I grew up loving my Grandmother Young's fudge. It was basic: sugar, milk and butter with chocolate or peanut butter. But it was elevated by technique. She, like so many other grandmothers in my hometown, made drop fudge. You take the molten fudge, pour it onto plates or into bowls, let it cool, then beat the shine out of it with a spoon until it is nearly set, lifting it with air and making it smooth and melt-in-your-mouth creamy. Finally, you drop it by spoonfuls onto wax paper to set.
This I know.
What I don't know is proportions of ingredients, timing and temperatures. My grandmother is not only one of those no-written-recipe sorts, but her memory is in decline. At Christmas, I quizzed her, and didn't get much more than what I already knew. She promised to look for the recipe, but her short-term memory is such that I knew it was futile. So I sorted through the (rather random) indexes in my mom's local cookbooks: the Methodist Church (3 editions!), the PA Grange, the Girl Scout Council and so on, to no avail.
I looked to Google. Unsurprisingly, it let me down. That's what Google does with recipes when you can't search on the author or the cookbook. I tried keyword phrase after keyword phrase: drop fudge, dropped fudge, fudge technique, drop fudge wax paper, old-fashioned fudge, spoon fudge (something entirely different, it turns out). There were too many results, and there were too many random recipes from anyone in the universe who had an internet connection and recipe to share.
Some random combination revealed an Associated Content recipe that looked promising. I tried it, and it was an abject failure. Why? First, the proportions just seem wrong. Second, it leaves out information. To what temperature should the molten fudge cool? Beat the fudge with what? How long? I'm sorry, but "when your arm is about to fall off, you're close" is not proper instruction. My arm may be different from your arm. I could be a cripple. In short, this recipe's fudge didn't turn out.
My sister took pity on me and posted my problem to a "lost recipe" forum on the ever-reputable Cook's Illustrated website. We'll see how this turns out; somehow I trust this subset of people based on the reputation of the magazine they subscribe to.
You may be asking, what does this have to do with anything else on this blog?
It is too easy to find in-expert information online. We know this from my recipe problem, from people self-diagnosing their medical ailments online, to trying to research a resort for a vacation, right down to the Obama birthers scandal. The web is filled with opinion, but there is no reasonable, fast way to sort out what works and what doesn't, what is true and what is false.
Chris Kimball, the king of Cook's Illustrated (and whose forum I've pinned my hopes), sounded like a neo-luddite when he lamented the demise of Gourmet magazine in the NY Times, but he had a valid point:
To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice. Google “broccoli casserole” and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise — the kind that comes from real experience, the hard-won blood-on-the-floor kind. [emphasis is my own]
I think this speaks a lot for what should be next on the web. We achieved user-generated content (a ton of recipes for fudge!) and a great capacity for (very) specific search, but Google doesn't supply the test kitchen to prove that the recipe works, nor is there anyone to advise you on the proper keywords to support your oddball query.
Sure, we can give "thumbs up" and five-stars to recipes that work, and maybe even add our own comments that might fix a broken recipe, but the onus is on the user to have made (and failed) the recipe...and the onus is also on the user to sort through 80 comments for insightful tips and to trust ratings from strangers. And even then, due to a pure numbers game, unproven recipes will probably be number one on the search results, while the proven recipe sits in obscurity 20 pages back.
You can slice it a thousand ways, this problem happens to everyone on every topic. Someone trying to find a grad degree in a particular location runs a Google search and gets some relatively useless for-profit sites that are casting a wide, wide net and giving no detail. People are whining on Trip Advisor about seemingly respectable hotels...are those reviewers just picky/crazy? Or is the hotel bad?
The real question: Is it better to have too much information at your fingertips because some of it might be useful? Should the web be curated rather than keyworded? After my recipe runaround, I lean toward curating with the option to keyword later (or at least I do this week).
Oh, and please comment if you have a good recipe for drop fudge.