going to take up two-thirds of the recipe. I read (and reread) the recipe to make sure that what was written wasn’t what was intended. Clearly, the sauce should have been one-third of the recipe and the salad, two-thirds. So, I adjusted accordingly and the recipe came out wonderfully.
Difficult techniques included in the recipe: Does the recipe involve a technique that you are not familiar with and is that scaring you away from making the dish? All the more reason to make this dish! YouTube it! Google it! The tutorials are out there. It is so satisfying to expand your repertoire in the kitchen, giving you more confidence in your abilities.
2. How to get ready before you make the dish:
Gather all of your ingredients and place them on a staging area: Are you missing something? Don’t just guess (like I do sometimes!) Gather every single item listed in the recipe, and if you are missing something, now is the time to make a market run.
Mise en Place: A French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” It refers to the set-up required before cooking by prepping, organizing, and arranging all of the ingredients called for in the recipe before you start cooking. This is really important; the cooking process becomes more “zen” and less harried. You will find your cooking will flow with ease. It’s so much more enjoyable when everything is prepped before you begin cooking. TRY IT!
Measure your ingredients: It’s time to dice, slice, mince, and measure your ingredients. Place them in bowls as shown above. Note when a recipe will have an ingredient with the word “divided” next to it — this means that the ingredient will be used more than once. Say the recipe calls for two onions, quartered (divided), like in Garden of Eydie’s, Chickpea and Lentil Salad with Lebanese Hummus Sauce. One of the onions is going to be used while cooking the chickpeas, and the other will be used when cooking the lentils. So, measure these items out separately.
Note punctuation: The recipe may call for one-cup walnuts, chopped, which means you’ll place walnuts in a one-cup dry-measuring cup, then chop them. Or, if the recipe calls for one cup chopped walnuts, you’ll chop them before measuring.
Ready your equipment: Preheat the oven, get out the pots and pans you’ll be using, prep the sheet pans with parchment paper, etc.
Read the recipe, again! Now, you’re going to start cooking.
NOTE THE ORDER OF THE STEPS! You don’t want to make the same mistake I did in Italy, right? The order is important. For example, say you’re making a plant-based dessert. The recipe says to pour all of your dry ingredients into a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk your wet ingredients. The recipe wouldn’t work if you added a dry ingredient followed by a wet ingredient, then a dry one. The mixture would be lumpy and the recipe would not work (or in my case, the budino never rose!)
3. Let’s get cooking!
Make a copy of the recipe: You will want to have it at the ready for when you need it.
Organize the ingredients: Place all of the prepped ingredients in the order you are going to use them.
Your ingredients are not the same as the author of the recipe! Every lemon is different, ever garlic clove, every vegetable, every bean — you name it. The taste and freshness will not be the same, so you will most likely need to adjust. The recipe calls for one garlic clove — how big is that garlic clove? Juice from one lemon — how tart or ripe or large is that lemon? Red pepper flakes — some are hot and some are not, same with jalapeños and other peppers. How fresh are your spices? Smell and taste your ingredients before you start to cook.
BE FLEXIBLE with the recipe: The recipe is just a guide; don’t feel like you have to follow it exactly. One of my culinary school teachers, the revered Chef Jacques Pepin, explains this concept very well in this YouTube video. Every oven, range, and ingredient is different. Your green beans may be ready in two minutes and not five, or vice versa. Your cookies may bake more quickly or more slowly than the time called for in the recipe. Did the recipe say caramelizing the onions should take ten minutes, but it’s taking twenty or thirty? You be the judge. Every oven’s temperature varies, especially if you are at a high altitude. The temperature and humidity in your kitchen makes a difference too, particularly if you’re making dough that needs to rise.
BE with the food as you make it! WATCH, LISTEN, SMELL: Be gentle — cook your ingredients with care; don’t overheat your pan, or boil over your stock. Stay with the food as you cook; watching, listening, and smelling. Are the onions starting to burn? Turn down the heat. Are you simmering stock, but it’s boiling instead? Turn down the heat.
TASTE, TASTE, TASTE: All throughout the process. You’ll learn how ingredients start to meld, reduce, and simmer into deliciousness, but you won’t know unless you taste all the way through. Add some spices and herbs called for in the recipe and let simmer, meld, then taste after a few minutes. Do you need more of one of the spices or herbs? More garlic? Let your taste buds be your guide.
4. You love the dish!
And it’s all because of you! You didn’t just cross your fingers and pray that the recipe would work — YOU made it work!
5. Love at first site!
We all eat with our eyes first. If the food is plated beautifully, your guests are sure to “ooh and ahh” and experience “love at first bite!”
Tips: Add fresh herbs to punctuate and add brightness to your masterpiece. Don’t pile a lot of food on the plate. Leave “space” for the food to shine. Wipe up any sauce that “dirties” the presentation.
6. Enjoy your guests and your accomplishment!
Cooking for yourself and others is a gift and should be a wonderful experience. I spent many years making tons of mistakes, being frustrated, having anxiety before big parties, and hoping and praying the food would turn out right. I may no longer be that novice cook in the Italian cooking school, but that moment in Bugialli’s class helped to shape my education going forward. You don’t have to slip-up in front of a famous Italian chef to learn from your mistakes – I want you to learn from mine instead! These tips and techniques will help you to cook with confidence (much more quickly than I did!) and create successful, delicious meals every single time!