Too Much (Recipe) Information?

Recently, I was thumbing randomly through cookbooks and came across a recipe. Here was the first ingredient in one…

“One Octopus, cleaned

That’s it. No explanation.
It’s like saying…

“One Whale, de-boned


“Three Puffins, feathers and beaks removed

I think those actions require perhaps a modicum of an explanation.
Yes? No?

On the other hand, if a recipe says…

“1 cup almonds, chopped


“8 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

…I don’t think chopped or grated need further explanation. And indeed adding those instructions to a recipe would make it unnecessarily long and daunting. Honestly, any recipe longer than one or two pages freaks me out.

Is it worth the real estate on the page to say…

“Lift the almonds from the bag or storage container and distribute them in an even layer on a clean and dry wooden or plastic cutting surface. Be sure the surface is flat and preferably waist-high. Use your hand to grab the wooden handle of the knife, being sure to avoid the sharp blade end. Lifting from your elbows, direct the knife over the almonds on the cutting board and press downward while gently rocking the knife back and forth, moving the knife as necessary over the almonds, to cut them evenly. If some almonds fling across the counter, set down the knife and retrieve the errant almond pieces. Add them back to the mound of almonds and continue chopping.”

Now wasn’t that a mouthful?

A few years back a very talented pastry chef from New York came out with his first book. In the book was a three-page recipe for brownies, complete with full-color step-by-step photos. Holy Mother of Betty Crocker! Is there anyone in America who doesn’t know how to make brownies? It’s one thing to present a recipe, and to show how neat and fabulous they look when stacked on a lovely white Crate & Barrel plate, but do we need to see what the nuts look like when scraped into the brownie batter or an instructional photo of the bowl of melted chocolate and butter?

A writer recently went on a bender about cookbook authors that don’t list water as an ingredient. Often that’s not up to the author, but an editorial decision based on space (space=money, especially in magazines.) Believe it or not, one or two sentences can throw a whole page off-kilter. I’ve had copy editors direct me to go through a page and get rid of 7 words (in editor-speak, the “widows and orphans”.)
But Kate’s right, it is annoying to be making a recipe and find that the 2 cups of water that your supposed to divide between the chocolate cake batter and the frosting, you’ve just added to the mixture, which now looks like a muddy lagoon instead of a smooth, luscious glossy chocolate batter.

While Adam’s on vacation, Lisa’s been dubbed the Amateur Gourmette by Pim and was making a recipe for Butterscotch Pudding and it didn’t come out right.

The recipe calls for “2 cups milk”, but there in her photo is a carton of 2% milk. She is so busted. The recipe turned out to be a disaster. In her defense, the main reason the recipe didn’t taste good is it only calls for ¼ cup of brown sugar, which would add negligible butterscotch flavor. But did the recipe indicate “whole” milk or just say “milk”? Whole milk is normally critical to a pudding recipe. In that case, the recipe writer is so busted.

I decided to let her slide by on this one since she’s just the substitute and everyone likes to pick on the substitute, but I’m sure when Adam gets back, there’s gonna be hell to pay.

So here’s a concise, and photo-free, recipe for Butterscotch Pudding:

Butterscotch Pudding

1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter (salted or unsalted), melted
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/4 cups whole milk
½ teaspoon salt
3 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons dark rum or whisky
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. In a large bowl, make the butterscotch base by mixing the brown sugar with the melted butter (note the lack of a picture here.) Set aside.

2. Put the yolks in a small bowl and stir briefly (no photo here eith…Huh? ok, I’ll stop…it’s getting obnoxious.)

2. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch with a small amount of the milk until smooth. Pour the rest of the milk into a heavy saucepan and scrape in the slurry of cornstarch and the salt.

3. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a whisk constantly, until the mixture thickens and begins to boil. Whisk a small amount of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks and then scrape the warmed egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan.

4. Keep cooking and stirring the custard until it comes to a boil again. It will become quite thick and mound up like mayonnaise. Remove it from the heat and pour it into the butterscotch base. Add the rum and vanilla and whisk until the butterscotch has dissolved into the custard. Pour into large serving bowl.

Chill (…in the refrigerator, duh!)

Note: I’ve updated the recipe since several readers thought there was too much butterscotch flavor. Feel free to use light brown sugar in place of the dark brown for a milder flavor.


  • Oh that was fun to read! I do alot of flinging when I’m chopping! And I’m with you, a long recipe scares me away entirely. Though I will admit that I did once cook the Zuni roasted chicken with bread salad which is about 3 or 4 pages long. I’m not sure what possessed me. It was fantastic, but it was ALOT of reading. I’m sure I pulled some of my hair out in the process.

  • Editors remove water as an ingredient? I did not know that! I’ve so much to add to that.

    I’m not an editor and never will be, but wouldn’t it be prudent for those making such cuts to actually make the recipe after said cuts to see if they make sense? Or at least do diligent reading to see if the recipe makes sense.

    From here on out I’ll cast a wider eye on who’s responsible for these kind of things.

  • That was very fun to read.

    Now. Tell me, please, why butterscotch has no scotch in it? Has it EVER had scotch? I’m so confused.

    And people wonder why I don’t bake.

