Flops Happen: A Chronicle of My Kitchen Failures

I tilted my head, hoping that it might help me understand why the chocolate cupcake batter sitting in front of me had the consistency of muddy water. Head tilting doesn’t seem to increase the comprehension of the dogs of the world (even if they really, really tilt) and sure enough, it didn’t work for me either. I just didn’t get it. I’d completed the whole recipe correctly — carefully measured, included all of the ingredients, mixed the appropriate amount of time. But still, the bowl in front of me was full of a batter that might have been dredged up from the bottom of the Mississippi.

With considerable misgivings, I poured some of the glop into each little cupcake paper. Maybe magic would happen in the oven?

Or maybe Mt. freaking Vesuvius would erupt in the oven, complete with a fiery, chocolate lava flow. Yeah.

The batter burned in sticky mounds all over the surface of the pan, the middle of the cupcakes inexplicably caved, and I was left with some sort of sculptural oddity that, while mildly fascinating, would probably get me kicked off of Work of Art.

The photograph’s not distorted. The cupcake is.

This kind of volcanic eruption of doom always seems to happen when the dessert is for a really special occasion, usually one replete with strangers tasting your food for the first time after hearing so much about your fancy blog. You know, when it matters.

In this case, I had only a few hours to pull up my bootstraps, find another recipe that conveniently didn’t use the ingredients I was now out of, and make it happen. “It” being a fabulous cupcake recipe I’ll post later this week.

Ferrero Rocher Cupcake Catastrophe.

When folks ask if I have kitchen flops, it’d be fun to look at them quizzically (maybe with a head tilt) and say something along the lines of, “You mean sometimes recipes don’t work for you? That’s odd.” But in the interest of keepin’ it real and fulfilling the mission of this blog (to inspire kitchen confidence in home cooks), I have to tell you — flops happen.


Thanksgiving pie — er, soup.

My Thanksgiving Coconut Cream Pie was Coconut Cream Soup. Same with the Thanksgiving Chocolate Pie. My pie pockets disintegrated. The meringue on my coconut cake was toasted in stripes that made it look like it had recently escaped from dessert prison. My pink poured fondant glopped up and made most of my kitchen surfaces look like they’d been finger-painted with Pepto Bismol. I forgot the leavener in my first batch of Ferrero Rocher Cupcakes and ended up with Ferrero Rocher Hockey Pucks. My chicken and dumplings cooked too long, and I kept adding stock to replenish the liquid — ever eaten a block of salt? My first Red Berry Pie was a blood-red, runny mess that vaguely resembled a crime scene. And my pumpkin ravioli — oh my goodness, did you read about my pumpkin ravioli?!

Pie crust or pie dust?

Maybe the possibility of failure seems like a deterrent to you. Why spend time, energy, and ingredients on something that might fail? In actuality, though, flops should encourage you, and here’s why: much of what I’ve learned in the kitchen, I’ve learned from flops. That’s why when lovely Lauren of Celiac Teen suggested we share our flops, I jumped on board the self-humiliation train.

When a recipe fails, especially when it matters, you have to be resourceful. My pie filling is ruined, but can I fill the crust with something else? My pie crust is ruined, but can the filling double as an ice cream topping? My cake is wobbly, but can I tear it up and make cake balls? My croissants are pale and ugly, but can I shred them and make a caramel croissant bread pudding? My macarons don’t have feet, but can I use them as a crunchy sundae topping? My cupcakes imploded, but can they double as doorstops? (okay, that one isn’t very helpful.)

This kind of thinking is what chefs do. The more you’re able to turn things around and put something fantastic on the table despite your difficulties, the more confident you’ll become that there really are no kitchen failures: just kitchen detours.

Coconut Cake Convict

Flops also force you to start over. The repetition of a recipe is always enlightening for me. When I have to remake a pie crust from scratch, I realize that I’m growing: I know the amount of flour by heart, I refrigerate my cubed butter reflexively, I’m a little more savvy about rolling out the dough. The more recipes you try, the more you learn — so it stands to reason that having to try the same recipe twice in one go can be an informative experience.

The runny pie massacre.

Finally, flops help you keep perspective. So much of our personal misery comes from seeking perfection in the wrong things. We want our houses to be perfectly clean, our kids perfectly behaved, our hair perfectly coiffed, our croquembouche perfectly . . . bouched. We need the perfect pair of jeans, the perfect car, the perfect body. The truth is, sometimes the fun is in the sloppy details. Cooking isn’t supposed to be perfect. It’s supposed to be an experience, a process, and something to share. And sometimes sharing the flops is just as fun as sharing the fancy stuff.

