By Ann Hodgman, "Kitchen Disasters,"March/April 2013
The kitchen gods have a way of humbling a good cook. They’ll start out by giving you children who retch at the sight of an onion fleck. Later they’ll raise your blood pressure so you can’t eat the things you most like to make. And once in a while, to keep you from getting uppity, they’ll throw a kitchen disaster your way. I must be pretty uppity, because I’ve had a lot of these.
There are the public disasters, like the time my cockatiel, Japan, landed on the coffee table and ran through a platter of seven-layer dip as I set it down in front of guests. Or the time I did a TV cooking demo in front of millions of viewers. Well, hundreds. Dozens, anyway. I brandished my brand-new cream whipper and announced, “This will whip the cream in 40 seconds!” Forty seconds went by verrrry slowly before the producers cut to a commercial. When they came back to the studio, the cream was still as liquid as if it had just come out of the cow.
Then there are the logistical catastrophes. One Christmas, I decided it was finally time to cook a suckling pig. If only my oven had decided it was big enough to hold the pig. Instead, it obstinately remained eight inches too narrow.
But the mistakes I still wake up cringing about are the times I’ve messed up while trying to perform a “Good Deed.”
Like making my brother’s wedding cake. I finished icing it at 3:00 a.m. the day of the wedding. It seemed to be listing slightly as I left the room. I tried to sleep, but at 6:00 I tiptoed downstairs again. The cake now had a huge crevasse between layers four and five. An hour later, it lay in— do you say “shards” when it’s cake?—on the table.
Or the gluten-free croissants I was hoping to serve to my friend Bill, who has celiac disease. The horror of those croissants! After 40 years I had finally mastered perfect regular croissants, and I guess I got cocky. I didn’t check the ingredients on the bag of gluten-free flour I bought, and it would never have occurred to me that anyone would think to make baking flour out of chickpeas.
To spare you your own disaster, let me share with you the fact that dough made from chickpea flour Can. Not. Be. Rolled. Out. It’s like trying to roll a pile of dirt—dirt with lumps of butter smeared through it. The more frantically I scooped up the dough, the faster it collapsed. And croissant dough is not supposed to smell like falafel.
I was sweating and swearing as Bill—who hadn’t been able to eat croissants for 10 years—stood nearby, watching me impassively. Finally I turned to him and asked, “Do you mind if I throw this out?”
“I want you to throw it out,” Bill said.
Now, Bill and my brother are at least human. They can understand apologies; they can even pretend to accept them. But my worst kitchen calamity involved two innocent prairie dogs named Daisy and Buttercup. And you can’t explain things to prairie dogs.
This was in the early days of dulce de leche and the only recipe I could find called for placing unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk in a huge pot of water and boiling them for four hours. I brought the pot to a boil, adding more water occasionally. Then, when it had been simmering for two hours, I forgot about it and went to bed.
Early the next morning, my husband shook my shoulder and hissed, “The cans exploded all over the kitchen.” Whoops. I forgot to mention that Buttercup and Daisy were pet prairie dogs. They lived in my kitchen. Heart pounding, I raced in—and found them sleeping peacefully in their newspaper nest, unaware that, like the rest of the room, they were covered with black, sticky blotches of burned sugar.
Cooked sugar is super-hot, but the blobs that fell on Buttercup and Daisy must have cooled as they fell. Cooked sugar is also super-sticky, but the blobs that spattered the kitchen ceiling and walls were amazingly easy to clean off. Those were the good things. The bad thing was cleaning off the prairie dogs. Even if they had understood my apologies, would they have believed me if I said it was all the fault of the kitchen gods? I think not.
Tell us: What’s your biggest kitchen disaster. Share your story with us in the comments section.