A while back I was discussing recipes with Julia Hastings-Black.1 We were not talking about any recipe in particular, but about the structure of recipes. Most modern recipes are typically divided into a number of sections such as title, ingredients, instructions, yield, notes, and introduction. Both of us mentioned our special frustration with recipes that bury mise en place information in the body of the recipe. You’ve seen examples: recipes that start with “heat some oil in a saucepan over high heat,” and then casually state, “peel and dice the onions and add to the saucepan.” By the time the onions are ready to add to the pan, the oil is overheated and filling the kitchen with smoke. If the instruction to prep the onions is placed in the ingredients list, then the cook knows to have the onions ready when the oil is starting to heat. Even though we are always advised to read all recipes through to the end before starting to cook, life is simpler when recipe instructions are presented completely and in a chronological order. This discussion led me to take a closer look at the structure of French recipes that I’ve seen in the past.
If we look back at old French recipes, we quickly find that recipes haven’t always been presented as they commonly are today. But let’s start at the beginning… One of the earliest French cookbooks is known simply by the name Viandier.2 It is believed to have been dictated by Guillaume Tirel (1315-1395),3 known as Taillevent, to a scribe near the end of the fourteenth century. Today, there are four existing versions of the original manuscript, all with slight variations. The original no longer exists.4 The following recipe for boiled meat is from the “Vatican” manuscript, which is believed to have been copied from an earlier version in the first half of the fifteenth century.5 The adjoining English translation is from Scully’s combined translations of all four versions of the original recipe.
Boulture de grosse chair, si est beuf, porc et mouton. Cuit en eaue et en sel, se mengue, le beuf aux aulx vertz en esté, blans en yver, et le porc et le mouton aussi a bonne sausse vert il n’y ait point de vin se la chair est freische; et se elle [est] sallee, a la moutarde.6
Large meat cuts, such as beef, pork and mutton, boiled. Cooked in salted water and eaten as follows: beef, in summer, with green garlic sauce, in winter, with white garlic sauce; pork and mutton also, if fresh, with a good green sauce of parsley, sage, and hyssop made without wine; and if salted, with mustard.7
The reader will quickly note that this ancient recipe lacks all of the detail that would exist in a modern recipe, and that there is essentially no pronounced structure to it. The recipe contains no quantities. There are no descriptions of the cuts of meat being prepared, only that they are large. There’s no instruction as to how to judge when the meat is cooked. There are recipes for the two sauces elsewhere in some of the Viandier manuscripts, but these recipes are equally vague.8 Even after the printing press came to France in the late fifteenth century, printed versions of Viandier provided no further clarity in the recipes.9
A century and a half passed before the next significant cookbook written in French appeared.10 In 1651, François Pierre, Sieur de La Verenne, (1615-1678) published the first of his three books, Le cuisinier françois. La Verenne’s boiled beef recipe, the now traditional bœuf à la mode, contains very little more structure and information than Taillevent’s recipe.
Battez le bien & le lardez auec du gros lard, puis le mettez cuire dans vn pot auec bon boüillon, vn bouquet, & toutes sortes d épices, & le tout estant bien consommé serves auec la sauce.11
Pound it well, lard it with pork fat, then put it to cook in a pot with bouillon, a bouquet of herbs and all sorts of spices. When everything is boiled down, serve with the sauce.12
La Verenne occasionally slips and provides a little more information to help someone cooking from one of his recipes: “Cook it…for three hours”;13 “…after five or six turns”;14 or “…a dash of vinegar”.15 But these little cues are few. In his later books, La Verenne is slightly more generous with measurements, but still nothing like we expect in modern recipes.
Like Taillevent, La Verenne uses an abbreviated narrative structure to quickly describe the preparation of a dish. I have heard many times that these early chefs were writing for other professionals and thus didn’t need to include much detail. This may be true, but when these works were written, most chefs were illiterate and learned their trade with their eyes and hands.16 I suspect that most chefs were paid too little to own a personal copy of one of these early books although their employers may have purchased a copy for them to use.
Another earlier work contemporaneous with Viandier, Ménagier de Paris (1392 or 1393), was not necessarily written for the exclusive use of a professional chef. It was written by “a prosperous member of the Parisian legal world, associated either with the court of Parliament or with its members. … The cookbook is part of a larger, though unfinished, treatise on the duties of the housewife and is addressed to the author’s young bride. In his introduction, the author says that he is writing for her because she has begged him for instruction [that she will need to run the house], which she would rather receive in private. He is elderly; she is but fifteen.”17 Although Ménagier was written for a different audience, the recipes are no less terse or abbreviated than Taillevent’s or La Verenne’s.
