Thursday, 2 July 2009

When it all goes wrong...

[Details of competition after the fold]

My last piece (the one about lamb breast) was my 250th. By means of celebration here is one about when things go wrong. More fun than any self-congratulatory nonsense.

One of the great things about being a food writer is that you can maintain an air of smugness buoyed by the impression given off through writing.

You can bask constantly in the warm glow of success, or at least give the impression that you bask in the warm glow of success as you eat meal after meal of perfectly focussed, well-lit, delicious food.

Whether it is a plate of faultless and delicate macaroons or the glorious, greasy simplicity of a full English breakfast, readers can be left with the impression that each and every mouthful is one that skirts close to that idealised standard we call ‘perfection.’

If only that were the case.

The reality is very different. Oh, the joys of selective writing.

Witness exhibit (a): dried peach crisps:

Barely recognisable as peach, they were certainly dried. And crisp? They looked as if they’d been through a Hindu funerary rite of passage.

This is by no means a unique occurrence. One of my best tricks is leaving things in the oven overnight to cool, coming down bleary eyed in the morning and immediately turning on the grill. A man needs toast.

Only the faintly acrid smell of burning is enough to jolt me into action and extract whatever it was that now has a swiftly blackening crust.

There have been others.

Barely a month ago I managed to block our entire drainage system whilst experimenting with spherification. On cool quiet nights I can still hear my girlfriend’s faintly indignant (tinged with faint humour) tone ringing in my ears with the words ‘You’ve blocked our drains with molecular gastronomy!’

Only two days ago did I read the words ‘Caution: dispose the sodium alginate preparation in the bin, and not in the sink.’ Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

But my culinary bĂȘte noire remains Christmas cake – still the subject of more cooking related disasters than I would care to remember.

Last Christmas I sliced off an entire nail chopping dried fruit. On eventually completing the cake it was cooked too long and emerged from the oven dried and blackened. Only generous sousing with booze and careful removal of the outer layer rendered it edible.

Until a hungry mouse decided to gorge itself whilst we were away for three days.

The year before I snapped a wooden spoon whilst stirring the thick cake mixture, a painful splinter piercing my hand. And on lifting the cake into the oven the tin slipped from my hands and splurged its thick contents all over the floor.

As a final ‘up yours’ that cake, too, ended up burnt after my father decided it wasn’t cooking quickly enough at the designated temperature.

There are more, but here is where I hand over to you. What have been your biggest and most comical culinary failures, faults and fuck ups?

The best will be immortalised in a personalised short story. Typed out (on a typewriter, no less) by me and then published right here.

Comment below, email or tweet me your tales.


Katie said...

I have burnt loads of things before, and left sugar and raising agents out of cake batters, but the best was when I had a 'make your own ginger beer' kit given to me for Christmas.

I made it all up and decanted into empty 2 litre pop bottles as per instructions and then left it to 'brew' for the allotted amount of time.

When it was ready a few days later I gently began to unscrew the lid. It was very very fizzy. So fizzy that I had to unscrew the lid by a quarter turn each time and then leave it for a good 5 mins to stop hissing before I did the next turn.

Eventually the hissing sounded like it had eased off. Assuming most of the pressure had gone I took the lid of completely.

Big mistake. Ginger ale shot out like a jet, hitting the Victorian hight ceiling of our house and covering the kitchen.

Took 3 buckets of boiling water to mop the stickiness off the floor and walls.

I then noticed that the other bottle was under so much pressure that the 'nobbles' on the bottom of the bottle were pushed flat so that the bottle rocked like a Weeble. The bottle was half an inch wider and taller than it should normally be.

My male housemates took that one into the back street and detonated it by throwing stones at it.

rich (them apples) said...

I am an expert at fucking things up, in the kitchen, and in life in general. It's a real speciality of mine.

There are a couple of stand out moments. Here's one:

I have a love/hate relationship with fresh pasta. The first time I tried, it was a complete and utter disaster. The second time, I planned more, tried harder, put my mind to it. The dough was fine. It took ages to make, with much cranking of the handle and judicious sprinkling of flour, to create that professional image, you understand. My kitchen felt like it belonged to an Italian artisan. I had some opera gently playing in the backkground as I worked.

I cut the sheets up into tagliatelli, uneven strips of beautiful pasta. I'd planned properly, and had prepared (with an actual saw!) a length of old broom handle that, propped between two work surface, acted as a makeshift drying rack, over which I draped the golden strands of pasta.

It looked glorious.

I even took a photo and had the neighbours round to have a look.

I went to bed that night with a sense of smug satisfaction that I'm not used to feeling.

In the morning, I woke to find my creation all over the kitchen floor. The pasta had dried out and snapped under it's own weight.

I must admit to swearing a little too much and being in a bad mood for a whole weekend.

'What's up with him?', people would ask my wife. 'He made pasta and it didn't work', she'd reply.

The story about the cheesecake, the freezer, £13 worth of ingredients and seeing the whole thing collapse in on itself in slow motion is still too painful to tell. Maybe later.

Andrea said...

I am a baker. I can safely say that it is one thing I do quite well, and, while I don't do it professionally anymore I have worked in several bakeries over the years. This being said, you would think that people who have tasted my successfully baked desserts would trust me to supply such desserts for a holiday meal. Well for some reason my Father-in-Law never did. He would always ask me what I would like to contribute and I would always say dessert and then he would always go and ask his mother to bring something for dessert. I hated it.

