Memory Bites: Designing an Emotional Recipe Database

Each time we cook or bake from a recipe, we are designing new food experiences that incorporate our own historical data.

In its most basic form, a culinary recipe is a dataset compiled to give you instruction on how to reproduce a certain food. It doesn’t say, “while you’re in your kitchen, open the cupboard and grab a bag of flour from the second shelf to measure out two cups.” It just says “2 cups flour.” The subsequent actions of reading that statement are left to our interpretation. Meaning, for as long as we’ve been writing them down and sharing them, we’ve been modifying recipes simply by making them.

Recipe as Dataset

For me, this is what makes a recipe the perfect time capsule for a shared experience. It’s a dataset floating in virtual space that becomes something new each time it lands, each time a new pair of human hands mixes the batter, each time a different oven bakes the cake. What starts out as a seemingly concrete chunk of information (for instance: a generic caramel recipe) becomes something much more as each individual relies on her own experiences or his memories of the past to recreate it. Through these interpretations, experiences are baked into a new context and memory is merged with the present surroundings.

If a recipe on its own is just data, it lacks unique context for its ingredients or processes, historical or otherwise. Yet, a recipe is a great example of how data can be infused with our own experiences, creating new emotional datasets in the process.

View of my Brooklyn stoop on a snowy morning.

Eat, Memory

There is a day each November in New York City when I walk out my front door and I’m struck by an annual sensation — a present moment combined with the memory of each iteration of its occurrence in the past. It’s the moment I first notice how the bright, crisp fall days are beginning to change into more icy, cold winter afternoons. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, and I hear them crunch under my feet as I walk down the street. The smell of something burning is in the air, which is also slightly sour from the rot of local flora disintegrating into the cold soil.

This moment lies dormant in my brain all year until it bursts open when I walk through my front doorway and down the stoop. It is a feeling based on where I grew up, that I can recall at any moment. But if you don’t have that context, how could I possibly make you understand this sweet, cold, sour, crunchy, smoky, sticky experience? As an avid baker, I’m not looking to share a virtual experience, but a physical one, so my first instinct is figure out how to recreate it through taste.

Memory as Ingredient

So, in order to share the sensation of stepping out my front door in mid-November, I began working on a recipe that would evoke the feeling of that specific moment. Going beyond the seasonal ingredients and flavors, beyond just making apple cider caramels because I like to eat apples and candy in the winter, I began thinking about what specific ingredients would emulate that particular moment in my recollection. I thought of capturing that smell of a mysterious fire in the taste of smoked apple skins that I then dried and sprinkled atop the caramel squares like a smattering of crunchy, dried leaves. The result: crunchy caramels for a smoky Brooklyn autumn.

Using a generic apple cider caramel recipe as a dataset, I modified it to make my ‘Crunchy Caramels for a Smoky Brooklyn Autumn’ recipe through ingredients and candy-making techniques. I’d like to believe that whether someone is sitting on my Brooklyn stoop today or living on some future Mars colony, these contextualized caramels would give them a taste of my memory.

My Crunchy Caramels for a Smoky Brooklyn Autumn (recipe below).

Each recipe made to create a “new” food is all an iteration of the past, and that lineage ties our memory banks together. When I make someone else’s caramel recipe, I’m adding feeling, history, nostalgia to it. When we print meat to make more humane hamburgers, it’s an iteration of the past in the new context of trying to solve our currently unsustainable food ecosystem.

This is what excites me about designing new food: thinking about ways to take static data and humanize it for more meaningful outcomes. In this case, turning a generic caramel recipe into a memory of a November day in New York. But the key is making it shareable, replicable and flexible.

Try it yourself!