Now, how about you? What are your favorite kitchen flops?

To see other bloggers’ favorite flops, check out the links on Lauren’s Kitchen Flops and Disasters post.

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Pitiful Pumpkin Ravioli, or Mike’s Birthday Dinner Disaster

Every now and then I stumble on an ethereal recipe that melts on my tongue and makes me draw in deep, appreciative breaths between every bite. I post these recipes hastily and urge you all to run into your kitchens and get to mixing. I stamp little hearts next to their names on my Recipe Index. I bring them up in conversations with Mike long after the last morsel has been devoured. I even long to whip them up again — a significant sentiment, since I rarely make the same dish twice.

This is not one of those recipes.

Actually, this is one of those recipes where I, um, don’t post the recipe. Because I’m terrified someone will skip over all of these paragraphs where I reveal how awful it tasted and end up making it. I can only imagine the creative hate mail I’d receive after folks spent 3 or 4 hours in the kitchen prepping this disaster. It could get ugly.

Instead, I’ll just tell you the story. It all started at my desk at school, where I sat one day eating one of those low-calorie frozen meals. They’re typically flavorless concoctions of funky-textured “meat” and rubbery veggies, but at least they’re quick sustenance. This particular frozen meal was tasty, though: a slightly sweet pumpkin ravioli in a butter sage sauce with hunks of butternut squash and asparagus. I thought to myself (somewhat smugly), “I bet I could make this even better from scratch . . . .”

It turns out that I cannot make it better from scratch. It also turns out that I should not try risky, experimental recipes on Mike’s birthday. After hours of work (roasting the squash, making and kneading the pasta dough, rolling and filling the ravioli, cooking the asparagus, mixing the sauce and veggies and pasta, and photographing the whole thing), Mike and I took our first bites and made eye contact. In that one silent moment, our eyes said all there was to say. Mike’s eyes were panicking: “Oh crap, what can I say about this ravioli that isn’t insulting?!” and my eyes were remorseful: “Oh crap, I’ve ruined his birthday dinner, of all the dinners to ruin!”

What Mike actually said was, “It’s good,” while concentrating hard (a little too hard) on cutting the next bite. What I actually said was, “This stuff is disgusting. Maybe we should order pizza.” The sweet guy ended up eating every bite in his bowl (and, ahem, politely declining seconds) while I scarfed down the from-frozen garlic bread he had brought over. That’s right: the only edible part of the meal was the garlic bread I made MIKE buy on his way over for his own birthday dinner! Have I won the girlfriend of the year award yet?

In summary, do not make this pasta. The odd, bitter combination of pumpkin and parmesan in the filling was nauseating. The butter sage sauce was greasy and bland. The squash . . . well, okay, the squash was good. Go roast yourself a butternut squash and call it a day, y’all. I’m comforting myself with the fact that my homemade ravioli technique has improved (I rolled thinner, creating a better-textured pasta) and dessert was fantastic. Ah, dessert: a balm on dinner disaster wounds. Stay tuned and I’ll tell you all about it.

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Red Berry Pie — Version 1.0

Author’s Note: I’ve updated and perfected this recipe! After reading the post below, please see Red Berry Pie — Version 2.0!

Last week I was basking on pluffy cloud nine after baking my first pie. I guess I needed a reality check, because the very next day I decided to give pie-making another go with considerably less amazing results. I wish I could share what I baked this weekend with you instead! It was the Daring Bakers challenge, and I’m giddy with the recipe and results. Unfortunately, I must save that until the 27th of the month, so for now, I present . . . failpie.

Well, that’s a little harsh. This is only a failure of texture/appearance, not taste. I was pleased as punch with the crust, and the strawberry and raspberry combination was perfectly tangy and sweet. With a dollop of homemade whipped cream on the whole concoction, it was actually a satisfying dessert. Mike and his dad even preferred it to the peach pie! When it comes down to it, the only problem with this pie was the texture of the filling. Sadly, the words “mushy” and “runny” are apt here. But even that, as it turns out, may have a relatively simple solution.

Ugly but tasty!

