Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Kitchen blunders: when good recipes go bad

Last night I made the worst dessert of my life.

I’d been obsessing on this particular recipe — Vanilla Pudding Cakes — from King Arthur Baking for a few weeks now, re-reading the downloaded recipe and looking at the photo over and over. Finally, yesterday, I decided it was time.

I got out all the ingredients. I used my kitchen scale to weigh them. I followed that recipe to the “T,” and the finished result was a pan of vanilla glop. NOTHING like the photo.

As the bake time went on and on and the cake was not “… golden brown, with some bubbles from the pudding around the edges,” I read the recipe again. I went back to the computer to see if I’d somehow miscopied it. (No.) I checked the oven temperature on the internal thermometer. All was as it should be.

Vanilla Pudding Cake
We’ve all had this happen: you follow a recipe exactly and then it doesn’t taste anything like it’s supposed to.

I tried to stay optimistic, thinking that maybe by some miracle it would pull itself together into something vaguely edible, but that was not the case. Sigh.

I still don’t know where I went wrong; the only thing I can think of is that maybe I should have sifted the flour before measuring it. I went back to the website to look at the 32 comments by other home bakers, and no one had this problem; instead, most people wrote things like “Excellent and deceptively easy recipe;” “Skipped dinner and ate the whole thing;” “Can’t wait to make it again.”

What happened? I may never know. But something — or several things — definitely went awry.

Now, I need to say I pride myself on being a fairly good cook, and while I can throw things together with flair that usually come out OK, I enjoy more following a recipe from an expert and making a dish that’s over-the-top wonderful.

When I have friends to dinner or bring a dish to a potluck, I want eye appeal as well as taste; I want to make something memorable and figure if I follow a recipe to bake, then doing the same for a Russian Salmon Pie, candied pecans or authentic achiote ranchero sauce can only be a positive thing.

So, to follow a recipe from a reputable source and have this happen? I’m still crushed and confused.

Still thinking there’s no need to break spaghetti before you cook it? Oops! Think again.

Another recent kitchen calamity at my house began the same way: a recipe from a trusted source (in this case, the subscription-based New York Times Cooking) for Vegetarian Bolognese, made with cauliflower instead of beef. Hmm, I thought, heart-healthy, meatless, comfort food — I must make this!

I splurged and bought the correct shape of imported pasta and a can of San Marzano tomatoes and used my Lodge Dutch oven for added authenticity. I imagined how amazing it would taste and who I would invite over for a Sunday dinner in homage to my Italian roots.

Sadly, this was not to be.

After hours and hours of prep and cooking, I finally allowed myself a taste. To say I was anticipating fabulousness would be an understatement. Well.

This “Vegetarian Bolognese” just tasted like cauliflower cooked in a sweet tomato sauce, otherwise known as a vegetable stew. Desperate to salvage it somehow, I googled other traditional recipes for Bolognese sauce and added some red wine, but alas… still cauliflower stew.

Maybe, I thought, if it sits overnight, the flavors will blend and it will taste more like what it’s supposed to be?

Ever the optimist, I approached the pot the following day with high hopes that were immediately dashed. A friend who’d stopped by also tasted it and tried to say something nice. I forced myself to have it that night for dinner, on the pasta I’d specially bought. Let’s just say that even covered with really good Parmesan it still tasted like… cauliflower stew.

The pot sat in the fridge for two more days, and then I was done. No point in pretending, I thought; tonight is garbage night, and out it goes. (Please know I don’t make a habit of throwing away food.)

Why am I writing this, you may be wondering? Because I want you to know I’m not perfect either. I burn things (cookies, milk, bran muffins, lentil soup), forget ingredients (water, garlic, salt), use old ingredients that don’t work (baking powder and soda), cook things too long (salmon, tuna, quick breads) or not long enough (salmon, tuna, quick breads, LOL). I make mistakes I can’t figure out (see above) and vow I’ll never cook again.

Then I come across an intriguing recipe — most recently the Cornflake Macaroons in my column from two weeks ago — watch another episode of “The Great British Bake Off” or am captivated by something on a menu and get inspired all over again. (Or I just get hungry!)

And that’s the glory of cooking; it’s a never-ending process, a game, if you will, that never ends. And whether you win or lose, it’s always a good time.

If you’re lucky, you get something delicious to eat out of it; but even if everything goes awry — like my Vanilla Pudding Cake Glop — you’ve got a funny story to tell.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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