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‘Hands on’ a more enjoyable way of measuring

The recipe was plainly printed on a folded sheet of paper and sat on the table next to the mixing bowl and electric hand mixer. I had specifically placed it there to refer to just in case my memory failed me. After all, there was a whole group of ladies perched on the edges of their seats patiently waiting to see the ingredients it would take to create the dessert I was about to prepare. They not only wanted to know the ingredients but also the exact amount of each one I would use.

The idea of exchanging a recipe is certainly not a new one. For centuries, people have been writing down the crucial quantities of ingredients it takes to exactly reproduce a certain dish.

Like a wizard’s secret potion, some recipes have been carefully guarded over time, while others were freely shared. I have always been one to share. After all, I have produced four cookbooks over the years.

However, I have never classified myself as a “chemist” chef — one who turns the art of cooking into a science. I wasn’t even fond of chemistry in school. Wait a minute! That’s not really a fair statement. Strongly disliked would be a much more accurate description. Therefore, I certainly didn’t want to use its principles when it came to cooking. I am just a person who enjoys creating delicious and highly edible things by tweaking recipes so they become more appealing to me.

I used to think everyone cooked that way. That’s how I was taught. A little of this and a splash of that! But, over the years, I quickly realized there are a lot of chemists using bowls and mixers instead of test tubes and microscopes. Maybe it’s using fractions and aprons that cause them to enter their labs. Oops, I mean kitchens.

Don’t get me wrong. My granny had drawers and boxes full to the brim with recipes written on everything you can imagine. Probably some things you can’t. Fragments of torn paper, envelopes, deposit slips, church bulletins and grocery store receipts morphed into her recipe cards. Whenever and wherever she was and wanted a recipe, she simply opened her purse, found something on which to write and a pencil or pen. She then scribbled down the list of ingredients, but I found she only used these notes as a reference point when she cooked.

In a carved wooden bowl, her frail hands carefully formed a small well in the middle of her sifted flour. She then reached into a container filled with shortening and scooped up a handful. Using every arthritic finger on both hands, she combined the flour and shortening until it magically turned into dough. Along came the buttermilk and, when the time was right, she “choked off” (as she called it) a small piece of dough. With a quickness that could only come with years and years of experience, she rolled the small piece of dough between her floured palms and placed it onto a baking pan. As if putting her own personal stamp of approval on each one, she used three of her fingers to slightly flatten the rolled dough. When all the dough was used and the pan was full, into a hot oven it went. Before long, you had a piping hot, buttered biscuit in your hand. What you didn’t have was a recipe!

I often asked her how much of something she used and she always replied using her hands as human measuring cups, “Oh, about THIS much!” Apparently her hand measuring system never failed her because her biscuits were delicious every time.

As I learned to cook, I tried to emulate her method of measuring. If a recipe called for a cup of cheese, I would throw in some extra just because I loved cheese.

If a spaghetti sauce called for a quarter cup of sugar, I’d toss in a half a cup just because I happen to have a sweet tooth. Add more of something you like and less of what you don’t is the way I have always approached cooking.

To be honest, it drives me crazy to cook with a chemist cook.

I had a dear friend who was an excellent cook. Over the years, she produced some very tasty delights. She was older and reminded me a lot of my grandmother. One day, I decided to hang around and watch her bake. It was then that I found out she was a chemist cook. Not one grain of sugar, one piece of salt or one drop of extra extract entered the bowl if it wasn’t listed on the recipe. No ifs, ands or buts about it! I became nervous! Standing there, I went right back to chemistry class just watching her cook. Come to think of it, I probably made her very nervous, too!

So last Saturday at a resort in Florida as I first looked around the room at the ladies who had gathered to watch me whip up a tasty treat and then glanced at the recipe laying on the table, I suddenly realized I had forgotten to bring any measuring cups. I didn’t panic like some people would. I just immediately returned back to my days of cooking with my granny and used her “feels right” hand method of measuring.

Whether you are baking a cake, decorating a room or creating a craft, don’t be scared to venture out and add a little more of your own special spice to it.

Although recipes and instructions are great tools, it is fun to see where veering off the path will take you. Who knows, you may even like your version better!


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Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA; fax them to (478) 474-4390 or call (478) 757-6877.