Parental Advisory: This post is rated R for strong language. Because I can’t possibly tell a good story without swearing for emphasis.
I am a perfectionist. I very unreasonably expect everything I do to be perfect, and I get very upset with myself when I make mistakes. But sometimes, the mistakes I make are so epically catastrophic, that I have to just laugh at myself. Today I’m going to share my most disastrous kitchen stories ever, along with the recipes that precipitated the disasters. By the end of it, you will probably be glad I’ve never cooked or baked anything in your kitchen.
Soft Apple-Cider Caramels
Last December my husband and I decided to have a holiday housewarming party at our apartment in DC. Because I wasn’t working, I thought it would be nice if I made all the party food from scratch. Food & Wine is one of my favorite magazines, and I often tear out recipes and cocktail ideas–some are overly ambitious and I’ll probably never make them, and some are “special occasion foods.” The Soft Apple-Cider Caramels fell into the latter category, but believe me, they are now in the “Never, Ever Make This Again” category.
Here’s the recipe from foodandwine.com:
- 2 quarts apple cider
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 4 cups sugar
- 3/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 stick cold unsalted butter, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Pinch of ground allspice
- Pinch of ground cloves
- Neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed, for brushing
- In a large saucepan, simmer the apple cider over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until reduced to 1 cup, about 1 hour. Pour the reduced cider into a bowl.
- Line a 9-by-13-inch rimmed pan with foil and coat the foil with nonstick cooking spray. In a medium saucepan, combine the heavy cream and condensed milk and bring to a simmer over moderate heat; keep the mixture warm over low heat.
- In another large saucepan, combine the sugar with the reduced apple cider, corn syrup, water and salt and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Carefully whisk in the butter until melted. Gradually whisk in the warm cream mixture until incorporated. Cook over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until a golden caramel forms and the temperature reaches 245° on a candy thermometer, about 45 minutes. Stir in the cinnamon, allspice and cloves and scrape the caramel into the prepared pan. Let cool completely, then refrigerate the caramel overnight.
- Lightly brush a sheet of parchment paper with oil. Invert the caramel onto the parchment and peel off the foil. Using a sharp knife, cut the caramel into 1-inch-wide strips, then cut the block crosswise into 1/2-inch rectangles. Wrap each caramel in a square of parchment paper or a candy wrapper and twist the ends to seal. Serve or pack the caramels into boxes.
For starters, 2 quarts of apple cider is a LOT of apple cider. I didn’t really think about that before starting out, but I found a saucepan large enough to accommodate it and simmered according to the recipe. Except the recipe claims you can reduce 2 quarts of apple cider to 1 cup of apple cider in an hour. Bullshit. That apple cider was on the stove for almost 3 hours before it finally cooked down to 1 cup. Good thing I had all freakin’ day to do it.
My next hurdle was with the rimmed baking sheet, in that I didn’t actually own a rimmed baking sheet. We had registered for some, but no one bought them for us. No problem, I thought. I’ll just use my regular, rimless baking sheet and build rims out of tinfoil. I’m a genius!
I managed to accurately combine, simmer, dissolve, and incorporate all the remaining ingredients, and I even had a candy thermometer on hand to make sure the mixture achieved the desired temperature of 245 degrees. Here’s the thing though, that goddamn caramel absolutely refused to get past 220 degrees. I stirred frequently for well over an hour and couldn’t get it anywhere near 245 degrees. So I turned up the heat a bit. Just a bit. Before I know it, huge bubbles of caramel are brewing in the pan and I have a caramel eruption on my hands. It was like one of those volcano science projects for school, but stickier. The caramel bubbled up and over the rim of the pan, all over my stovetop. Swearing profusely, I turned off the heat, moved the pan to a non-caramelized burner, and tried to clean up the mess.
Have you ever tried to clean up molten caramel? It’s not something I recommend. I probably went through about 20 paper towels, but I finally managed to get the stove back in good order. So I turn the heat back on, bring the caramel back up to a simmer, and take its temperature. It still isn’t getting past 220 degrees. Now I’m pissed. But apparently I’m so pissed, I’ve lost the capacity for rational thought, because I decide to try turning up the heat again. And what happens this time? THE MOTHERFUCKER BOILS OVER AGAIN. All. Over. My. Stovetop. Again.
So I say “Fuck you,” to the caramel and the candy thermometer and decide that 220 degrees is just going to have to do. And I clean up the stovetop. Again. At this point, I’m pretty sure the gas burners will never light again due to the film of caramel coating them. I pour the caramel into my makeshift rimmed baking sheet, for the first time questioning whether my genius tin foil rims will hold. The caramel is pretty oozy and threatens to spill out everywhere, but the rims hold. I refrigerate it like the recipe says and go back to scraping caramel out of my stove burners with a toothpick.
