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Ever "wing it" and make a *perfect* recipe... and don't know why it was so special?

I was going to make short ribs for dinner the other night, but I'd dawdled too long and ended up without enough time. I did have the makings for pizza, though, and decided to give it yet another go. My husband was on the computer (where my various pizza dough recipes are stored) so I decided to wing it. Wouldn't you know, it was absolutely perfect. We're NY style crust fans - no easy task to even attempt to duplicate when you don't even have a self-cleaning oven which you can disable to get higher temps so I heated my pizza stone as usual, in a 500 degree oven for an hour or so.

I just sort of combined the "right" ingredients in no real particular amounts. A little more than a tablespoon of "bread machine yeast" - which is just regular rapid-rise yeast in a big jar - some sugar, some salt, some vital wheat gluten and about a half cup of flour into about 2 1/4 cups of water and let it "get to work" while I prepped my workspace for kneading in more flour. Who knows how much I stirred and then kneaded in - I just worked it until it felt right. Could've been 4 cups of flour overall, could've been 6. No idea.

The only thing I know I did differently this time was that when I turned my dough into an oiled bowl, I splashed "too much" olive oil into the bowl, and didn't bother to wipe it out - there was probably 1/4 cup of oil in the bowl, enough to form a little ring of oil around my dough.

I made sauce while the dough rose to double, let my 9yo punch it down and divide it into four pieces, then got into the groove of making three pizzas (about 14 inches each) and a sausage/ricotta/mozzarella/parmesean calzone.

The calzone was exquisite. My husband is from NY (born & raised in Brooklyn and then later to the mid-Hudson valley region) and I lived there for several years as well, so when I say that, I *do* know what a calzone "should" be. LOL

Ditto for the crusts on the pizzas. Amazing. So thin and toothsome and perfectly blistered here and there... My kids, who have suffered through several attempts at NYstyle pizza, were like "ohhh, so THIS is what it's supposed to taste like!" Our family of five tore through those three pizzas and calzone.

What're the odds I'll ever be able to replicate? I mean, I've meticulously followed recipes that insisted I weigh my flour. I've followed recipes that insisted I let my dough rise slowly overnight. Recipes down to the exact amount of everything and they've just never been quite right... and by winging it I pull off whisper-thin pizza crust which still manages to (just almost - you did have to fold it a little) stand up to Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushrooms and a gloriously almost-fluffy calzone.

Don't you love/hate those kinds of meals?

What are you constantly trying to perfect by scouring the internet for the "perfect" recipe? Have you ever decided to wing it instead?

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  1. Yes, when I made Spinach Gnocchi.

    For some reason I couldn't decide which of several recipes to use so I concentrated on making it look like the one in the most delectable photograph. I did a composite of four or five recipes and it came out looking like the delectable photograph and tasting sublime.

    I have never been able to replicate it.

    In your case I would try to make it again soon. And, of course, write it down if it's another success. Good luck!

    1. Other than for baking, I don't use recipes. There are times when someone will ask me to make such and such again and I have to change the subject because I remember the success of the dish but not necessarily how to get there again.

      1. First, congratulations on your good fortune!

        I took a cooking class in which the instructor said that it takes ten times to get a recipe right, so don't get bamboozled by imperfection the first time or two, especially with baking!

        Like SilverlakeGirl, I've had good fortune when combining recipes...last week I was going to make a crayfish sauce for pasta, had a nice recipe, but there were no crayfish to be had at the local fishmonger. Bought some large shrimp instead, but the differences between the two shellfish were great enough to force me to alter the process/recipe. Remembered a recipe for making shrimp stock in the Herbfarm Cookbook (one of my all-time favorites!), prepared that instead of what the original recipe called for, combined with some of the ingredients in the crayfish recipe, added a few items of my own devising, and voila! A damned good shrimp sauce for pasta that I stumbled into...damned if I remember everything I added/did!

