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A question came to me one day while leafing through my mother’s red recipe booklet.
It’s a book full of recipes she’s gathered over the years – a typical family keepsake. I stumbled upon “Cake (for Cake Custard)” which is one of the signature creations of my grandmother – my Banu Ma.
Cake Custard, as my family knows it, is simply a sponge cake soaked in vanilla pudding, which is then doused with additional vanilla pudding and poured over with fruit or jelly when serving. It may seem simple and maybe even a little boring, but between the cardamom-filled custard and the perfectly soaked cake, it just fits together.
“A large spoon of flour, a large spoon of sugar,” was the recipe. I giggled. Even though I grew up watching my mom and grandma cook with inferences and instincts, I had learned to cook mostly from cookbook recipes – specific volumes, not guesswork. My aunts and grandmas’ recipes, filled with seemingly arbitrary instructions and measurements, struck me as absurd.
But does a good recipe have to look like today’s cookbooks? Cookie Recipes That Tell You To Box Your Brown Sugar; Cake recipes that instruct you to balance your flour; Banana bread recipes that feature half a cup of chocolate chips. What really makes a good recipe?
(Submitted by: Nasima Fancy)
Although the transition from these more formal recipes to successfully making one of my Banu Ma’s seemed like an impossible feat, I decided to give it a try. I knew from experience that my Banu Ma makes a mean cake custard! But even though I trusted her to feed me, I didn’t necessarily trust her written recipe.
The only other recipe of hers I made was a cumin-laden pasta. In the end, it worked like a charm. But measurements like “a biryani spoonful of soy sauce” and the omission of cooking times and even some steps – which I must have conveyed verbally, although not critically (I asked my mother) – required some conclusions from me about my end. In essence, I had to inspire a lot of it. And I knew that baking recipes, with their chemical leavening agents and specific techniques, were generally more picky than those for savory dishes.
I half jokingly announced my plans to my mother. When she picked up on my obvious hesitation, she assured me that the recipe for Cake Custard had worked really well than she had in the past. But since I couldn’t remember my mother making it, I found no consolation in her remarks.
Checked expectations, began my experiment.
(Submitted by: Nasima Fancy)
I started rummaging through our utensil drawer to find a “big spoon” with the perfect depth. When I was finally satisfied with one, I moved on. I leveled the flour and sugar to make sure I wasn’t piling or packing the ingredients. I added baking soda and vanilla extract using a regular teaspoon instead of a measuring spoon for the full experience.
I finally got the cake in the oven, but since this is an all-too-expected “bake till ready” recipe, I still had to calm down completely. I set a timer for 10 minutes and had my cake tester ready. Trusting the tester, I took the cake out after about 12 minutes.
Then I let the cake cool overnight – according to my mother’s instructions and not as stated in the recipe. The next morning I sniffed the cake hard and then paused. “Mom, should it smell like that of Eggy?” I called.
“Oh yeah, it smells and tastes super weird before you put the pudding on. Don’t worry! ”She said.
Exactly the answer I was looking for, I thought skeptically.
But like Banu Ma’s cumin laden pasta, the final product smelled and tasted amazing. The cake soaked up the cardamom-infused custard and was delicious served with some strawberry jelly. Every part of it was spot on, from the texture and taste to the shelf life in the refrigerator.
I began to think about the success of the recipe and also about my initial skepticism, which was mainly based on the fact that the recipes were read so differently from the ones I had accepted as the norm. I wrote recipes like Banu Ma’s for a long time, due to the standard of North American mainstream cookbooks, which traditionally have no BIPOC representation. Contrary to the thinking they left me, a recipe is no less valid because it uses cues and measures that differ from a standardized system, nor is it any less valid if passed down by word of mouth instead of that someone put the pen on paper. Family recipes are often intended to be passed on to close relatives and allow the author and reader to suspect certain things and clarify others through a short shout. Despite my doubts, I had what I needed to make the recipe successful. I’ve seen that Banu Ma and so many others that we turn to for family favorites and traditional recipes are all pretty amazing recipe developers.
Maybe their recipes are actually superior?
Instead of specifying how much of a particular ingredient to add, a grandma or aunt may ask you to look for a color or smell you want. Considering that spices vary from region to region and brand to brand, this actually makes more sense than a rigid instruction. I remember recently having to add almost a teaspoon of asafoetida to a recipe that called for an eighth teaspoon, as ours was quite old and had lost much of its characteristic sharpness. The same thing can happen with a wide variety of ingredients in any of our kitchens.
What most of us look for in a recipe is measurements or proportions, coupled with preparation instructions. Sure, instead of using exact amounts, family recipes might use a handful, but when it comes to application, the most important proportions will work. They are also likely written in such a way that they can be easily understood and applied generations later. You may have done the most important tasks that recipes have – they have been passed down.
Perhaps the best thing about family recipes is that, with a bit of luck, you will have the recipe developer on hand. Before the pandemic, I used to stand in the kitchen with Banu Ma a lot. I remember watching her make sev, a sweet vermicelli, and almost passed out when I saw the sugar and ghee in it. I also lived for her to let me cook things like bhajias that my parents were a little too careful to let me try. I really miss it, but until we cook again in person we have phone and video calls. And in case I or any of us need to spur it on, another great thing about family recipes is that you can share how that went and maybe create a revised version of the recipe with the family. When recipes don’t work as expected, you can go to them to whine and complain.
Don’t get me wrong, I have yet to write a stand-up act on some of the more absurd instructions, but I also plan to reach for the red recipe booklet more often when trying to make Gujarati goodies. And I will definitely record it and the recipes it contains with more respect.
Nasima Fancy is a high school student in Toronto. She often writes articles on everything from politics and history to comedy and entertainment.
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