Cookbook authors writing after La Verenne, up into the twentieth century continued to write in a narrative style with a structure of one, or maybe two, paragraphs. And like La Verenne, they occasionally toss in a few measurements. Pierre de Lune, in his recipe for bœuf à la mode, adds a demi-douzaine de champignons (half a dozen mushrooms),18 and François Massialot, in his recipe autre entrée de pièce de bœuf, calls for deux livres de sain-doux (two pounds of rendered pork fat) and specifies that the meat is braised for douze heures (twelve hours).19 In La cuisinière bourgeoise, the anonymous recipe author braises the meat for cinq ou six heures (five or six hours) and adds une cuillerée à bouche d’eau-de-vie (one tablespoon brandy) when the meat is half-cooked.20
At first glance, Audot’s recipe structure looks similar to his predecessors until you look closely at the recipes. Although the structure is still a narrative consisting of a single paragraph, the ingredients and methods are specified in more detail. Was Audot writing for a less informed audience or was he just presenting more detail for the benefit of whoever his readers may be?
Prenez de préférence le milieu de la culotte ou tranche grasse; battez-le bien; lardez de gros lard; mettez-le dans une casserole avec quelques couennes de lard, une moitié de pied de veau, un ognon [sic], une carotte, un bouquet de fines herbes, laurier, thym, ail, clous de girofle, sel et poivre; versez sur le tout un verre d’eau, un demi-verre de vin blanc ou une cuillerée d’eau-de-vie, et faites cuire jusqu’à ce que votre viande soit très-tendre; ensuite dégraissez, passez le jus au tamis et servez. Il faut au moins 4 heures pour cuire un bœuf à la mode; il doit être fait à petit feu et bien étouffé.21
Preferably use a medium-sized piece or thick slice of rump; pound it well; lard it with thick strips of pork fat; put it in a pan with a few pieces of pig skin, a half of a veal foot, an onion, a carrot, a bouquet of bay leaf, thyme, garlic, cloves, salt and pepper; moisten with a glass of water, half a glass of white wine, or a spoonful of brandy; cook until the meat is very tender; degrease the cooking liquids, strain through a sieve, and serve. It takes at least 4 hours to cook bœuf à la mode; it must be prepared over a small fire that is well damped.
Fifty years after Audot published La Cuisinière, Jules Gouffé wrote his equally massive Le Livre de cuisine. Gouffé takes the narrative structure one step further by breaking the single paragraph-long recipe found elsewhere into many paragraphs. Quantities are listed for all ingredients, although they are still mostly embedded in the text rather than listed separately at the beginning of the recipe as we expect today. The instructions are provided in much detail.
Ayez 2 kilos de tranche de bœuf coupée en carré. On peut aussi employer le talon de collier; ce morceau est moins sec que la tranche, et peut lui être préféré quelquefois avec avantage.
Ayez 3 hectos de lard gras; retirez la couenne, que vous mettez de côté pour blanchir;
Coupez le lard en lardons de 1 centimère [sic] carré et soupoudrez [sic] de sel et de poivre.
Piquez la viande sur le fil; ficelez comme pour le pot-au-feu;
Mettez le morceau de bœuf dans la casserole avec :
5 Décilitres de vin blanc,
1 Décilitre d’eau-de-vie,
6 Décilitres de bouillon,
6 Décilitres d’eau,
2 Pieds de veau que vous aurez désossés et blanchis.
La couenne de lard également blanchie;
Mettez sur le feu, et ajoutez 30 grammes de sel;
Faites bouillir, puis écumez comme pour le pot-au-feu;
Mettez, après avoir écumé :
500 Grammes de carottes,
3 Clous de girofle,
1 Bouquet garni,
20 Grammes de sel,
2 Prises de poivre.
Mettez sur le coin du fourneau en couvrant la casserole; vous laisserez mijoter pendant quatre heures et demie à très petits bouillons.
Sondez avec l’aiguille à brider pour vous assurer de ta cuisson. lorsque le bœuf est cuit, mettez-le sur un plat avec les carottes et les pieds de veau;
Tenez au chaud bien couvert jusqu’au moment de servir;
Passez le jus à travers la passoire dite chinois;
Dégraissez parfaitement et faites réduire d’un quart;
Déficelez le morceau de bœuf et mettez-le sur le plat pour servir;
Ajoutez les pieds de veau, que vous couperez en 8 morceaux chacun; les carottes taillées en morceaux de la grosseur d’un bouchon; puis 10 oignons glacés.