        1. Heh. The boy and I did this with a restaurant dish we enjoyed. I don't remember the name, but we call it Jamaican Shrimp. The main bit was the sauce, which was FANTASTIC, figured out with some careful tasting and looking up of Jamaican recipes to remind us of any ingredients we might've forgotten/missed. We made it once or twice more, then one last time that was waaaaaaaaaaaay too creamy. Got a little scared then, but are going to have a go again, and try to get back to the original. I'll have to be firm, as I think he sorta liked it the creamy way...........

          2 Replies
          1. re: juster

            Care to share your recipe (or basic procedure) ?

            1. re: mellycooks

              Hey! Sorry so long in responding... I've not been here much since the changeover, but am trying to get back...

              I'll certainly share! It's been a while, like I said, so I'll have to find my notes, as I don't remember all of it. Might be a while, but check back! It was really delish when we did it right :)

          2. Yeah. I made something once that I can't repeat for the life of me. I invited my husband's whole family for a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner (22 of us, in all). Since I'm allergic to fresh turkey, I planned to do huge capon and a couple of simple roasted meats. My husband convinced me that at least a turkey breast was required, so my butcher wrapped one in fatback and told me how to roast it. Fine. Now I had to make gravy and wasn't able to taste it as I went, so I mirrored what I was doing to make the capon gravy: deglazed the roaster with a good amount of chicken broth, added thyme and S&P, tossed in a bit of bourbon (for the turkey) and white wine (for the capon), added a beurre manier to thicken, and that was that. This was at least 25 years ago and my husband has told the story of that turkey gravy at least once a year since, saying it was the best he'd ever tasted - to this day! And I have no idea why, although I'm guessing the fatback drippings had a lot to do with it.

            1. I once had entire weekend like that...my first time visiting at my mom's house after moving out and I was in a cooking mood. Over the course of the weekend I made a fish curry, seseame noodles and coq au vin. They all turned out AMAZING and I didn't use a single recipie. My mom was of course duly impressed, since my cooking repetoire in high school consisted of hamburger helper and frozen pizza. (I was more of a baker when I was a kid) She still talks about the sesame noodles 5 years later. And i have never managed to replicate any of it. Very frustrating...but yummy at the time.

              1. One of the first times my hubby-to-be cooked for me when I was working late, he made a fabulous cream of cauliflower soup. Perfect balance of dairy to cheese to cauliflower to spicing. We could never find the right recipe again, and it's never come out the same since.

                1. Yes, one of the hazards of cooking without recipes ... I once set out to recreate the borracho beans a local Tex-Mex chain makes, and that first attempt was better than theirs. I haven't really been able to make them that good again ...

                  1. When I have a dish that comes out great, I try to write down (immediately -- either while cooking or shortly thereafter so I don't forget) what I did -- whether it was a deviation from a recipe or something of my own creation. It doesn't always work, but at least I have a starting point to spring from when trying to recreate the dish in the future.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: DanaB

                      I've gotten into the habit of doing that as well. And particularly noting things that I did that were out of the ordinary--like the OP's extra olive oil, or "no onions this time," etc. I also note which dishes we really loved and which were just ok. It's a difficult habit to get into, but once you make yourself do it a few times, it's easier. And it's very helpful when you do a lot of improvised cooking.

                    2. unless i'm baking, i wing and eyeball everything. but i've been to culinary school, have worked in restaurants all my life, so feel like my intuitions are very good. i recently had a buffet here for 20 ppl and used recipes only for the cakes and cookies. everybody raved about the food and stuffed themselves silly.

                      i think if people gave themselves a bit more liberty, they'd feel more relaxed and more of their dishes would come out "just right."

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: hotoynoodle

                        I think you've hit the nail on the head. When I bought my pizza stone, I immediately hit google, and eventually found the following link (may've even found it here, come to think of it):

                        There are two kinds of people - the kind that would never even attempt pizza after reading his page, or the type that would endeavor to recreate his success. I'm the latter, obviously.