The next day I attempt to invert the caramel onto a piece of parchment paper, but it hasn’t hardened at all. Not even a little bit. Fantastic. So I put it in the freezer and check on it periodically. The next day it STILL hasn’t hardened to the extent that it’s supposed to, but it’s less oozy than before, so I attempt to turn it out onto parchment paper. Except it sticks to the tin foil. A lot.
I finally conclude that there’s no fucking way this caramel is going to come out resembling anything close to a block that can be cut into pieces. I just scrape it all into a bowl*, and put it out as a dip at the party. And my husband eats leftover apple cider caramel dip for MONTHS afterward because this recipe makes a fuck-ton of caramel. And the real kick in the nuts is that I don’t even LIKE apple cider. Which is why I will Never, Ever Make This Again.
*The “scraping into a bowl” was not nearly as easy as that sounds. At one point, I was covered in caramel up to my elbows on both arms. I had caramel all over the counter, some on the floor, and some on the walls. It was like a scene from Dexter, but with caramel instead of blood. Good times.
Also on the menu for our holiday housewarming party was Bacon Candy, another Food & Wine recipe. And another recipe calling for rimmed baking sheets. Really, I blame this disaster on our friends and family, for not getting us those rimmed baking sheets on our registry!
Here’s the recipe:
- 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chile powder
- 20 slices of thick-cut bacon (1 1/2 pounds)
- Preheat the oven to 400°. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with foil. In a small bowl, whisk the brown sugar with the chile powder. Arrange the bacon strips on the foil and coat the tops with the chile sugar. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until caramelized and almost crisp. Transfer the bacon to a rack set over a sheet of foil to cool completely; serve.
Sounds simple, right? How could I possibly screw this up? Just wait.
Whisking the brown sugar and chili powder and coating the bacon strips went just fine. And since the handmade tin foil rims worked passably well with the caramel, I figured I would try them again with the bacon. Have you ever cooked 20 pieces of bacon all at once? Do you know how much bacon grease that generates? A whole hell of a lot, that’s how much.
Things were going just fine until I heard a weird sound in the kitchen–like a “whoosh” sound, similar to what happens when you start a gas burner or light a gas grill. I go into the kitchen to investigate and see smoke billowing from the oven. I open some windows, then I look through the oven window and discover that it’s on fire! And not just a little fire off to one side–the whole fucking thing is in flames. I start freaking out because I am so not good in a crisis. I open the oven door to get a better look at things, and flames come leaping out. So I quickly close the door and do what anyone in my position would do, I Google “how to put out a grease fire in the oven.” This is what anyone would do, right?
The interwebs tell me to turn off the heat and leave the door closed, which will starve the fire of oxygen, eventually causing it to die out. Sounds reasonable to me. So I turn off the heat and sit there, watching the flames. They’re not getting any smaller, and it occurs to me that there’s still an ungodly amount of fuel for this fire because the bacon is still in there, and it’s dripping like crazy all over the flames at the bottom of the oven. I realize that I need to get the bacon out of the oven to cut off the supply of grease. (Also, I still want to salvage the bacon.)
There are two separate fires burning in the oven–one on the bottom and one on the side, which has flames leaping and flaring. I put on my oven mitt, open the door, and reach in for the first tray, holding my breath and trying desperately not to tip it and dump bacon grease all over the place. I manage to put it down on the stovetop without spilling any grease and close the oven door. At this point I’m still trying not to completely lose my shit. There’s a second tray of bacon in the oven, and crying and steady hands don’t exactly go together. I keep calm long enough to reach in for the other tray, after a few attempts thwarted by flames, and I get the tray out and onto the stove. Miraculously, I did all this without setting myself on fire.
I sit there on the kitchen floor for a few more minutes, waiting for the fire to die out. When it doesn’t, I finally decide that I may need fire extinguisher intervention, so I call the property manager. Trying not to alarm him too much, I say, “I have a minor kitchen emergency with a small grease fire in my oven.” He sends up two of the maintenance people with a fire extinguisher. They’re reluctant to use the fire extinguisher because they’re not sure whether it will ruin the oven. One of them suggests putting water on the fire, so clearly they’re not fire experts. I politely tell them that water is the last thing you want to put on a grease fire. I don’t need Google to tell me that. So the three of us stand there, watching the flames. It’s like the world’s most boring TV show. Finally, thankfully, the flames die out. They leave, and I call my husband, sobbing that I nearly burned down the apartment.
The inside of our oven has never been the same. The self-cleaning feature burned off most of the char and soot (but not before once again trying to asphyxiate me with black smoke) but it still looks like the inside of a dragon’s lair in there. I’m happy to report, however, that the bacon survived. We even served it at the party, and it was delicious.