Well, one year at Thanksgiving I decided to try something a little experimental because of course there would be backup. The plan was a cranberry orange pie that used geletin to set. As I was making it the the flavors where coming together beautifully and I was very excited to have a new Thanksgiving recipe. As I worked I had visions of making this desert every year until I was surrounded by a gaggle of grandchildren. I pored the runny filling into the springform pan and nessled it into the refrigerator.

A few hours later we headed over to my inlaw's house for the feast and I pulled the pie out. It still seemed a little runny but I figured it just needed a little more time and it would become the new family tradition that I envisioned.

When we arrived I noticed no other desserts around the kitchen and asked my mother-in-law if there were any. Finally my Father-in-law had trusted me and had not asked for backup. When we finished the meal I proudly removed the pie from the refrigerator and removed the sides of the springform pan. That's when I knew there was something wrong. It was soupy on the bottom and foamy on the top and was anchored by a rock solid crust. Everybody agreed to try it anyway because it was all we had. To this day I can feel the foamy texture in my mouth and can hear the muffled "mmms" as my polite new family choked it down assuring me that it "had good flavor".

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that my husband's Grandmother has continued to bring a safe dessert from the grocery store bakery to every family function since that fateful day. And, although I failed, I will always keep experimenting.

Bethie said...

One of my worst culinary screw ups was mistaking cilantro for parsley when making a big ole batch of spaghetti sauce. Holey moley, was that sauce awful. I had company coming over for dinner and I ran to the store and grabbed a few jars of Ragu. That was over 20 years ago and I still read the little tag on the bunches, just to be sure of what I am getting.

Just Cook It said...

Katie - Fantastic story. Not only do I love the image of ginger beer hitting the ceiling, the prospect of 'detonating' a highly pressure bottle of fizzy pop is just magnificent.

Rich - Oh thank god, I thought I was the only one whose weekend could be ruined by some sort of culinary disaster. It's the ones that have taken the longest that are the worst. Also, love that DIY equipment was necessary for a cooking project. And I'll have to press you on the cheesecake story now...

Andrea - I feel your pain. When Murphy's Law applies itself, it is with swift accuracy. The pressure of such situations tends to bring out the worst in the little sod.

Bethie - Again, it seems that the worst screw-ups happen when the pressure is on. I can't imagine what that would have tasted like. Perhaps closer to a curry?!

Will Critchlow said...

I'm sure there are innumerable ridiculous things I've done that are now thankfully forgotten.

One that sticks in my mind was attempting to make pizza with bases I had made earlier and frozen. Unfortunately for some reason I put them on a rack under the grill rather than in a grill pan.

I think it was probably because they were hard (read: frozen!) and I didn't really think about it.

Unfortunately as they defrosted, they also got soggier before they could cook through and get firm again. This meant that the bases fell through the bars of the grill rack leaving the topping neatly on the bars of the grill rack.

The topping then burnt.


Clare said...

Recently I spent a good 30 minutes making the batter for a light and fluffy Japanese cheesecake that I would serve at a dinner party I was hosting. The reason why it takes a while is because you need to fold in loads of whipped eggwhites. After carefully incorporating the eggwhites into the batter, I poured it into my springform pan, which I had earlier lined with parchment paper and sealed with tin foil (on the bottom). I then placed it into a water bath, and put in the oven for an hour as directed.

Within minutes I could smell the aroma of the wonderful cheesecake, and it was rising like a lovely souffle. However, it was rising TOO much, and the top of the cheesecake was running into the upper oven rack. I tried to remove the rack, which of course tore the top of the cheesecake as it was already baking itself INTO the top rack. I did manage to remove it the rack, but the process left some scrapes and scratches on the top of the cheesecake. I figured I'd whip up a quick fruit topping to cover that, no problem.

After an hour, it was finished. In spite of the scraped top, it looked golden and light and delicious. I let it cool for another hour, and then carefully removed the springform pan. What I discovered was a big, soaking wet cake with a golden brown (and scraped) top. Somehow, the water from the water bath had seeped into the pan, soaking the entire cheesecake except for the top 1/2 inch. I was devastated. There was no way of salvaging it; it acted like a sponge and was completely waterlogged.

I decided to taste the tiny bit that wasn't soaked, and told myself that if it tasted absolutely fabulous, I would re-do the cake; otherwise, I'd run out and buy something at the shop. Well, it was utterly delightful, so I went ahead and made it again - this time, I sealed the bottom of the pan with FIVE layers of foil. I'm happy to report it turned out great, and my dinner guests raved about it.

A disaster, but one with a happy ending...

Beryl said...

Whenever I try a recipe for the first time my husband & I always joke that we may have to order pizza. It had never happened, until last night. My sister-in-law was in the hospital in labor and told us to get the organic chicken breasts from her fridge and use them since she would not be. We decided to grill them for teriyaki chicken sandwiches. I dressed them lightly with sesame oil, salt, pepper and coriander, threw them on the grill and let them cook a bit. When we removed the cover to turn the chicken we saw the breasts had turned a horrifying shade of green. We don't know what happened or why and internet research came up with nothing but needless to say we weren't going to take any chances. Thank goodness for pizza delivery!

Hollow Legs said...

Just now I opened the fridge, forgetting i'd put a 12 deck of eggs on top of the fridge. It fell off, barely grazing my nose. Luckily there were only 3 eggs in there...