Friday, March 16, 2007

How to Botch a Never-Fail Recipe

This all started when my daughter, seeing me perusing several dozen saved recipes for meal ideas, suggested we have something "different." She has predictable eating patterns, but it looked like a rare moment of exploration. I wanted to assist. She asked for something sweet, and proceeded to mention pre-packaged or storebought items we usually don't get, since I'm trying to do things from scratch more now, with better ingredients. We discussed, and she outlined some hankerings she'd been having in the snack department. Since she's been really aboard the fresh fruit and veggies I've been offering lately, I was happy to look into some kind of baked treat. R has an affinity for certain textures. Her comfort foods tend toward creamy, cakey, smooth, and sweet, with no raisins, nuts, or predominent crusts.

We scoured the recipe list together, and arrived at a couple she thought sounded good. I offered to fix them and if they were keepers, we'd both make them together at a later date. I made a special trip for the ingredients that day.

The recipes are simple and straightforward, and looked delicious!

They tempted with assurances that they could not fail.

Sure, I'd heard it before. Those recipes, the ones that just about convince you to forget your last kitchen disaster and launch into the choppy waters of experimentation once again.

Or you find a mixed crowd of guests at some event over at the food table all but licking a particular dish clean but trying to be all smooth about it. The cry goes forth,"this is delicious!" and the reply from the flattered dish owner asserting before witnesses "oh, it's just the easiest thing to kids can even make this!"


They're always the same phrases - "Never-fail," "Anyone can do it," "Tried 'n true," "Anyone can make it."

But the one that always gets me is "a recipe that always delivers, that's been in our family for generations." For me, that's the hook. Norman Rockwell painted this. Someone's bubbe in Minsk always made it for the family. Thomas Jefferson brought it over from the continent and grew its ingredients in his garden. A distant cousin wrote it down on a napkin after trying to pin down her mother about proportions and measurements.

They all have one thing in common: Supposedly you can't mess them up.

And, remarkably, I nearly didn't.

Here's how I achieved the nearly-impossible, though. One has to work hard at it, but it CAN be done...

Long story short, I chose three trial recipes to coincide with our family of three's 3 different preferences. I can always freeze the surplus.

The first, for my husband, a thick, dense one layer Cranberry Cake. Oh, I could have messed it up, though the recipe is so easy. After all, somebody put whole wheat flour in with the all purpose flour in my flour bin, and this mix was what I scooped out for the flour called for. The cranberries were supposed to be fresh, but all I had were dried cranberries and blueberries. But I baked it up and it came out wonderfully...I have no idea if it was supposed to taste the way it did, but with nothing as a comparison, I was delighted with the outcome! Score One!

The second, for me...a Polish Apple Cake. The author had typed enthusiastic remarks about it being a staple of her family's fare, and it looked like a straightforward cottagey bread dessert. I could have messed this one up, too. It called for 3 large apples, but I had tiny ones, so used 5. I was interrupted multiple times during the measuring and slicing of things. I made it in a cake pan that has sometimes been prone to sticking. And I'm not even sure I like apple cake. But in it went, and out it came, and it was a vision of loveliness, truly golden, with the crisp top giving way to a perfect soft density inside and not too sweet but not bland. It even turned out of the pan just right. Score Two!!!

The third recipe, for my daughter. It was a recipe for a single layer strawberry cake. The cake mixed up fine, I had plenty of fresh strawberries sliced and arranged beautifully on top of the poured batter, and I'd made a double batch (one for freezing or giving away). I tucked them into their perfect oven, and even remembered to do as the directions called for and turn the temp down 25 degrees after the first ten minutes. Halfway through their bake, they were still doing fine, so I set the timer for a few more minutes, did my third sinkful of dishes, and sat down in the other room to rest and check emails. It was then I began smelling something amiss.

I trotted into the kitchen to see what was up, and both cakes had begun burbling their contents over the edges of the pans. Not just a sputter here or there. We had a middle-school volcano science project on our hands. What to do? They werent set yet, but only lacked about 15 minutes to go. I comforted myself with the thought that I have a self-cleaning oven. I bravely decided that whatever was left of the cakes would remain to finish cooking, and then I would engage the oven to clean itself.

Smoke was happening by now. Oh brother. On went the exhaust fan. I finally retrieved them, and despite the eruption of much of their contents, there were two beautiful cakes all browned up and looking only slighty overblown in their beauty. They went to cool on the flat oven cook surface. I surveyed the oven. Two crop circles of charred batter spill lay on the bottom of the stove interior. Stalactites of burnt dough spill hung from the grid of oven racks. It was all smelling really burnt. I surveyed the easy push-button panel and chose the Self Clean button. It instructed me to Lock Oven. I looked for a lock. Ah, yes, that black bar. Lock it I did.

Like I said, the strawberry cakes remained on the stovetop, which was cool and not hot. The cakes were beautiful.

I left the oven to its own cleaning devices and went back to sit down and relax. About ten minutes later, R ran in with her eyes watering, coughing. "Open the windows, Mom! This smoke is really dangerous." I entered the kitchen and now I understand how people can be asphyxiated. The fumes from the stove were acrid and black and so stingingly chemical we couldnt stay in there. I took R outside and then ran through the house opening all the windows and turning on all the fans. And then the doors. After 15 minutes of this, I'd had enough. Clean or not clean, the fumes were so bad my whole house was going to be stinking and toxic. I turned off the self-clean and we stayed outside till the air cleared somewhat.

Still, I thought everything was alright foodwise.

The cranberry cake fared was under glass on a cake stand.

The apple cake fared was wrapped in foil.

The strawberry cakes still looked lovely. Looks can be deceiving.

I'll just state for the record that there was black on the outside of my oven from the smoke that had roiled out during the cleaning, and that was only inches away from the cooling cakes. It wiped away like soot, and smelled horrid.

It had also flavored both strawberry cakes, but we didn't discover that until our first bites. R hates crusts anyway, so she was digging the soft moist parts out of her piece. She was spared. But truly, the cakes were ruined, and 2 lbs of fresh strawberries. They were asphyxiated. But beautiful in their awfulness.

Somewhere, in a volunteer fire department far far away, there is probably a group of men who would love this recipe. You'll find it in their annual department cookbook under Never Fail Recipes, category "Smoker Cooking."

It will be in Savory, not Dessert.

No comments: