Mastering the Art of Recipe Writing

I had not planned on spending my afternoon elbows deep in a sticky, viscous bread dough muck with yeast slurry spilling all over the counter while timers ticking for two other recipe projects and dinnertime looming. I had planned on making dinner rolls, but I hadn’t planned on killing the yeast.

I could blame it on a flawed recipe, sure, but dumping the yeast into a steaming water and sugar mixture was all my own doing. Whoops.

Let me back up. Some of items I collected from my grandparents’ Seven Devils house were a couple of yellowed and stained recipe cards. The first recipe was for chili, written in humorous detail by Loren Williams, Jr. The second, Rolls Lorraine, was short, sweet, and a bit more puzzling. Take a look:

Photo Feb 26, 3 08 11 PM

Photo Feb 26, 3 08 23 PM

Rolls Lorraine

1 stick of oleo

1/2 cup sugar

(1 tablespoon salt)

2 cups water — when lukewarm, add 2 packages yeast — let sit about 10 minutes

add flour (about 5 cups) and 1 egg

let rise until doubled in bulk

and make up rolls

Here is a recipe mysterious not only in its loose description of bread baking, but also in its attribution.

Given the name, I’ve that this recipe belongs to Lorraine Hendry Williams. Given the card’s cursive, I’ve assumed that it wasn’t recorded by my grandfather, but instead my grandmother or one of my great aunts. But the note on the back (in different handwriting) describes the recipe as “your great grandmother’s recipe” and is signed by CBW. If the note is addressed to me, it would indeed be accurate as Lorraine is my great grandmother. But I don’t think that is the case, and I know that CBW (Cornelia?) didn’t hand me the recipe card.

Still, the rolls’ ingredients point to a recipe written by someone of Lorraine’s or my grandfather’s generation. The use of oleo (oil-based margarine) instead of butter points to an early- to mid-century recipe; between World War I and World War II, margarine use had seen a huge increase due to improved manufacturing and subsequent cost savings. After World War II, its use skyrocketed. In addition, World War II saw the invention of active dry yeast, sold in 2 1/4 teaspoon packets. Given these two observations, I’d place the recipe’s origin around the 1950s.


Translating this recipe into something more replicable was harder than I thought. I assumed that since these rolls have a high sugar and fat content, they are intended to be soft, pull-apart dinner rolls baked together in a round cake pan. So I skimmed my cookbooks and the internet for similar rolls and cobbled together my working recipe.

I knew I wanted to use real butter instead of oleo, and that 1/2 cup of sugar was too much for even my sweet tooth. I also added a bit of whole wheat flour to the mix—not enough to make these seem like healthy rolls, but enough to add a bit of nuttiness.

From the recipe card, it looked like the oleo, sugar, salt, and water were heated together until lukewarm before adding the yeast. I know that salt impedes yeast development, so I added it to the flour instead. What I didn’t notice was that by the time the butter melted into the water and sugar mixture, it was far above lukewarm. I  thoughtlessly dumped in the yeast anyway.

I kneaded the dough in my Kitchen Aid mixer even though I am sure these rolls were originally kneaded by hand. I was glad for anachronistic mixer later when I discovered that the 5 cups of flour called for makes a very wet and sticky dough—much easier to knead with modern machinery. So far so good, it seemed.

It wasn’t until over an hour later, when the dough hadn’t risen an inch that I realized my earlier mistake. Two packets of yeast is quite a bit, so the dough should have been quite active at this point. Knowing that I had little flour left in the kitchen, I did what only the least senseless cook would do: I dumped the dough out on the counter, made a small indention in the center of the gooey mound, and poured in a slurry of water and yeast. As you’d expect, the slurry had no intention of dissolving into the wet sloppy dough, so I had a huge mess on my hands.

At this point, I was both flustered and tired, and I must have blocked out those 5 minutes of cursing and muttering. I have little memory of how it happened, but I somehow found a way to knead everything together and let the dough rise once more. From then on, the rolls came together smoothly.

The rolls I ate for dinner that night were, in the end, a mash-up of my own tinkering (and mistakes) and the vision of my great grandmother. Who knows if they even came close to what she and my grandfather ate at the dinner table? Does it matter? And if these rolls tasted nothing like the original Rolls Lorraine, what was the point of working off a recipe?

