Writing the Perfect Recipe

Friday, April 29, 2011 - 07:36 AM

On today's Please Explain, Leonard will be speaking to Deb Perelman and John Willoughby about recipes, both good and bad. Below, we've posted two recipes for the same, delicious food: Devil's Food Cake. The recipes span the 20th century: the first, from Fanny Farmer, was initially published in 1896. The second, by the team at Cook's Illustrated, was tested hundreds of times before its publication in 1994. Notice how much shorter the Farmer recipe is--we'll be debating whether brevity is a good thing, or whether more specific recipes yield better results. But before we do, we'd like to hear from you: what do you look for in a recipe? Let us know in the comments below!

Recipe for “Rich Devil’s Food Cake” from 1965 edition of Fanny Farmer

Butter a pan 9 inches square. Set the oven at 350 degrees.

Cook until thick in a double boiler

            4 tablespoons cocoa

            2-1/2 tablespoons sugar

            2 tablespoons water

Remove from the heat. Stir in

            ½ cup milk


            2 eggs

Beat the whites until stiff. Beat in gradually

            ½ cup sugar

Cream together until light

            ½ cup shortening

            1 teaspoon vanilla

            ½ cup sugar

Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time. Add the cocoa mixture.

Sift together

            1 cup flour

            ½ teaspoon cream of tartar

            ½ teaspoon salt

            ½ teaspoon baking soda

Beat into the batter. Fold in the egg whites. Spoon into the pan.

Bake about 35 minutes.


Classic Devil's Food Layer Cake with Whipped Cream

From Cook's Illustrated. Published July 1, 1994.  

Why this recipe works:

While developing our devil’s food layer cake recipe we found very little difference between cakes baked with standard American cocoa and “Dutched” cocoa. We chose water over milk or buttermilk to moisten our cake batter, discovering that cakes made with dairy had a more muted chocolate flavor. 

While developing our devil’s food layer cake recipe we found very little difference between cakes baked with standard American cocoa and “Dutched” cocoa. We chose water over milk or buttermilk to moisten our cake batter, discovering that cakes...(more)

Serves 12

This is an extremely tender cake -- it almost falls apart with the touch of a fork - yet when you chew it, it turns out to be resilient and spongy. Since this batter rises higher, make sure to use 9-by-1 1/2-inch round cake pans.


  • Classic Devil's Food Cake
  • 1/2cup   natural cocoa powder
  • 2teaspoons instant espresso powder , or instant coffee
  • 1cup boiling water
  • 3/4cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2cup plain yogurt , low-fat, or buttermilk
  • 2teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 8tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
  • 1 1/4cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs , at room temperature
  • 1 1/4cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3/4teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2teaspoon table salt
  • Whipped Cream
  • 2 1/2cups heavy cream , cold
  • 3/4cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. For the Cake: Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-by-1 1/2-inch round baking pans with shortening. Line pan bottoms with waxed or parchment paper; grease paper as well. Dust pans with flour; tap out excess.

  2. Mix cocoa and instant coffee in small bowl; add boiling water and mix until smooth. Stir in brown sugar and yogurt or buttermilk. Let cool and add vanilla.

  3. Beat butter in bowl of electric mixer set at medium-high speed until smooth and shiny, about 30 seconds. Gradually sprinkle in sugar; beat until mixture is fluffy and almost white, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating 1 full minute after each addition.

  4. Whisk flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. With mixer on lowest speed, add about 1/3 of dry ingredients to batter, followed immediately by about 1/3 of cocoa mixture; mix until ingredients are almost incorporated into batter. Repeat process twice more. When batter appears blended, stop mixer and scrape bowl sides with rubber spatula. Return mixer to low speed; beat until batter looks satiny, about 15 seconds longer.

  5. Divide batter evenly between pans. With rubber spatula, run batter to pan sides and smooth top. Bake cakes until they feel firm in center when lightly presesd anad skewer comes out clean or with just a crumb or two adhering, 23 to 30 minutes. Tranfer pans to wire racks; cool for 20 minutes. Run knife around perimeter of each pan, invert cakes onto racks, and peel off paper liners. Reinvert cakes onto additional racks; cool completely before frosting.

  6. For the Whipped Cream: Beat cream at medium speed in an electric mixer until thickened. Add confectioners' sugar and vanilla and beat until thick. Apply frosting onto first cake layer and spread with a long metal spatula, top with second cake layer, top second layer with frosting, spread and then frost sides. Decorate top with chocolate shavings, if you like. Serve.

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Comments [11]

clark from nj

I tried 4 different recipes for buttermilk biscuits until finding the one I thought tasted the best. I had to half each one just so I wasn't swamped with biscuits for a week.
America's Test Kitchen recipe was the winner.
If I'm looking for the "right" taste, I don't mind the ground work.

Apr. 29 2011 02:01 PM
Ellen from NYC

Forgot to mention that the Culinary Historians of NY ( has events featuring info and recipes from the past. They're also a lot of fun.

Apr. 29 2011 01:59 PM

Re food blogs

I'd appreciate comments be divided in two segments -- those who actually make the recipe and those who are fantasy or aspirational cooks.

Apr. 29 2011 01:52 PM

That soapy taste is when there's too much baking soda for the amount of acid in the dough/mix, so the soda is not neutralized. I almost always cut baking soda.

Apr. 29 2011 01:51 PM

For food substitutions there's a great food thesaurus on the web:

Apr. 29 2011 01:48 PM

Why do NYTimes recipes seem to use 10 times as much oil as is necessary for every recipe?

Apr. 29 2011 01:47 PM
Heide from Manhattan

My father was a baker who owned a retail bakery. I would like to use his recipes from long ago except the quantities are for large amounts of ingredients. Is there an easy way
to downscale them and achieve the same results?

Apr. 29 2011 01:45 PM
Ellen from NYC

Indeed you can cook ancient recipes. Kathy Kaufman runs delicious and fun historical cooking classes at ICE (institute of culinary educatoin) on 23rd Street.
She adapts the receipes some. I've gone to all of them, including Dining in Impreial Rome. At the end of class, everyone gets to eat the 13 - 18 course dinner they've prepared. And it's a pleasure to cook in a professional kitchen. In addition to Rome, she does Ancient Greece, Persia, medieval spain and more.

Apr. 29 2011 01:39 PM

Are recipe ingredient lists linear? I mean, is it always the case that to double the final amount you double all the quantities of ingredients? Or are there certain ingredients that aren't linear?

Apr. 29 2011 01:39 PM

Lots of old German recipes (and I think I've seen this in English recipes) as you to use the amount of an ingredient that fits onto the tip of a knife when you use the knife to spoon the ingredient out. That's really inaccurate, but fun to see in a recipe.

Apr. 29 2011 01:38 PM
Sasha from Brooklyn

I am never sure how to know when my batter is thick enough, especially for something like choux pastry. One recipe just said beet in eggs till smooth which really did not help me to judge how thick or thin the batter should be.

Apr. 29 2011 01:35 PM

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The Lodown is a blog about everything brought to you by the staff of the Leonard Lopate Show (Leonard will even drop by from time to time)! We cover food, art, politics, history, science and much more -- literally everything from Picasso to pork pies. Tips and suggestions are welcome so please send us your thoughts, curiosities and intellectual detritus!

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