Disposez pieds de veau, oignons et carottes autour du bœuf, en mélangeant, sans pourtant affecter la symétrie;
Versez la sauce dans le plat sur la viande et réservez le surplus pour le lendemain;
Goûtez toujours pour vous assurer de l’assaisonnement.
Le bœuf à la mode doit être relevé de goût.
On ajoute quelquefois une gousse d’ail; je l’indique, non comme une chose indispensable, mais qu’il est toujours prudent de soumettre à l’assentiment de la maîtresse de maison.22
Have a 2-kilo slice of beef cut into a square. You can also use the base of a neck; this piece may be less dry than the slice, which can be seen sometimes as an advantage.
Have the skin removed from 300 grams of fatty bacon; set the skin aside to blanch;
Cut the bacon into 1-centimeter square strips and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.
Lard the meat with the bacon strips; tie the meat up as for a pot-au-feu;
Place the meat in a saucepan along with:
5 deciliters of white wine,
1 deciliter of brandy,
6 deciliters of stock,
6 deciliters of water,
2 veal feet that have been previously boned and blanched.
The bacon skin should also be blanched;
Put on the saucepan on the fire, and add 30 grams of salt;
Bring to a boil, skim the scum as for pot-au-feu;
Add, after skimming:
500 grams carrots,
1 bouquet garni,
20 grams salt,
2 pinches pepper.
Cover the saucepan and place it on the corner of the stove; leave it to simmer with very small bubbles for four and a half hours.
Test the beef with a needle to ensure that it is cooked, put it on a dish with the carrots and the veal feet;
Keep warm, well covered, until time to serve;
Strain the cooking juices through a fine china cap;
Degrease the juices and reduce by one-fourth;
Untie the meat and place it on the serving plate;
Add the veal feet, each cut into 8 pieces; the carrots, cut into pieces the size of a wine cork; and 10 glazed onions.
Arrange the veal feet, onions, and carrots around the beef in a manner that does not affect its symmetry;
Pour some of the sauce over the meat, and reserve the remainder for use at a later time.
Always taste the dish to assure that it is seasoned properly.
The bœuf à la mode must be full of flavor.
Sometimes, one adds a clove of garlic; I note it, but it is not essential; it is always prudent to obtain the approval of the housewife.
Gouffé’s somewhat verbose recipe structure does not appear to have been emulated by many other authors of the period, or indeed by most authors since. But the concept of embedding a precise list of ingredients within the body of the recipe became the norm throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Authors like Escoffier,23 Montagné,24 and Pellaprat25 combine detailed descriptions of ingredient quantities with somewhat terse instructions of preparation, often combined in a single paragraph, for most recipes.
It may be argued that with Gouffé, the audience begins to have an effect on the author’s style of writing and thus the structure of the recipe. Gouffé divides his book into two sections: one for the housewife and one for the professional. The recipes in the non-professional section seem to contain more description than those in the professional section. But this trend doesn’t seem to hold with the three authors mentioned above. Escoffier may have been writing for a professional audience, Pellaprat for a non-professional audience, and Montagné for both, but the structure of their recipes are all very similar. And lesser authors of the same period seem to have been influenced by these masters. Classic books such as La Véritable cuisine de famille26 and Le Nouveau livre de cuisine27 are written with the housewife firmly in mind, but follow the somewhat terse structure of Escoffier and his cohorts.
But there were exceptions among the major recipe authors of the time. Marie Ebrard, writing under the pseudonym La Vieille Catherine, uses a recipe structure that may be seen as an extreme opposite of her less windy compatriots. Her recipe for bœuf à la mode, published in an early issue of the magazine Le Pot-au-Feu, covers nearly six pages of the issue, and is too long to reproduce in this article.28 There’s a ten-paragraph-long introduction divided into two sections. This is followed by a list of the ingredients and their quantities for the meat portion of the dish. The ingredient list for the garniture is separate from the main ingredient list and the ingredient list for the sauce is embedded in the text. The preparation of the dish is described in excruciating detail, but the number of persons that the five-pound portion of meat will serve is not listed anywhere. In a majority of the other recipes she published in the magazine, she also included a résumé between the ingredient list and the instructions. The résumé was a concise, one-paragraph version of the recipe. (My experience with her recipes leads me to think that by reading only the résumé, I have at least ninety percent of the information I need to prepare her recipes.)
