Cookie Baking as Technical Writing

I remember getting into a discussion in grad school about whether recipes constituted “technical writing.” My argument was yes because you’re creating a tangible product that must be created in a specific order, with consistent ingredients and known techniques/procedures. This week I had to put my technical writing behaviors into practice because, quite frankly, I’ve been getting my favorite cookie recipe of Mom’s wrong two years in a row, and it’s been driving me up the wall.

The problem

The cookies I was attempting to make are called (I believe) “Spritz.” They come from a cookbook that dates back to 1966 or so. My sister has the original pages–yellowing with age, but kept on hand lovingly, like the useful legacy documents that they are. They’ve always been my favorite at Christmas–and my sister has the advantage in that she also acquired Mom’s cookie press to make them into festive shapes like roses or trees. I was content to get the flavor, and when years of attempting to guilt Mom or my sister into sending me some over the holidays failed, I broke down and asked for the recipe, figuring I could make them myself. What could possibly go wrong? Enough, apparently.

Existing documentation

As noted earlier, my sister (Colleen) had the original recipe, so I contacted her. She scanned the page with the recipe, and I retyped it, as the font was a bit faded and almost resembled an italic script of some sort. It’s entirely possible that I transcribed the information incorrectly. What I typed was this:

Spritz (Cookies)

1 cup butter
¼ cup sugar
1 egg
1 TSP almond extract
¼ TSP salt
2 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour
¼ TSP baking powder

Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in egg and almond extract. Gradually blend in dry ingredients, which have been sifted together. Decorate w/sprinkles and bake a 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

What I got were cookies that came out was…okay, but not the product I expected.

Consulting with your SME

After a second year of getting things wrong, I decided to break down and call my subject-matter expert, Mom, to see what I was doing wrong. Like any good SME, she asked specific questions: “What are you getting?”

Me: “Well, the cookies aren’t very sweet and a bit flour-y tasting. Maybe a little salty.”

Et cetera. We walked through my procedures…was I following the recipe? Which recipe was I following? There was, for example, a recipe that Mom used and one my Aunt Karen followed. My sister did a variation on the one Mom used as well.

The biggest difference? I was not including enough sugar (3/4 cup vs. 1/4 cup in my recipe). Oh, and salt was not included in the recipe that Mom used. How the heck did that happen? Did I make an error when I transcribed the original recipe? Maybe it was an in-house (i.e. my family’s) change to the base recipe that I hadn’t known about because it was just known/assumed. In any case, I had an extra ingredient that was not in the product I expected to produce.

I also had an online discussion with Colleen about other aspects of what I was doing:

Me: I don’t have the cookie press, so I was wondering if that were it. I’m just rolling the dough into balls and putting it on the pan.
Col: The press might help or smaller balls then flatten them?
Me: Yeah, that’s what Mom suggested. Maybe use an actual teaspoon instead of a regular kitchen table spoon?
Col: Yep
Me: Okay, I’ll try that, too. I was also getting a much smaller batch than I expected (only filled one big cookie sheet).

Resolution

I have now made a new batch of cookies using the improved recipe–updated below. Based on the inputs of people who have actually been using the recipe as intended, I was able to make cookies that taste like what I wanted. I made some material changes (no salt, more sugar), as well as some procedural changes (smaller dough balls, pressed flat to the surface of the cookie sheet). After those changes–magic! Or at least a cookie that I recognize.

So is recipe writing technical writing? I’d have to say: absolutely!

Spritz (Cookies), Revised

1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 TSP almond extract
2 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour
¼ TSP baking powder

Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in egg and almond extract. Gradually blend in dry ingredients, which have been sifted together. Decorate w/sprinkles and bake a 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

 

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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