As anyone with a yellowed collection of inherited cookbooks knows, recipes from previous generations look nothing like the complex illustrated kitchen companions we purchase today. In these older recipes, there are no annotated ingredient lists to describe precisely how to mince an onion, pulverize garlic, or whip egg whites. There are no paragraph-long expository statements detailing the exact texture, color, and taste of a properly cooked custard. Instead, there are the words “melt,” “mix,” “cream,” “whip,” “saute,” and “thicken.”

These words are the words of experienced cooks recording the ingredients, proportions, and steps needed for other experienced cooks to replicate common dishes. There was little thought to personality or tone. But the lack of specificity, I would argue, leads to greater personality in the final result. Since older recipes required interpretation on the part of every cook, each dish bore the mark of the cook instead of the recipe writer. You’d know the dinner rolls were made by Lorraine because no one else’s rolls—even made with the same ingredients—taste or look just like Lorraine’s.

Sure, this imprinting still exists with cooks today, but it seems like increasingly specific cookbooks and recipes encourage the cook to submit him or herself to the recipe writer totally. Interpretation and innovation is deemed intimidating and best left to the experts. Even as someone who spent years writing detailed expository recipes, I still rely heavily on instruction. I fancy myself a pretty good cook, but I’m still thoughtless enough to dump yeast into super hot water without a second thought.

Do detailed recipes get more folks off the couch and into the kitchen? Do they actually teach new cooks kitchen lifetime kitchen skills, or are they just a crutch for lazy cooking?


Hendry-Williams Dinner Rolls

Makes 12 large rolls

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 23 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 2 ounces whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  1. Grease large bowl (at least 2 quarts) with nonstick cooking spray and set aside. Grease 10-inch cake pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
  2. Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in water and sugar, continuing to heat and stir until sugar is dissolved and water reaches 100 degrees (lukewarm). Whisk in yeast until dissolved.
  3. Combine flours and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment. Stir on low speed until combined. Add butter mixture and egg and continue to mix on low speed until shaggy dough forms.
  4. Increase speed to medium and knead until dough becomes smooth and stretchy, 5 to 7 minutes. It should begin to release from the sides of the bowl but will still be quite sticky. Transfer the dough to prepared bowl, cover with greased plastic wrap, and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 90 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  5. Dump dough out onto well-floured counter, and punch down to remove air bubbles. Divide into 12 equal pieces. Shape into rolls and transfer to prepared cake pan. Bake rolls until they are deep golden brown and register 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve warm.

One thought on “Mastering the Art of Recipe Writing

  1. Hello Kate. Cornelia and I have enjoyed this write-up of your adventure with my mother’s roll recipe. Here come a few points of interest and/or memories:
    1. I recognize the handwriting as my mother’s — even the label, “Rolls Lorraine,” as uncharacteristic as that label would be for her. I would guess that she added that label (note that it appears to have been done with a different instrument, hence likely at a different time), possibly to send the recipe to Cornelia one day in response to a request from Cornelia about what changes she might have made in the recipe. She changed it frequently.
    2. Your oleo research is quite good and 1950 is a reasonable date for the recipe. I am sure she was making the rolls that year. I was 20, living at home, senior at USC. Graduated in August and proceeded to UGA for a MS degree.
    3. You might want to push the oleo research a bit further. We remember oleo coming in two packages — emulsified vegetable fat and red dye. I think you will find that the dairy lobby forced legislation that prevented oleo being sold looking like butter. So, you had to mix the red dye with the (essentially) white emulsified vegetable fat to make it turn yellow. The two packages might have come joined in such a way that you could break the barrier between the two elements and knead the two together in the joined package. Either way, the result would be yellow in whatever shape you chose to make it. Since the recipe calls for a STICK of oleo, it must have been written after that law changed. Otherwise there would be no STICK of oleo. “Oleo” was short for “oleomargarine.” Today “margarine” is short for “oleomargarine. “
    4. The note and initials, “CBW”, on the reverse were certainly written by Cornelia. She intended the recipe for you, but may have passed it through your father or grandfather.
    5. The one error I can see in your rendition of the recipe is the phrase “Bake rolls until they are deep golden brown.” I can see from the picture that you did that. But, her rolls were never baked to “deep golden brown. Golden, maybe, but not deep and not brown. They were very soft — like melt-in-your-mouth soft. Delicious!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s