Cooking Up a Book

I’ve been slacking on the blog lately, as all my words have been going into a prequel novella I’m writing, featuring the parents of the hero in Stirring Up the Viscount. I’ve also been trying not to be a total slacker in my critique group, which is a bit easier said than done. And since Top Chef and Chopped are now on Hulu, I’ve been binge watching (and cooking) like a madwoman.

This weekend my in-laws are in town and we had friends over for dinner last night. I made an insanely good cherry pie bar thingy that I will probably never be able to duplicate because I veered so far from the original recipe (although I’m working on writing down the recipe so I can come close). I’d show you a picture, but I didn’t think to take one, and since the entire 9″x 13″ pan was consumed last night, there’s nothing left to photograph.

As I sit here reflecting on what to make for breakfast (this cinnamon scone bread is a distinct possibility), it occurs to me that cooking is a bit like writing. Some cooks use recipes, others do not, just as some writers plot and others fly by the seat of their pants. Even if you start with a recipe, sometimes, as with my cherry pie thingy, your imagination (or a desire not to use a full pound of butter) takes you on another course and you end up with a different product. Sometimes it’s better than the original, and sometimes not.


Things can go anywhere from slightly wrong (my baked beans last night were slightly undercooked because there wasn’t enough liquid in the pot) to disastrous (I made gluten free English muffins once–my son refers to them as “those hockey pucks Mom made”), like stories that veer off course. There are times when you can fix them, but other times you need to admit defeat and chuck the entire steaming mess into the trash.

Cooking involves tweaks along the way–a little more salt here, a splash of liquid there–just as a book does–a few lines of description here, tightening up language there. And the finished product, even if it looks luscious and is the most amazing thing you’ve ever created, won’t be loved by everyone.

I used to get pissed when my family didn’t like something I slaved over in the kitchen–usually at myself, but occasionally at them when they were so obviously wrong. 🙂 A critique partner’s negative comment or a bad review can get under my skin. As I’ve gotten older, I’m learning to accept this. Not everyone will love what you do. Sometimes even you hate what you create. It doesn’t mean that it’s not good, or that it won’t provide nourishment for body or soul.

But enough philosophizing. Time to make breakfast!



Victorian Food: Divided by a Common Language

One of the things I’ve encountered in British recipes–both old and new–is an entirely different vocabulary.  Spelling is also an issue: I just spent ten minutes looking for pudding molds in Mrs. Beeton before I remembered it’s spelled moulds in the UK. There are different terms for so many things in baking, and finding out what they mean takes a bit of effort.

Measurements and Oven Temperatures

In the US, modern baking recipes provide temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and measurements based on volume–a cup of flour, a tablespoon of butter.

British recipes provide temperature in either degrees Celsius or according to a gas mark. Older recipes use the terms gentle oven, moderate oven, or something similar. Ingredients are listed by weight–a pound of flour, 20 grams of butter.

I invested in a decent scale to help me with the weights, but a conversion chart for oven temperatures is essential in making these recipes. There’s a good one here, but basically, a slow oven is 275-300 degrees, a moderate oven 325-350, and a hot oven 425-450. I am still trying to figure out what a “gentle” oven is, but I’m going to assume it’s similar to “slow.” It remains to be seen whether I will burn the crap out of things with this theory–I’ll keep you posted.

This is a fantastic article, by the by, which talks about oven temperatures and how even though we have temperature  settings on ovens now, they don’t always mean what we think they do.

Mrs. Beeton notes the following about the mysterious spoonful measurements you can find in Victorian recipes:

A TABLE-SPOONFUL is frequently mentioned in a recipe, in the prescriptions of medical men, and also in medical, chemical, and gastronomical works. By it is generally meant and understood a measure or bulk equal to that which would be
produced by half an ounce of water.
A DESSERT-SPOONFUL is the half of a table-spoonful; that is to say, by it is meant a measure or bulk equal to a quarter of an ounce of water.
A TEA-SPOONFUL is equal in quantity to a drachm of water.
A DROP.—This is the name of a vague kind of measure, and is so called on account of the liquid being dropped from the mouth of a bottle. Its quantity, however, will vary, either from the consistency of the liquid or the size and shape of the mouth of the bottle. The College of Physicians determined the quantity of a drop to be one grain, 60 drops making one fluid drachm. Their drop, or sixtieth part of a fluid
drachm, is called a minim.

(A drachm is pronounced dram, and is about 1/8 of a fluid ounce.)


Another curiosity is the various names for standard ingredients. In the U.S. we have all-purpose flour, cake flour, whole wheat flour, and bread flour, among others. British recipes call for strong flour, hard flour, self-raising flour, soft flour, and plain flour. Essentially, plain flour is roughly the same as cake or soft flour (although there are some who say it’s equivalent to our all-purpose flour). Hard or strong flour is equivalent to bread flour. Self-raising flour is roughly the same as our self-rising flour, which is all-purpose flour to which baking powder and salt have been added. I have heard, however, that UK self-raising flour doesn’t have salt in it, so it might be better to make your own. Google “self-rising flour substitute” and you’ll find plenty of options. This is a great discussion of flour equivalents between the US and the UK.

Sugar is also different. In addition to granulated sugar, which is the same on both sides of the pond, UK baking recipes use caster sugar and icing sugar. Our US equivalents are superfine sugar and powdered sugar.

Below is a nice conversion chart for some of these items, which I found at She has some other conversion charts and some fun recipes too.

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