Saturday, December 4, 2010

Something You Really Shouldn't Make, and Something Else, Which Requires The First

The photo I saw on allrecipes.
1. Looking for a way to use four granny smith apples, I was going to try to make "easy apple strudel," which more or less amounts to surrounding apple slices with puff pastry and baking it.  Unable to find puff pastry in the store, I bought phyllo dough instead, thinking that surely I could use this for something involving apples.  The something I stumbled into on allrecipes was also a "strudel," and seemed to function upon a principle of turning phyllo into puff pastry by layering butter between each sheet.  That, it turned out, was a very optimistic reading of the author's thought process.  Granted, I didn't follow the recipe exactly.  The gist seemed to be: layer about eight sheets of phyllo with melted butter in a pan, then put some apples, sugar, and whatever else you want on top of it, and then... and then what?  Here the text of the recipe says one thing, while the photo clearly shows something quite different.  The recipe reads "roll the sheets up to form a log shape."  The photo looks more like the edges were rolled up to prevent juices from spilling out.  For reasons somewhat murky to me, I went for the photo.  It occurs to me now that anyone can submit a photo for a recipe on allrecipes.  Food photography incites a strong mimetic impulse, but here the assumption that the photos accompanying a recipe come from the author's execution of the recipe, filling out the vagaries that the recipe's words have left, is wrong.  In this case the photo is of someone else's (mis)execution of the recipe.  Allrecipes is thus where a recipe's signified is set adrift.

The web 2.0 mechanism has wide limits, but of course there are plenty of other instances of dissonance between a recipe and its accompanying photography.  In those lavish coffee table cookbooks filled with beautiful photos that take up whole pages, the recipes often lack the finishing touches that made them look so good in the first place.  I have this Thai cookbook that mostly consists of photos of the countryside and its people living a far more aesthetic life than anyone possibly could.  In all the photos the dishes have these amazing garnishes, are placed on rustic tableware, and sometimes even contain ingredients that aren't in the recipe.  What draws me to make a particular recipe in the book is of course the photo, but not only is the recipe inadequate--it is impossible to recreate the photo unless you live in a fantasy version of Thailand.  In other words, rather than follow the recipe, you're better off going to a very upscale Thai restaurant in the US.  Yet if you do follow the recipe, it will be a medium through which to experience the photo.  Though you can see that your dish is not as it is pictured in the book, you taste the photo.

My version.
In the case of this "strudel," the photo fantasy backfired: tasting what I made didn't confirm that my version pales in comparison to the pictured, but rather it told me that what was pictured wasn't that great. It tasted about like it looked--okay.  The phyllo at the edges curled up and turned crunchy, which was mostly just annoying.  I ended up scraping most of the excess flakes off before putting a piece on a plate.    The bottom crust was far too tough, making it difficult to eat with a fork, as well as being an unpleasant texture.  The filling at least was nice: tangy, sweet, and cooked just right (the apples were neither mush nor crisp).

2. As a result of the above debacle, I now had a lot of browned phyllo flakes.  Rather than throw them away, I decided to turn them into a sort of bread pudding.  The pudding came out much better than the original "strudel" I think.  What follows is a very rough recipe, as I wasn't really measuring anything.

~2 cups phyllo flakes (I tore up some uncooked phyllo too)
2 eggs
~2/3 cup milk
~1/2 cup sugar
~2 tablespoons honey
~2 teaspoons cinnamon
~1 teaspoon nutmeg
a few drops of vanilla
~1 cup chopped almonds
~1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 F.  In a bowl whisk together eggs, milk, sugar, honey (heat in a microwave first), cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.  In a 8x8 baking pan, toss phyllo flakes, chopped almonds, and raisins.  Pour wet mixture over dry mixture.  Bake until the whole thing puffs up--maybe half an hour.

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