  • Indeed, fun to read. Joy of Cooking sort of does that thing with “spread the almonds out,” doesn’t it? I always thought that cookbooks ought to be “graded,” so that if you’re a baby cook, you know that if the book has a “medium difficulty” rating, it may be too hard for you. I also find it interesting, that when I read cookbooks originating in Europe, with facing translation, the details are always longer in the English translation. “Cook till done,” in Italian became “bake for 45 minutes ” in the translation.

  • Lisa’s pudding fiasco sounds like the work of yet another recipe that tries to take a classic and rework it “healthy” style. 4 T of brown sugar? What’s up with that? If you don’t want sugar, don’t eat pudding ;) And what’s with the adding hot milk to cornstarch? Sounds like a good way to make a nice thin, chunky pudding!

    Your recipe sounds incredible! I must try it soon…bring on the sugar and fat!!

    BTW – I’m a new reader and really enjoy your blog. Thanks!

  • this is quite funny.

    recently a newly launched food magazine hired me to proofread and correct recipes sent to them by 5 majorly famous pastry chefs from across the USA. it was so obvious who had ever written a recipe for anyone but themselves!

    I have people who do not cook and bake professionally read my written recipes, this helps.

    also I appreciate a cookbook whose forward has sentences like, “When we say salt we mean Kosher salt.”

    but I do have one quiff. the flavour of butterscotch, in my not so humble opinion, is thrown off by alcohol. I am a purist when it comes to said sweet. what I really hate is that 2 famous SF restaurants use artificially flavoured butterscotch chips to make their puddings!!

  • The problem is most people don’t read the forward (where it says to use Kosher salt or unsalted butter), they just open a book and follow the recipe. And yes, I know at least 1 famous restaurant in the SF Bay Area, run by a celeb chef, that serves Jell-O Butterscotch Pudding mix enriched with butterscotch chips.

    Editors change lots of things in recipes; ingredients, titles, instructions, photos, etc…it’s their job. Magazine recipes are especially edited to conform to a certain style (for example, all recipes in Cooking Light give instructions like, “Combine first 6 ingredients in a bowl…” while other magazines, where the readership may be more experienced cooks, will give more precise directions. In a magazine, another line, such as “2 cups of water” in the ingredient list can throw the page off so often it’s easier just to say in the instructions, “add 2 cups of water” rather than taking the space in the ingredient list.

    For cookbooks, copy-editors go over things with a fine-toothed comb, making sure recipes make sense, things are in order, and carefully explained (Yes, I did have a copy editor insist that when I said “Chill”, the I said, “Chill in the refrigerator”, which I thought was obvious, but she didn’t.

    Many chefs (if not all) who ‘write’ cookbooks, don’t write them, but are hooked-up with professional writers by their agents or editors. Often the writers get their names on the cover, sometimes not. It depends on how much writing and recipe development and testing they do or if the writer is famous as well. To be fair, most chefs have no idea (or the time) to test and write recipes for home cooks.

    Luckily I’ve had good editors who were really into producing quality cookbooks, but you do learn to choose (and tussle) for what’s important. Still, editors have to keep finances in mind as well. Publishers are not non-profits…just blogs!

    I know someone who had a million-dollar contract that changed the name of her book. Other authors wrestle with editors over things like fonts, recipe order, titles, subtitles, photos, etc….you can argue with your editor about lots of things, all authors do, but if you have a good one, they want to produce a good cookbook too since it reflects on them professionally as well.

  • Okay this was the funniest thing I’ve read in a while–and now all the moles in the surrounding cubicles want to know what was so funny. “Holy mother of Betty Crocker!”

  • As someone who lives outside the USA, I am very baffled why American dessert books do not use weight measurment. Afterall, pastry work is about percision and reliability. A 1 1/2 cup of honey is definitely more messy and subjective than the acutal weight of honey in the intended mixing bowl itself.
    (do i make sense?)

  • Most pastry chefs and recipe writers (and I) would LOVE to go to weight measurements in the US. As you pointed out, it’s far more accurate and far less-messy. But for some reason, the American public won’t weight things. There may be something viscerally satisfying about using grandma’s measuring cup, but other than that, I don’t know. About 20 years ago, America was all set to go metric, then stopped.

    What happened?


  • David,
    I had no idea you moved to France in such a permanant way. I too left SF to head East. Wanted to thank you for the butterscotch pudding recipe which I love and can’t wait to make! Not working in a restaurant right now and loving cooking at home.
    Just wanted to say Hi!

  • But, you know, if people do want pictures, I kinda took some. Just in case. :)

  • Very nice blog.

  • Hello,

    My name is Enyinnah Johnson. I’m a junior at Mundy’s Mills High School in Jonesboro, Georgia. I’m currently doing a reaseach project on a career that I would eventually like to persue. I have always wanted to be a pastry chef. Part of our requirments in this project is to do reaseach on someone that is currently in that field of expertise. I would greatly appreicate it if you would tell me about your career, how you got to where you are now, and whatever else you feel would be impertative towards my project. Considering we don’t have a long period of time on this particular project, please reply back as soon as you can. Thank you so much! Have a nice day.

    Enyinnah Johnson~