Double Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Filling
For my husband’s birthday this year, I wanted to make him a special birthday cake. He requested something with dark chocolate and raspberries, and I found this recipe on Pinterest from Recipe Girl:
3 ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli chocolate chips)
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli chocolate chips)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
One (10-ounce) bag frozen raspberries, thawed
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1. Prepare cake: Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. and grease two 10-inch cake pans, or three 8-inch cake pans. Spray pans with nonstick spray and then line bottoms with rounds of parchment paper- then spray paper too.
2. In a medium bowl combine chocolate with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
3. In a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add dry mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined.
4. Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven 50 to 65 minutes, or until tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean.
5. Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove parchment paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature.
6. Prepare frosting: In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Add butter pieces and whisk until smooth.
7. Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (It may be necessary to chill frosting to reach spreadable consistency).
8. Prepare filling: Puree raspberries in a food processor or blender. Press the puree through a fine-mesh strainer with the back of a spoon, removing the seeds. Heat the puree in a small pot with the sugar and cornstarch until mixture boils, stirring constantly. As it boils, it should quickly thicken. Let cool.
9. Assemble cake: Spread a thin layer of ganache on 1st cake layer- followed by a layer of the raspberry filling. Top with 2nd cake layer and repeat (if using a 3rd layer). If only using two cake layers, cover the top and sides with the remaining chocolate ganache frosting. Cake keeps, covered and chilled up to 3 days. Bring cake to room temperature before serving.
I knew it would be elaborate, but it was a milestone birthday for him, and he’s worth the effort. I set out to make the cake the day before his birthday party, knowing that I would need a separate day to deal with the filling and the frosting. Everything was going just fine until I got to the baking powder. I still don’t know quite how I did this, but instead of putting in 3/4 teaspoon, I put in 1 1/2 teaspoons. Rookie mistake. But I’m no rookie.
Unsure what effect too much baking powder would have on the cake, I turned to my trusty friend Google. It turns out that too much baking powder can lead to one of two things–the cake will have a bitter taste, or it will not rise properly and will be too dense. Neither of those was an acceptable outcome for this cake. After a lot of cursing, crying, and throwing of things, my husband convinced me that I should just put aside the ruined batch and start over. “But I’m out of cocoa powder!” I wailed at him. “So we’ll go to the store and get more,” he calmly reasoned. (It’s one of those “opposites attract” situations–I freak out over everything, and he stays calm.)
After braving the Saturday traffic on Connecticut Avenue in DC to get to the Whole Foods in Tenleytown (a trip that is about 3 miles but takes almost 30 minutes), I nearly had another fit in the baking aisle. Whole Foods carries about five different kinds of cocoa powder, but only one of them is not Dutch-process. And they were out of that one. My husband even tracked down an elusive store employee and had him check in the back, but no luck. So we bought the Dutch-process cocoa and headed home, but not before my husband asked if I needed anything else. I assured him I had everything else I needed at home. (You see where this is going, right?)
So we get home, and I start combining ingredients again, being meticulous about which measuring spoon I’m using. Then I get to the baking soda and realize that I don’t have enough. Are you fucking kidding me? What is wrong with me? I’m pretty much ready to give up at this point, but my husband graciously agreed to walk up to the bodega near our apartment and buy some more baking soda. He wisely texted me from the store, just to make sure there was nothing else I needed. This time, I was sure when I said that I had everything.
Ultimately, I finished the cake, and the filling, and the frosting. It was delicious, if a bit rich. I recommend the recipe if you’re looking for a special cake and have two days to devote to it. Just double-check your ingredient stores beforehand, and keep your eye on those measurements.
Oh, and I eventually made cupcakes out of the “ruined” dry ingredients. They really didn’t taste that bad.
Trader Joe’s Banana Bread
I usually make banana bread from scratch, but I was already making a lot of things for our holiday party from scratch and figured I would cut some corners on the banana bread. I’ve made banana bread a hundred times, and I know what the batter is supposed to look like. When I finished this batter, it was way too thick. I knew there was no way it was right. I double-checked the ingredients: oil, egg, water. Yep, yep, yep. I put all those in. I Googled “trader joes banana bread” to see if anyone else had had problems with it but came up empty-handed.
After banging my hand on the counter and saying, “What the fuck?” several times, my husband came in to investigate. I explained the problem, and he logically asked me if I had put everything in. “Yes! Oil! Egg! Water! It’s all fucking in there!” He pointed to something on the counter and said, “What’s that?” I looked. “Motherfucker, that’s the water that’s supposed to be in the batter!” Mystery solved. And the bread came out just fine.
All of these disasters happened in the past six months. Either living in DC is causing brain damage, or turning 40 has completely ruined my ability to think, remember anything, or bake. I have had some success stories since then, but those aren’t nearly as funny.