Lots of folks can get to the point in their Journey to become Confident Cooks where they can look at a list of ingredients and know what techniques to apply to come up with their desired end result. I'll talk about how to get there at Some Other Point (you're welcome), but friends, a Thing has come up that is making me take a Bit of a Detour today.
Today I want to take a look at supposed Expert sites that offer recipes. Places like Martha Stewart and Epicurious*. And The Food Network. And this is why. When one searches for a recipe online, one should realize that one is Engaged in a Crap Shoot. Recipe agglomeration sites are everywhere, and most sites do not require tested recipes. It's the Wild, Wild West out there, and the recipes posted on these sites are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed. But when you search for a recipe on the expert sites, you expect the recipes to work, to be accurately represented and to be tested or at least Skimmed Over for Accuracy.
But yesterday I was scanning through my twitter feed, and I came across this conversation between Extremely Talented Pastry Chef Stella Parks, @thebravetart, and The Undisputed Cookie Maven of NYC Gail Dosik, @THEToughCookie that started with this:
"It's telling that this upsets me. WTF, @FoodNetwork?" with a link to a Recipe. To this tweet, Gail responded with something along the lines of How could they even print that? Who's going to go comment Upon It? Stella, rabble rouser that she is, was all "Let's All Comment!" So, not wanting to be Left Out, of course I went to see What was Up. And this is what I found and what had Stella and Gail all Het Up:
A recipe for something called "French" Buttercream attributed to baker/owner of Charm City Cakes, Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes fame. This recipe contains 3 ingredients: egg whites, sugar and butter. Yes, you can make buttercream with these three ingredients, but it's not French Buttercream. It's Italian or Swiss Buttercream, depending on whether the sugar is cooked to the medium ball stage before being added to the whites or the whites and sugar are warmed together over a water bath until the sugar crystals dissolve.
- Problem 1: This particular French buttercream isn't French at all.
- Problem 2: As written, this particular buttercream isn't any type of buttercream that folks generally make ever.
- Problem 3: No salt. Duh.
- Problem 4: No attempt is made to cook the eggs, and there is no disclaimer regarding the consumption of unpasteurized, uncooked eggs in the recipe.
Here's the comment that I left:
While this is, indeed, a recipe for buttercream, it is not French buttercream. It is most akin to Swiss buttercream, a buttercream in which the whites and sugar are whisked together over a water bath until the sugar has dissolved before whipping to peaks and adding the butter.
Technically, it is based on French Meringue, which is a simple mixture of egg whites and sugar--at a ratio of usually 2 parts sugar to 1 part egg whites, by weight--which are whipped together to stiff peaks. However, French buttercream is an entirely different animal and is based on a pate a bombe--egg yolks whipped to a thick, creamy consistency with a hot sugar syrup. This buttercream, since it is based on uncooked whites, will weep and lose volume in short order.
Please, it's hard enough for people to learn to cook and bake without a supposed "expert" site disseminating incorrect information. Very sad, indeed.
And guess what happened? The Food Network Moderator People rejected my comment. Rejected it! I'm used to having my photographs rejected at the food photo sharing sites. I mean, I'm not a photographer after all. But I do know my way around a buttercream or three, and for them to reject my comment--which was technically correct and at least could have helped someone out if they had read it--is Grumpy Making.
Oh, and why did they reject my comment? Thank you for your comment, however, please use this section for reviews only. For your convenience we have copied your original review below. Okay, my comment isn't a review? Because I haven't made their buttercream? Well, I didn't make it--and would never make it as written--because it won't work. And I know this because I Know Whereof I Speak when it comes to Such Things.
Here's Gail's comment:
French Buttercream? Nope. The lack of egg yolks make this this the ingredient list for Italian or Swiss buttercream.
Raw egg whites? Really? With Italian buttercream, a hot syrup is made to a) melt the sugar so you're not left with a grainy mouth feel and b) to bring the egg whites to a temperature that will kill any bad bacteria in the egg whites. In a Swiss Meringue the sugar and egg whites are heated together to do the same things.
Serving raw egg product is at best a risky proposition. I am the owner of an artisanal cake & cookie business and the idea of selling anything with uncooked eggs is absolutely out of the question.
Printing this recipe as written without a note about consuming uncooked or undercooked eggs is a bit irresponsible.
Bravo, Gail! The Food Network folks came back to Gail and said this:
Thank you for your review. We appreciate you [sic] taking the time to bring this to our attention and have escalated to our culinary team of experts for clarification and/or testing. Should you have any additional questions regarding the recipe and/or accuracy, please contact...
While I didn't start writing this post to be all mad that my review was rejected and Gail's review, which brings up the same points, was kicked upstairs as it were, the fact remains. So I just ask you to ponder that for a moment before we move on...
Okay, moving on.
At the bottom of this supposed French Buttercream recipe is printed the following:
* Restaurant Recipe
This recipe was provided by professional chefs and has been scaled down from a bulk recipe provided by a restaurant. Food Network Kitchens have not tested this recipe in the proportions indicated and therefore cannot make representation as to the results.
And guess what else? This exact recipe is printed twice on The Food Network site. Once as French Buttercream and once as a component of--and I promise I am NOT making this up--Eyeball Mini Cakes.
The directions for each version of the recipe are identical except for the Cook's Notes. In the first--the one for French Buttercream--the only Cook's Note is to use a very clean bowl and beaters so the whites will whip up to maximum volume. In the second--the Eyeball Component Version--the Cook's Notes include the one about using a clean bowl and this additional note:
- Don't worry about using raw egg whites in your buttercream, the sugar cooks the egg whites and makes them perfectly safe to eat, if you are still uneasy about this, use a pasteurized egg product.
