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Cookbook Trouble : Can This Recipe Be Saved?


During the course of researching this story, a lot people were only too happy to tell us about recipes that don't work. Some gleefully bad-mouthed entire cookbooks. We took it all in and then eagerly went off to check things out. During the last six weeks, The Times Test Kitchen tested and retested some 50 recipes.

Sure, we had some real losers. The microwaved date and olive wrap-arounds from Sheila Lukins' and Julie Rosso's "New Basics Cookbook" came out looking like something dug up at the La Brea tar pits. And the two lemon pies from Martha Stewart's "Pies & Tarts" book were both duds. Martha's mile-high pie ran all over the plate, while the Marsha Harris version she offers as an alternative would have made excellent wallpaper paste. Besides neglecting to tell us to cook the lemon in a non-reactive saucepan, the cornstarch added to boiling water and lemon never completely dissolved.

And there was the flavorless pinto bean soup from John Sedlar's "Modern Southwest Cuisine." The recipe, which calls for one cup of pinto beans to three cups of half and half, comes out as weak-tasting as it sounds.

But surprisingly, many of the reportedly faulty recipes not only worked but tasted wonderful. One award-winning cookbook author griped that he never could get Rose Levy Beranbaum's genoise to work. We did. Another complained of far too much chile oil in the spicy soba noodles in Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger's "City Cuisine" book. The noodles were delicious. Someone grumbled that there was way too much pepper in Paul Prudhomme's recipes. Well, that's his style of cooking. And Marion Cunningham's gingerbread did not run all over the oven the way one authority claimed it would.

So many things affect how well a recipe works--equipment, weather, ingredients, personal taste. So what's a cookbook author to do? Vigilance and thorough working knowledge of one's recipes are probably the best insurance.

When well-known radio homemaker Evelyn Birkby was first going on the air in Iowa in 1950, her boss gave her good advice: "Think about the recipes. . . . Be conscious of what they should include. Test them so you are familiar with the way they go together and with the results.

"Never relax--recipes will clobber you if you do."


Several people, including an important cookbook editor, complained that the seven-hour leg of lamb from Patricia Wells' "Bistro Cooking" (Workman Publishing) didn't work. "Cooking a leg of lamb at 425 degrees for seven hours is insane, not to mention it will blow up your oven," griped one of the critics. We thought the method sounded ridiculous too--it seemed that if you were going to cook a lamb for seven hours, at least you should do it at a lower temperature. We knew we had a sure-fire loser.

We were wrong. The recipe turned out to be one of the best we've tested so far this year. And we never had to turn the oven temperature down once. The lamb was tender and full of flavor, and the tasters in The Times Test Kitchen couldn't get enough.

Still, the method described in Wells' book is somewhat confusing. After cooking the lamb for one hour, she tells us to add the wine and cook the lamb four to five more hours. After that, one hour before serving, she goes on to say, bury the potatoes and tomatoes in the liquid, cover and roast the lamb for another hour or so. But is that after the fourth or the fifth hour of additional cooking? Yes, she tells us the time will vary according to the size and age of the lamb, but it would help if we knew what the cooked lamb is supposed to look like at that point, or whether it would ruin the vegetables to cook them the full two hours.

We added the vegetables during the sixth hour of the total process, choosing the longest cooking time, so our recipe did end up being a true seven-hour leg of lamb.

AMBASSADE D' AUVERGNE'S SEVEN-HOUR LEG OF LAMB 6 medium onions, quartered 6 carrots, peeled and quartered 1 head garlic, separated into cloves, each peeled and halved 6 bay leaves 1 bunch fresh thyme or 3 to 4 teaspoons dried 1 lamb leg, bone-in, 6 to 7 pounds Salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 (750-milliliter) bottles dry white wine, such as Aligote 5 pounds large boiling potatoes, peeled and quartered 5 tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded and chopped

Layer onions, carrots, garlic, bay leaves and thyme on bottom of nonreactive roaster (with cover) large enough to hold lamb. Place lamb on top of onion and carrot mixture and roast, uncovered, at 425 degrees 30 minutes. Remove roaster from oven and generously season lamb with salt and pepper to taste. Return to oven and roast 30 minutes more.

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