Ebrard writes with a similar structure in her massive cookbook published 32 years later, Le Livre de cuisine de Mme E. Saint-Ange. Here the recipe covers almost six pages and includes a long introduction.29 In the book there are three variations of the traditional bœuf à la mode recipe: bœuf à la mode à la ménagère, bœuf à la mode à la bourgeoise, and bœuf à la mode froid. The first two variations have detailed ingredient/quantity lists along with an estimate of the time required for the preparation. The third variation is more of a one-paragraph “word of advice” for serving either of the two previous versions cold.
Two years after it was initially published a laconic version was published under the title of La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange.30 This new version has only a single recipe for bœuf à la mode that fills only a line or two more than a single small page. After the ingredients/quantities list is shown as a very long run-on sentence, there is an estimate of the cooking time followed by the entire recipe presented in three succinct paragraphs.
At about the same time that Le Pot-au-Feu was coming to the end of its first of its three lives,31 another culinary magazine came into existence. The first issue of Culina: Publication Idéale de la Maîtresse de maison was published in 1908 and lasted at least until 1912, the date of my most recent issue. Recipes in Culina—I unfortunately don’t have an example of bœuf à la mode—typically start with a statement of the number of people that the recipe will serve. This is followed by a detailed list of ingredients, sometimes augmented with mise en place instructions. Recipes continue with a section labeled méthode, which are the instructions. Occasionally the instructions are numbered, but mostly not. Sometimes the recipe ends with a paragraph of remarques, or notes. Many of the recipes are illustrated with pen and ink drawings, and sometimes even with detailed photographs. In many ways, the structure of the recipes found in Culina is the first example of those to be found in current cooking publications.
At about this same time, the early editions of Ali-Bab’s Gastronomie pratique were being published. I don’t know what structure the recipes took in the earliest editions, the first being published in 1909, but the fourth edition, published in 1928 and considered by the publisher and others to be the definitive version of the book, contains recipes with the detail that one would expect from someone trained as an engineer32 rather than a cook. Ali-Bab only presents a cold version of bœuf à la mode in detail.
Le bœuf à la mode bien préparé est un excellent plat de famille qu’on peut présenter chaud* avec des carottes, ou bien froid en gelée.
Présenté froid, en aspic, il a très bonne allure, el il convient particulièrement pour les pique-niques à la campagne.
Pour dix à douze personnes, prenez :
500 grammes de culotte de bœuf désossée et parée,
800 grammes de bon bouillon,
500 grammes de vin blanc de Sauternes,
500 grammes de vin de Madère,
250 grammes de carottes épluchées et coupées en tranches, dont on ne conservera que les parties rouges,
200 grammes de lard à piquer, en lardons ayant une section carrée de 5 millimètres de côté,
100 grammes d’oignons épluchés et coupés en tranches,
50 grammes de fine champagne,
40 grammes de graisse de rôti,
1 clous de girofle,
2 blancs d’œufs,
1 fort pied de veau lavé, nettoyé et coupé en morceaux,
1 morceau carré de couenne de lard de 2 décimètres de côté,
1 bouquet garni (persil, thym, laurier),
sel et poivre.
Mettez lc bœuf assaisonné avec sel, poivre et quatre épices, les lardons, 400 grammes de vin blanc et 400 grammes de madère dans une terrine de dimensions convenables pour que la viande baigne dans le liquide.
Au bout de vingt-quatre heures, prenez les lardons, assaisonnez-les, piquez-en la viande parallèlement aux fibres; mettez-la dans une casserole avec la graisse de rôti et faites-la revenir de tous les côtés pendant 20 minutes ; flambez-la ensuite avec la fine champagne.
Foncez la casserole avec la couenne, placez le bœuf dessus, ajoutez le pied de veau, les carottes, les oignons. le bouquet garni, les clous de girofle. Mouillez avec h bouillon, le reste du vin blanc et le reste du madère, la marinade, salez et poivrez légèrement, couvrez, donnez un bouillon, puis laissez cuire à petit feu pendant quatre heures et demie. Avant la fin de la cuisson, goûtez et complétez l’assaisonnement s’il y a lieu.
La cuisson achevée, retirez le bœuf et les carottes. Passez le jus, dégraissez-le, clarifiez-le avec les blancs et deux: coquilles d’œufs, en chauffant sur un feu modéré, enlevez-le du feu au premier bouillon et passez-le au travers d’ un torchon légèrement mouillé.
Coupez le bœuf en tranches perpendiculairement aux lardons.