That's great and all, but the Actual Recipe Instructions do not mention heating the sugar at all. In either version. And The Food Network folks print their little Don't Hold Us Responsible If This Doesn't Work Out for You disclaimer at the end of both versions.
Upon seeing the cook's note in the second version, folks like Gail and Stella other baker types would know that the instructions were in error and that they were actually making an Italian buttercream which requires a sugar syrup. But folks not In The Know would be very confused about how the sugar could cook the eggs if no heat is applied--maybe it's like ceviche, they'd think. And then they'd think that the recipe is correct as written because it was attributed to a Famous Chef and printed--twice!--on their Favorite Food Website.
How--how?!--are Intimidated Cooks going to learn if they aren't taught solid techniques or how to read a recipe with discernment? And how can they learn to be discerning if there's so much disinformation out there? And who's supposed to teach them if not the folks on the channel devoted to food? (Oooh! Let me)! I am extremely disappointed in The Food Network folks on many levels, but this Particular recipe just Raises my Ire. Higher.
This morning, I asked my fans on facebook to help me out by commenting about the Fake French Buttercream--some of my fans are baker types and pastry chefs while others just enjoy baking. Here's some of what they said:
I am no stranger to buttercream, and I have to be honest--any buttercream recipe that starts with 10 egg whites is instantly cast aside. No matter how good it tastes. Too fussy for my kitchen. 😉 --CD
10 egg whites, Really! No I wouldn't bother with it at all, there are so many easy butter cream recipes out there. --BC
I wouldn't make this recipe simply for the fact that the egg whites are not cooked and I wouldn't risk serving this to my customers. I myself make Italian buttercream. Not only do the egg whites cook when you add the hot syrup but my recipe calls for less egg whites to butter ratio and might I say.. it is DELICIOUS!! --KK
I think the amount of butter is a little high. Also this is the first time I have seen a French Buttercream with no egg yolks. I share your sentiment for the Food Network --JR
This sounds more like a swiss buttercream. Also, if u calculate the total yield based on the quantity of eggs whites (10 oz.) this makes over 4 lbs.....that's a lot of buttercream. --LBM
Swiss meringue buttercream cooks the egg whites.. this recipe does not cook the egg whites. I agree with JR too... 1/2 cup too much butter I think. --KK (again)
First of all, thanks for chiming in. Secondly--do you detect a theme? That most of these comments zero in on the facts that this is an uncooked buttercream, that the proportions are quite possibly off and that French Buttercream contains yolks.
Dear Food Network people. I am not alone in my assessment, my Review, of this recipe. I am very sad that you rejected my comment, but I hope that your "culinary team of experts" take Gail's review seriously and amend the directions so that this recipe actually works as an Italian Buttercream. I'm pretty sure that Duff makes this as an Italian buttercream, sugar syrup and all, and somehow the instructions got lost in translation, either because he didn't add instructions and an intern was tasked with adding them (a lot of my professional "recipes" are just a list of ingredients) or Some Other Reason That Escapes Me.
I did a search for "Duff Goldman Buttercream Recipe" to see if I could find a different list of instructions. And this is what I found. Folks on the Cake Central website were discussing This Very Icing three years ago. Here's what one of them said on May 27, 2009:
Actually what you describe is an Italian buttercream, and it's not simple syrup, but rather sugar, cooked to soft-ball stage (huge difference) which is added to the whipping whites. An actual French buttercream is where soft-ball sugar is added to whipping whole eggs and/or yolks (pate a bomb), and is VERY rich (I can post a recipe if anyone cares to try). What Duff is doing is using a french meringue and turning it into a buttercream, but it is not, by definition, a French buttercream. Duff's recipe is closest to a Swiss buttercream, except that in a Swiss buttercream, the meringue is heated.
Sound familiar? Everyone who knows about Such Things knows just by looking that this recipe is a bomb. But anyone who relies on expert sites such as The Food Network for solid recipes would have no idea. And then Food Network covers itself with its little disclaimer so that folks can't come back and be all Upset with them when Little Precious's birthday party is ruined due to an Unfortunate Frosting Incident.
I guess that, after all of this, I should come up with something constructive to say. Pointers for The Food Network. Here goes.
I don't believe that all recipes necessarily need to be tested on these expert sites. I do think that the recipes should at least be Looked At with a critical eye--by someone who works for The Site. Because when you're just starting out, you know enough to be dangerous but not enough to realize that some instructions are just plain incorrect. Or sometimes proportions are off. I remember a couple of years ago when a site posted a recipe for a nutmeg cake. It called for something like 20 teaspoons of nutmeg instead of 2. When taken in large enough quantities, nutmeg is a hallucinogenic. Folks who didn't know better made it and became Rather Ill Indeed.
Unless you're pedaling recipes to a bunch of folks who really know what they're doing, I think you--and by you, I mean The Food Network--really have a responsibility to try to give folks vetted information and not just weasel out with a disclaimer. It's not fair. Nobody learns anything, and folks who might already be recipe shy become even more so after a recipe printed from an expert site fails.
What do you think? Should these big recipe sites take more responsibility for the recipes they print? Have you ever had a recipe from an Expert Site fail? Sound off below!
PS Thanks, Stella and Gail, for getting me all wound up. See what happens?!
*I have no direct knowledge of any recipes from either Martha Stewart of Epicurious failing. I only list them as two other examples of Expert Sites that have exhaustive recipe databases.