                        But the difference this time wasn't as much ingredients as instinct. And a LOT less stress. And the olive oil. (And however much vital wheat gluten... wait, I'm getting obsessed again. LOL)

                      2. I once made a crustless quiche with roasted butternut squash and leeks - no recipe, just leftovers. Haven't been able to make it since.

                        1. I agree with hotoynoodle. Also a culinary school grad, I went into the test kitchen/recipe development side of the business. My advice to everyone is to trust your instincts, experiment with different ingredients, herbs and spices and, most of all, HAVE FUN!

                          Too many people get so caught up in following a recipe exactly that it becomes stressful to cook. Once you get comfortable with cooking, glance at the recipes you're interested in, then combine ingredients and methods from several cookbooks. Learn to play with your food, and cook more often on top of the stove. It's much more satisfying to tinker with something simmering on the stove than staring through an oven window at a covered pan.

                          As hotoynoodle said, this is not advisable when baking, since there is more chemistry and accuracy required.

                          And, when you've had your first taste of your fabulous new invention, write down your ingredients and method..

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: FlavoursGal

                            all praise to stove-top cooking. you have far more control over the outcome, and it's much easier to taste as you go, which is another important method for success.

                            i'm amazed how often people on here recommend broiling meat rather than pan searing. under the broiler, out of sight, that lovely chop could be ruined in a flash.

                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              The only exception I make to the stove-top-is-preferable ideal is when I'm making a slow-cooked stew/braise. I prefer to start it off on the stove and place in the oven for the duration of cooking.

                              In this case, it's best not to lift the lid on and off anyway, and it prevents potential scorching on the bottom of the pot.

                            2. re: FlavoursGal

                              Yes, I do write down my ingredients ... but sometimes that's not enough. 1) I have been known to lose the piece of paper I wrote on ;) and 2) I just keep tinkering with the spices, and sometimes you're just able to reach a better place. Maybe it's about patience, motivation that first time ... but I have all the admiration in the world for people and restaurants who keep turning out a standard product at a high level.

                            3. oh I sure do. It was for a thing called "Barbeque Shrimp" and it is not done on the BBQ.
                              After a trip to New Orleans, and having a wonderful surpirse when I orded it, I couldn't get it out of my head. So I went and searched and none of the recipes looke quite right. I even went to a coworker that was from New Orleans and he called his mother and she would not give out her recipe. Well! So then I recreated it and WOW my guests were licking their plates, and begging for more but the dish was empty... It was yummy and the french bread that sopped up the sauce was SO GOOD!

                              1. Everytime I make risotto, it's like a surprise. I never follow a recipe - I know the basics and go from there. Sometimes it's better than others, but never bad. Last night for instance, was one of the better ones. Used turkey broth instead of chicken because it was the only thing I had. Used shallot instead of yellow onion for same reason. Had some dried porcini's in the pantry - reconstituted them and used the 'shroom water in it too, had a bit of broccoli laying around which I chopped up very fine. Was going to throw in some pancetta but it seemed like overkill (good decision as it turned out). Usual parm reggiano and butter to end it all, with a bit of parsley.

                                Turned out earthier than usual, more developed flavor - maybe because of the turkey broth and addition of the porcini broth? I don't know. All I know is I had a huge bowl since my husband was not home, and it was a special treat I made for myself. Will I remember this for the next time? Don't know either!

                                1. Welcome to what I think of as "Cooking With Jack," since my husband Jackp rarely uses recipes and therefore most of his stuff cannot be duplicated. He has made some wonderful things over the years and we've never ahd them again. I also wing it a lot but if I come up with something that works really well, I make sure to write down what I've done before my third glass of wine. After that, my memory is a tad too vague.

                                  1. I have skimmed over but haven't read every single post. I hope this isn't a repeat. After having that experience on numerous occasions, I have finally started writing down (MOST of the time) what I'm doing (and general guesstimates of amounts as I often don't measure) in case the recipe turns out great and we decide we want it again.

                                    When I remember to do it, it saves some grief. :)