Crunchy Caramels of a Smokey Brooklyn Autumn

Ingredients

For the apple leaves:
Peels of 3–5 apples, depending on the size of the apples and how much you want to use (add some pear peels in there too if you want — the skins are a little sweeter)

For the caramel:
• 1 quart (4 cups) fresh apple cider (if you can find it, use a cider made of just one apple variety. My local farmers market has a delicious honeycrisp cider.)
• 1 stick (8 tablespoons) salted butter (if you use unsalted butter, add either ½ teaspoon kosher or ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt)
• ¾ cup granulated sugar (or natural cane sugar)
• ¾ cup light brown sugar
• 6 tablespoons heavy cream (or just under ½ cup)
• 1 teaspoon Five-Spice powder (or any ground spice mixture you like that might remind you of autumn, with the majority, but not all, of it being cinnamon…all spice is nice too. If you use cardamom or clove no more than a pinch should be used as they are strong).
• 2–4 few dashes of Angostura bitters (optional)

Caramel poured into a pan and sprinkled with “dried leaves.”

Instructions

Special equipment:

Dehydrator (optional — you can also use your oven) for the leaves.

Candy thermometer. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, prepare a small ice bath in a cup (1/2 water, ½ ice). Keep testing the caramel by dipping a spoon in the boiling caramel once the bubbling has slowed down and then dunking the spoon in the bath until it reaches the consistency you want. The cold water will cease the caramel so you’ll know what the texture will be like if you remove it from the heat at that moment.

Leaves

Peel apples and keep skins (reserve rest of apple for another recipe, see below)

(Optional) Smoke the apple skins — I used applewood chips. I have a small handheld smoker at home. You can also do it on a grill or stovetop — I recommend watching one of the videos online on how to construct it.

Dry the skins until crispy — In a dehydrator or set your oven to about 225F and spread the skins onto a sheet tray. Either way, the process will take about 2 hours. Once they are dry, break them a part a little bit.

Caramels

Prepare the pan:

  • Line a 9 x 13-inch sheet pan or casserole dish with parchment paper, and spray it with cooking spray or rub it with butter so the caramel doesn’t stick. It’s usually a good rule of thumb to have your pans prepped when you’re baking or making candy, especially in this case as you have to pour the scalding hot caramel out of the pot the moment it hits the right temperature so you don’t want to be fussing around. Also I recommend lining the pan and greasing the liner rather than just greasing the pan itself because the caramel will be easier to pull out of the pan — it’s easier to gently peel off paper from the candy than try to pry it from the pan.

Mise en place: When you make caramel or most candy, it’s always a good idea to have everything ready to go. You’re dealing with specific temperatures and timing, and you don’t want to be searching for last-second ingredients.

  • In a 4-quart saucepan, boil the apple cider until it reduces to about 1/3–½ the amount — this helps intensify the flavor. It should take about 20 minutes on high heat.
  • Reduce the heat to and add the remaining caramel ingredients (heavy cream can cause caramel to bubble up, so a lower head helps reduce that reaction and allows you to stir it until the bubbles calm down).
  • Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to 240–255F, depending on your preference. The lower the temperature, the chewier the caramel. At 255, it’s not quite a hard candy, but almost (and might require some force to break apart).
  • Turn off the heat. If using the bitters, add 2–4 dashes now and give it a quick stir.
  • Immediately pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
  • Then, immediately sprinkle the dried apple skins on top of the caramel.
  • Let caramel set at room temperature or chill in the fridge to speed up the process (if you keep it in there too long, let it come back to room temperature so you can cut it), and cut into bite-sized pieces, or break apart (with a hammer necessary) if it’s on the harder side, I like it better when it’s harder and broken into tiny pieces, roughly ½-inch sized.

Bonus Recipe:

Make a compote from all those peeled apples you now have on hand:
Core and chop apples into 1/2-to-1-inch chunks (depending on your preference). Put in a saucepan and add about 20% of the apple volume of sugar. Add other spices you might like (a whole cinnamon stick is nice, a vanilla bean, maybe some star anise pods that can be easily fished out, and why not, a splash of apple brandy). Stirring often, cook on low heat until apples are soft and tender, but before they get mushy. Cool compote and use on top of ice cream, pancakes, cereal, etc. It’ll last in the fridge for a few days, but no more than a week.

Vivian Kamen is a native Brooklynite and a senior program manager in frog’s New York studio, where she’s worked on a variety of innovative digital, strategic and product design projects. Before joining frog, she worked at The New York Times, building digital platforms and web products, including Cooking — where she helped transfer a giant recipe archive into a structured database.