Observing Textures in Recipes

By Elaine Leong

I have held a long fascination with how textures are represented in recipes. As we all know, then as now, producing medicines and food often involves a multi-step process, and careful observation of changes in textures is often the key to success.

Classic White Sauce

Take, for example, the classic white sauce. It all seems simple enough – we mix and heat together butter and flour and then add milk (hot or cold, depending on where you stand on this issue), simmer and whisk away and, voilà, we should have a silky-smooth sauce, ready for some posh mac and cheese, or baked endive, and much more. Now readers, I know what you’re thinking. It sounds so easy on paper but, if we were honest, we all have stories of failed batches of béchamel. The sauce can taste raw (classic mistake of not cooking the flour enough) or be lumpy (the blender trick never works for me) or end up too thin or thick.

Mixing Flour and Butter

A few years ago, I finally found the perfect recipe for me from Annie Bell’s In my Kitchen. However, though Annie provides the perfect ingredient proportions for my family’s taste of white sauce, for the crucial step – cooking the butter and flour together – I rely on Martha Schulman’s description. The mixture needs to be heat for around 5 minutes until it looks like ‘wet sand.’ The monitoring and observing of textures, particularly any changes, is key to making the perfect white sauce and many other dishes besides.

The early modern recipe archive is also filled with similar sets of instructions where changes in texture were used as markers for the completion of a particular step in production. In my recent book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge, I discuss some of these examples in a chapter on “Recipes Trials.” Due to the generosity of friends and colleagues and the enthusiasm of groups such as the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and Before Farm to Table, new examples emerge all the time. Today, I wanted to share a particularly intriguing recipe, which came to light at the EMROC transcribathon last fall.

Dawson’s Recipe for Lemon Wafers

The recipe is for making lemon wafers and is part of the recipe collection of a seventeenth-century English gentlewoman named Jane Dawson. The instructions are brief but detailed. We are told to dry, sift and beat double-refined sugar and mix with the juice of a lemon until it becomes the consistency of honey.[1] Then, scooping some of the mixture in a spoon, we should heat the spoon over a chafing dish of hot coals until the surface of the mixture touching the spoon is “crisp” – that is (according to the OED) rippling, folding or wrinkling. Taking care that the mixture does not boil, we should then spread the melted mixture onto a square piece of paper, pinning the two corners of the paper together in order to curl or bend the wafer and let it dry in this configuration. When we are ready to eat or serve the lemon wafer, we should wet the “wrong” side of the paper with water to release the candy.

As with making béchamel, key to this recipe are the practices of observing and interpreting changes in texture. Two points are of particular importance here – ensuring that the sugar and lemon juice mix achieves the ‘consistency of honey’ and that the mixture heats until it crisps or ripples on the hot spoon.

After the transcribathon, some EMROC members were so intrigued by this recipe that they tried their hands at re-creating it. Lisa Smith, Maggie Simon, and their various assistants spent afternoons mixing and tasting lemony sugar syrup and heating it using a variety of methods from plate warmers to electric hobs. I’ll leave you to read about their adventures here and here, but it is telling that both ended their posts with a reflection about the assumed knowledge required for this recipe. One particular texture was picked up for comment – the consistency of honey. Both Lisa and Maggie were stymied by the instructions to mix fine sugar and lemon juice to the “right” consistency of honey. After all, as a natural product, honey can come in many guises. Our intrepid makers tried to reproduce the thickness of raw honey, runny honey, and crystalized honey and each resulted in a different product with varying degrees of success.

Maggie’s Sugar and Lemon Juice Mixture (Photo taken by Maggie Simon)

Observing textures or changes in textures is clearly a key part of following recipes. Yet, it turns out that it is hard to convey hands-on experiential knowledge on paper, particularly across time and space. Often times, descriptions of textures are made using analogies (e.g. consistency of honey) or metaphors (e.g. wet sand) requiring the recipe writer and reader to work within a similar frame of reference. Further focus on reading or interpreting representations of “textures” in past and present thus seems a fruitful way to shed light on histories of observation, sensorial and experiential knowledge.


[1] Folger v.b. 14, p. 47.


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