The case for showing family recipes a lot more respect

As it turns out, a loose recipe makes a great cake, because it likely takes everything important into account.

As it turns out, a loose recipe makes a great cake, because it likely takes everything important into account

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

A question came to me as I was flipping through my mom's red recipe notebook one day.

It's a book filled with recipes she's collected over the years — your typical family keepsake. I stumbled upon "Cake (for cake custard)," which is one of my grandma's sister's — my Banu Ma's — signature creations.

Cake Custard, as my family knows it, is simply a sponge cake steeped in custard, then doused with additional custard and topped with fruit or jelly when serving. It may seem simple, and possibly even a little boring, but between the cardamom-filled custard and the perfectly soaked cake, it just comes together.

"One large spoon of flour, one large spoon of sugar," the recipe read. I cackled. Although I'd grown up watching my mom and grandmas cook using inferences and instincts, I'd learned to cook predominately with cookbook recipes — specific volumes, no guesswork. My aunties' and grandmas' recipes, filled with seemingly arbitrary instructions and measurements, struck me as absurd. 

But does a good recipe need to look like those in today's cookbooks? Cookie recipes that tell you to pack your brown sugar; cake recipes that instruct you to level out your flour; banana bread recipes that specify a half-cup of chocolate chips. What really makes for a good recipe?

(Submitted by: Nasima Fancy)

Although going from those more formal recipes to successfully making one of my Banu Ma's seemed like an impossible feat, I decided I wanted to attempt it. I knew from experience that my Banu Ma makes a mean Cake Custard! But though I trusted her to feed me, I didn't necessarily trust her written recipe.

The only other recipe of hers that I'd made was for a cumin-laden pasta. In the end, it worked like a charm. But measurements like "one biryani-spoon of soy sauce," and an omission of cooking times and even some steps — which, while not critical, I had to have conveyed verbally (I asked my mom) — required me to make some inferences on my end. Essentially, I had to wing much of it. And I knew baking recipes, with their chemical leaveners and specific techniques, to be more finicky in general than those for savoury meals.

I announced my plans half-jokingly to my mom. Picking up on my obvious hesitancy, she assured me that the Cake Custard recipe had worked really well when she'd made it in the past. But having no recollection of my mom making it, I didn't find comfort in her remarks.

Expectations checked, my experiment began.

(Submitted by: Nasima Fancy)

I started rummaging through our utensil drawer, looking to find a "large spoon" with the perfect depth. Finally settling for one, I moved on. I levelled out the flour and the sugar, to ensure I was neither heaping nor packing the ingredients. I added baking powder and vanilla extract using a regular teaspoon rather than a measuring spoon for the full experience.

I finally got the cake in the oven, but this being an all too expected "bake until done" recipe, I had yet to fully calm down. I set a timer for 10 minutes and kept my cake tester at the ready. Trusting the tester, I took the cake out after about 12 minutes.

Then — as per my mom's instruction, rather than an instruction in the recipe — I left the cake out to cool overnight. The following morning, I took a giant sniff of the cake, then paused. "Mom, should it smell this eggy?" I called out.

"Oh yeah, it smells and tastes super weird before you put the custard on. Don't worry!" she said.

Just the answer I was looking for, I thought to my skeptical self.

But, like with 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 how well it held up in the fridge.

I began reflecting on the success of the recipe and also on my initial skepticism, based mostly on the recipe reading so differently from the ones I'd accepted as the norm. I'd put down recipes like Banu Ma's for a long time, conditioned by the standard of mainstream North American cookbooks, which, traditionally, have lacked BIPOC representation. Contrary to the thinking they left me with, a recipe isn't less valid because it uses cues and measurements that vary from a standardized system, nor is it less valid if it was passed down via oral tradition, rather than someone putting pen to paper. Family recipes are often intended to be passed on to close relations, and, between the writer and reader, allow for certain things to be assumed and others to be clarified through a quick shout. Despite my doubts, what I needed to successfully make the recipe was available to me. I came around to see that Banu Ma and so many others who we turn to for family favourites and traditional recipes are all pretty amazing recipe developers. 

Maybe their recipes are actually superior?

Rather than specifying how much of a particular ingredient to add, a grandma or auntie might tell you to look for a desired colour or smell. When you consider 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 nearly a teaspoon of asafoetida to a recipe that called for an eighth teaspoon, since ours was quite old and had lost much of its signature pungency. The same thing can happen to a plethora of ingredients in each of our kitchens.

What most of us look for in a recipe are measurements or proportions, paired with preparation instructions. Sure, rather than using precise amounts, family recipes may use fistfuls, but in application, the key proportions work. They're also likely penned to be easily understood and applied generations later. They did maybe the most essential jobs that recipes have — they were passed down. 

Perhaps the best thing about family recipes is that if you're lucky, you have the recipe developer at your beck and call. Before the pandemic, something I'd frequently do is join Banu Ma in the kitchen. I remember watching her make sev, a sweet vermicelli dish, and almost passing out when I saw how much sugar and ghee went into it. I also lived for the fact that she'd let me do things, such as frying bhajias, that my parents were a little too careful to let me attempt. I truly miss it, but until we're cooking together in person again, we have phone calls and video calls. And in the case that I, or any of us, do have to wing it, another great thing about family recipes is that you get to share how that played out, and maybe go on to create a revised version of the recipe with family. Plus, when recipes don't work out as expected, you can go to them to whine and complain.

Don't get me wrong, I still have plans to write a standup act about some of the more absurd instructions, but I also have plans to turn to the red recipe notebook more often when I want to make some Gujarati goodies. And I will definitely hold it and the recipes in it with more respect.

Nasima Fancy is a high school student in Toronto. She can often be found writing articles about anything and everything ranging from politics and history to comedy and entertainment.

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