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Just call me the fly in the soup
on March 7, 2005
I have been cooking for family and friends for over thirty years; I owned my own successful catering business for a time, and I own over 150 cookbooks. Cooking is therapy for me, and nothing pleases me more than to have someone who enjoys a dish I've made ask me for the recipe. Having said that, I feel qualified to make some complaints about the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook: Anniversary."
For the most part, I agree with editor Marion Cunningham's attitudes about food and cooking, that taste and nutrition are paramount, and sometimes less is more. Many people overseason their cooking, or combine incompatible ingredients. Cunningham is firmly against that, and so am I. I'm also a firm believer in making a new recipe exactly as directed the first time, and if you decide to make it again, then make any alterations or substitutions you think appropriate.
There are many rewards in this perennially popular, omnibus cookbook. (By the way, I can find absolutely no difference between the "Anniversary" edition and the previous one, published in 1996, except the cover art.) Whatever recent edition you may have, I consider these dishes to be outstanding, and they are part of my culinary repertoire: Red Snapper San Felipe, Eggplant-Zucchini Appetizer, Savory Casserole of Chicken, Scrambled Eggs Bourget, Buttermilk Pralines, Pasta with Zucchini, Chinese Chicken in Lettuce Leaves, Green Chili Pie and Vegetarian Baked Beans.
However, two recipes in the Poultry chapter are cause for concern, in my opinion. I don't believe the cooking times for either Sauteed Chicken Breasts (p. 240) or Chicken Parmesan (p. 241) are long enough for the chicken to be safe to eat. Three minutes per side for chicken pieces that are not pounded flat just isn't going to cut it. Common sense, however, should enable most cooks to succeed with those two recipes.
Candymaking is a different story. But since Cunningham is also the editor of the Fannie Farmer Baking Cookbook, I felt comfortable re-learning some of these old candymaking techniques from her. Confections are difficult to make: measurements and times must be exact. An accurate candy thermometer is essential, and the humidity in your kitchen must be low in order to achieve a successful product. At Christmas every year, I spend hours in the kitchen making homemade confections for gift-giving. 2004 was no exception, and I had all the ingredients and materials at hand. Yet, when I made the Toffee on page 752, it was a complete failure. The butter and sugar never emulsified. I tried several old-fashioned techniques to mend the "broken" syrup, but to no avail. Of course, I thought it was my fault the first time this happened, so I tried again. Same story. It made me sick to have to throw away two pounds of butter.
I have made fondant many times, but had not done so for years until this past Christmas. My notes in the margin of the Basic Fondant recipe on page 755, dated 11/30/04: "Follow directions TO THE LETTER. Time everything. Even so, be prepared for heartbreak."
I'm not sure what the problem is in this chapter. Cunningham's ranges for the various candy-making stages seem different than those in some of my other cookbooks. I wound up printing some candy recipes off a recipe website where the contributors are regular people like you and me. The toffee and fondant recipes I found there worked perfectly.
So, I make these comments not because I have nothing better to do than complain, but to pass on words to the wise. Sometimes I think that the Farmer book is too large. It tries to do everything and therefore is less successful in some areas than others. Some restaurants are like that, too.