Prenez un moule, décorez-en les parois avec des tranches de carottes non désagrégées, cuites à part, coulez-y du jus; laissez prendre en gelée, puis mettez une couche de tranches de bœuf, au-dessus une couche de carottes, noyez le tout dans du jus, continuez ainsi les alternances et terminez par une couche de bœuf. Mettez à refroidir, puis démoulez.
Servez en découpant l’aspic comme si vous aviez affaire à un pâté.
Les convives trouveront dans chaque bouchée du bœuf, du lard, des carottes et de la gelée.33
*Le bœuf à la mode, chaud, peut être servi, sans accompagnement de carottes, avec une purée d’oignons : c’est le bœuf Soubise.
On peu encore le présenter, sans carottes, avec du riz : riz sec, riz au gras, risotto ou pilaf.
A well-prepared bœuf à la mode is an excellent family dish which may be served hot* with carrots, or cold in jelly.
Served cold, in aspic, it is very attractive, and it is particularly suitable for country picnics.
For ten to twelve people, use:
500 grams beef rump, boned and trimmed,
800 grams good quality bouillon,
500 grams white sauterne wine,
500 grams madeira wine,
250 grams carrots, red part only, peeled and sliced,
200 grams pork fat, cut into 5-millimeter square strips
100 grams onion, peeled and sliced,
50 grams brandy
40 grams fat from a roast,
2 egg whites,
1 large veal foot, washed, cleaned, and cut into pieces,
20-centimeter square piece of pork skin,
bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, bay leaf)
salt and pepper.
Season beef with salt, pepper, and 4-spice powder. Put the beef along with the strips of pork fat, 400 grams of white wine, and 400 grams of madeira in a bowl in which the meat can bathe in the liquid.
After twenty-four hours take out the pork strips, season them, and insert them into the meat, parallel to the fibers, with a larding needle. Place the beef in a saucepan along with the fat from a roast and brown the meat on all sides for 20 minutes; then flambé it with the brandy.
Place the pork skin in the bottom of a saucepan, place the beef on it, add the veal foot, the carrots, the onion, the bouquet garni, and the clove. Add the bouillon, the rest of the white wine, the rest of the madeira, and the marinade; salt and pepper lightly. Cover, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer over very low heat for four and a half hours. Before the cooking is complete, taste and add more seasoning if necessary.
Once the meat is cooked, remove the beef and the carrots. Strain the liquid, degrease it, clarify it with the beaten egg whites and 2 egg shells, heating it over moderate heat until it comes to a boil, at which time remove the pan from the heat and strain the liquid through a wet towel.
Cut the beef into slices, perpendicular to the pork strips.
Decorate the sides of a mold with whole carrot slices that have been cooked separately and pour in some of the cooking liquid. Let this gel, then arrange a layer of beef slices, on top of these a layer of carrots, and cover these with liquid. Continue these alternating layers, ending with a layer of beef. Chill and then unmold.
Serve by slicing this aspic as though it were a pâté.
Guests will discover in each mouthful some beef, some of the pork strips, some carrots, and some jelly.34
*Bœuf à la mode, hot, may be served without the accompanying carrots but with an onion puree; this would then be called bœuf Soubise.
One may also serve it without carrots but with rice: plain rice, rice cooked in fat, risotto, or pilaf.
Gastronomie pratique also contains many recipes in a simple narrative structure that is reminiscent of early recipes that lacked quantities, except that Ali-Bab’s are still very detailed in their instructions.
After the conclusion of the Second World War, cookbooks started to look more and more like those we commonly see today. For example, Curnonsky’s bœuf à la mode recipe lacks the individual recipe notes of Gastronomie pratique but is in other ways quite complete.35 General introductory material introduces each section rather than each recipe. Preparation and cooking times are listed separately. Ingredients are listed in-line with quantities and preparation instructions. Instructions are detailed, but not verbose. And there’s even a color picture of a cold variation of the finished dish.
Over the last fifty years, the separate list of ingredients and quantities, sometimes with preparation instructions, has become the standard in recipe writing. Some recipes provide an estimate of total preparation and cooking time, but many don’t. Almost all list the number of people that the completed recipe will serve. Sometimes instructions are terse and other times wordy. Sometimes the instructions are numbered, but because the instructions are presented in order, the numbering is a bit superfluous. Sometimes the completed recipes are illustrated, and sometimes even the instructions are augmented with illustrations. Often the layout of a book or a magazine seems to dictate the structure of the recipe, causing some recipes to be easier to follow than others.
Although still occasionally found, the purely narrative structure of La Verenne or the quantitative/narrative structure of Audot are rare in modern recipe writing. Today’s recipes tend to be complete without being wordy, and of a completely different structure.