I was asked for a truffle recipe, and I was just going to post the recipe but there's a story behind so pull up your chair and settle down to read. I made some truffles yesterday and fed them to my work colleagues. None died. Some couldn't believe that I'd made them because they tasted so good. Some asked for the recipe. I was going to just give them the recipe but it's different from the written one I started with and that caused a moment's reflection on informal learning, which I have written about before.
This is the original recipe (don't follow it; the one I used is at the end):
250g drinking chocolate powder
250g icing sugar
grated zest of half an orange
box of (insert brand name here) chocolate vermicelli
Combine and sieve chocolate powder and icing sugar
Put butter in a pan over a very low heat
Add combined chocolate powder and sugar
Add orange zest
Beat till fully mixed
Allow to cool
Roll into balls
Pour the vermicelli out on to a plate
Roll the balls around in the vermicelli till completely covered
Now that doesn't work for us for a variety of reasons. First of all, I have to cater for a family full of allergies. We don't do wheat, milk (in fact any cow product) or eggs. What fun is there left in life? So I know from experience that I have to adapt any recipe like this. I also know from experience what is likely to work and what is likely not to.
That's where the informal learning bit comes in. Where does the experience come from on which I was able to base the recipe for the unbelievable truffles? Well, it's all informal - I've never "been taught" any kind of cooking apart from a few recipes reluctantly learned from my mother (one of which I still use regularly). I've picked it all up from recipe books, recipes in magazines, watching TV, sampling things at other people's houses and generally experimenting. One of the key features, it strikes me, is having the confidence to try things, which, even in circumstances as minor as this, can be an issue. Try making something new to be greeted by the triple whammy of "it looks horrible", "will it be like the last thing you did?" and "has it got anything I'm allergic to in it? Did you wipe the entire kitchen surface down and thoroughly wash your hands? Did you make sure the pan was completely clean? Did you check the plates for breadcrumbs? Well, did you?????"
Two kinds of informal learning have come into play here. The first is a general knowledge about cooking, and knowing from experience that I don't have to follow recipes slavishly. Partly that has come from necessity: on occasion I have made something without having the right ingredient to hand. I can vaguely remember the slight anxiety I felt doing this as a young adult which very gradually turned into an understanding that I could be creative. (But not until well after I'd left my parents; being creative around them wasn't allowed. But that's a piece of personal history that will be different for everybody.)
Another feature of that general knowledge is that I have become alert over the years to adapting recipes in such a way as to use fewer implements. If I followed the recipe as above the kitchen would be littered with chocolate covered pans and implements, which is great if you're the one that gets to lick them, but which results in fewer truffles.
The second kind of informal learning has been specific to catering for allergies. Once we found we had allergies we obviously had to cater for them. Some of it was adaptation by trial and experimentation, some was adaptation by going and looking for specific recipes with non-wheat flour, non-milk margarine etc. It took me a while to realise that these recipes were just like all the original recipes that I'd tried - lots of unnecessary ingredients and lots of unnecessary work. So eventually I started to adapt these, and to be creative with my own ideas. It took some trial and error experience - you really need to experience the glutinosity of corn pasta if you are to work with it successfully.
So how did I adapt the truffle recipe? First of all, change the ingredients:
250g soya margarine (wheat free, milk free etc)
250g cocoa (we use organic, apart from that just plain bog standard cocoa)
250g icing sugar
box chocolate vermicelli (carefully selected for ingredients - you wouldn't believe how many ingredients sugar strands have, including wheat starch)
and the method:
First of all, I didn't use the orange in yesterday's truffles. I forgot to get one. It does make a nice addition, but if you do use the zest you need to grate it really, really fine and that's a lot of work, so it's optional.
Second, I've never used the heating method. I think it's there just to make the job of combining a bit easier. I harbour a suspicion that it might have strange chemical effects on soya marge (though we use it a lot for sauces and so on), and it results in a sticky, sticky, sticky mix, so I just don't use it. Also avoids getting a pan dirty.
Third I don't do the sieving thing. Unnecessary. Also means no sieve to wash up. (I originally didn't do this because I couldn't be bothered. That's how I discovered it wasn't actually necessary.)
So what I did yesterday was:
Combine marge, cocoa and sugar in a bowl and mix with a fork. Start slowly otherwise icing sugar goes everywhere. And keep going for a while - takes some time and some elbow. But eventually and unexpectedly the mix goes smooth.
Pour the vermicelli out on a plate.
Ditch the fork. Pick small amounts of mix out with your fingers and roll in the palms of your hands. Some sticks to your hands. Don't lick your fingers yet.
Roll each ball around in the vermicelli till covered and put on a plate. Repeat until all the mix is used up.
At this stage even hand warmth has left them quite squashy. Put in the fridge to cool for a few hours. Control yourself.
Take them out after a few hours, let them warm up again to somewhere near room temperature. (You can have them straight from the fridge, but there's something about cold chocolate that doesn't appeal to me.)
Impress your friends.