There are a few main reasons fruit pies can be runny (I did some research using the list of pie tips on DianasDesserts, as well as several other sites). The filling may not be cooked long enough. The fruit may have required more of a thickening agent (cornstarch, tapioca, and flour are common). But in my case, I don’t think the recipe was the culprit (it was from the cornstarch folks, for goodness’ sake). No, I’m guessing it was something even simpler; that is, the cooling time. Fruit pies need to be completely cool before being cut, and that can require up to four hours. Did I let my pie cool for four hours? Of course not. I didn’t plan four whole hours into my busy Sunday schedule! In fact, my pie barely sat for half an hour before I had to pack it up and head to dinner at Mike’s sister’s beautiful new home. What did I expect?!

Maybe we’ll just call it a cobbler? How’s that?

I do think you should make this pie, but with a couple of changes. First, some people recommend cooking your fruit with the thickening agent on the stove before filling your pie, thus ensuring the proper thickness. That sounds like a better idea than piling it all in the crust and hoping for the best, now doesn’t it? Second, you should use more berries than I did. I wanted my pie to be stuffed, but I was a little low on fruit this time around. Finally, of course, let your pie cool! Plan ahead and don’t be hasty.

I’m posting the recipe below as I used it, but feel free to tinker with the above aspects. I think this is going to be a real winner with a little work. I’ll have to let you know when I give it another shot.

Red Berry Pie, version 1

Recipe By:

Hodgson Mills (pie filling, adapted by me)
-Ina Garten (whipped cream)
-Me (crust)

Yields: One 9-inch, double-crust pie

Crust Ingredients:
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup cold lard (non-hydrogenated if available)*
3/4 cup cold butter, chopped
6-8 tablespoons cold water
sugar (to sprinkle on before baking)
*you can substitute vegetable shortening here if you wish, but I highly recommend the lard!

Filling Ingredients:
1 pints of fresh or frozen raspberries
1 pound fresh strawberries
1 1/4 cup sugar
tiny pinch of salt
4 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon raspberry extract
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Egg Wash Ingredients:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream

Whipped Cream Ingredients:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (or flavoring of your choice)


Pulse flour and salt together to combine. Add scoops of lard and pulse into the mixture has the texture of coarse sand, about 10 seconds. Add in chunks of butter and pulse until butter pieces are no larger than small peas, about 10 pulses. Add minimum amount of water and pulse on low. If dough remains crumbly and doesn’t come together, add another 2 tablespoons of water. Add as little as is required to enable the dough to be rolled into a ball. Form the dough into 2 disks, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Roll one disk of dough out to around 2 inches larger than your pie plate and transfer it, situating it in the plate. Trim the excess flush with the edge of the pie plate.

Mix filling: In a large bowl, gently toss raspberries and strawberries together with sugar. Add cornstarch, raspberry extract and orange juice. Spoon into prepared pie shell bottom. Dot with butter.

Roll the other dough disk out to about 1 inch larger than your pie plate. Situate it over the filling, tucking the edges of the top dough behind the edge of the bottom dough and crimping the edges. Use excess dough to add dough cutouts to top of pie if desired (I made a heart).

In a small bowl, beat cream and egg yolk together for egg wash. Using a pastry brush, brush the surface of the top pie crust (can sprinkle lightly with sugar if you desire). Cut vents in the top crust. Shield crimped edges of pie (and any dough cutouts) with foil. Place on parchment paper lined cookie sheet and place on lower third of oven. Bake 15 minutes, reduce heat to 375 degrees F and bake until juices are bubbling through vents and pastry is browned, another 25-30 minutes. For the last 15 minutes, remove foil shielding. Allow pie to cool completely (around 4 hours minimum).

Serve with vanilla ice cream or homemade whipped cream. To make homemade whipped cream, mix all ingredients together until soft peaks are obtained.

The pie all foil-shielded and baking its heart out.

I can almost hear the tiny pie voice imploring, “Let me cool!” Alas.

Ferrero Rocher Failcakes

I showed you the pretty ones, but I thought you might also like to see my Ferrero Rocher Failcakes! I have my share of kitchen disasters. While I was happy with my second batch of Ferrero Rocher Cupcakes, the first batch didn’t quite turn out . . . to say the least!

The chocolate cupcake recipe I was using didn’t say anything about adding baking soda and powder (they were in the ingredients list, but not in the directions, which I always go by) and so . . . I didn’t! Oops. Lesson learned: always cross reference the ingredients list.

The failcakes still tasted okay, but were quite dense and not so pretty! I drizzled some extra ganache over them just in case we decided to eat them anyway. As of right now, though, they’re sitting in the fridge untouched.