Crunchy cupcakes: Why culinary disasters taste like failure

There’s something about being in the kitchen that drives me just a little bit crazy. My language gets a little colourful. My temper becomes hair fine. I have (more than once) flown off the handle and spun into a whirlwind of swearwords for dropping a teaspoon. All rationale and logic seem to go out of the window when I’m in the kitchen. I get emotional over things that warrant no emotion whatsoever. I’ve cried over forgetting to put tomato puree in spaghetti bolognese. I’ve sulked because I’ve made icing that was too dry to ice my cupcakes. In a total fit of rage, I once pulled the cutlery drawer clear out of the worktop. It fell apart in my hand sending all our cutlery clattering out onto the kitchen floor.

…and all because I dropped a pork escalope.

From an outsider’s point of view, these types of reactions are disproportional.

Kitchen rage

Yet, there’s a sinking feeling when you pull your disastrous creation out of the oven. When it doesn’t look the way it should. When it doesn’t smell the way it should. When you’re not even sure if it’s edible.

Whatever the case, it doesn’t justify flipping out and wanting to burn down your kitchen. But I think there are a few reasons that it a culinary disaster feels like a smack in the face.

1. You did what the recipe said

I’m not that good of a cook that I can wing it recipe-wise and so, for the most part, I follow a recipe.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel compelled to deviate from the instructions and go my own way. I am so aware of this compulsion, that I have to force myself to ignore it. I know that if I don’t ignore it, that something might go wrong.

And then it goes wrong anyway.

Why is there so much liquid? Why hasn’t it risen in the oven? Why is it brown? Is it supposed to be crunchy? Why has it cooked on one side and not the other? Why is there a massive dome in the centre?

Banana loaf with a big dome

If you’ve been here, you’ve felt the evil of it all.

You followed the recipe. You did what the expert said and you ignored the crazy person inside you telling you to do it differently. You don’t deserve this because you made concerted effort to do it right.

In short, you promised yourself great things by following the recipe, and it didn’t work out. You feel cheated.

2. You didn’t follow the recipe

No. You listened to that crazy compulsion to just add a splash of vodka to your Victoria sponge cake mixture. It’ll be quirky, it won’t make any difference, right? You ignored the little voice inside that says “What are you doing? That’s not what it said in the recipe. Vodka doesn’t even go with Victoria sponge cake. It’s going to go wrong and all hell will break lose when it does. Stop now before it’s too late.”

But you decided to put vodka in a Victoria sponge. You were confident you knew what you were doing.

And then it isn’t worth the risk because your Victoria sponge hasn’t baked. It’s still a bit liquidy inside and it also smells like nail polish remover. There’s no one to blame but you. You hear the little voice saying “I told you so.”

In short, you acted on impulse even though you told yourself not to. You’ve only got yourself to blame and so, you do.

3. There’s a picture

And what you’ve made doesn’t look anything like that picture. It doesn’t taste anything like the picture suggests it should taste.

In short, that mouthwatering creation in the picture set a precedent. What you’ve created hasn’t come anywhere close to that.

4. It’s never gone wrong before

You’ve made this dish hundreds of times before and it’s never gone this wrong. Why has it gone wrong? Why? Why? Did you do something different this time? Something has gone wrong somewhere and it needs to take the blame.

In short, shit has inexplicably happened. You need to blame someone or something for this injustice.

5. High expectations

You’ve had an idea to create something amazing. In your mind, it’s a Michelin  star creation, but what you come out with is something is like a bad student dinner.

In short, it had the potential to be so good and because it wasn’t, you feel like a failure.

You may have noticed that there’s a theme here. Whatever goes wrong feels like a failure. And failure just doesn’t feel good. I have had more failures in the kitchen than I can remember and every time, I can’t help but get upset. (If you’ve read about my catastrophic barbecue, you’ll know what I’m talking about). I feel robbed of my efforts. I blame myself for acting on impulse and for thinking that I might know better than a recipe. When something I’ve made before goes wrong, I feel like I’ve lost it. I wonder if I was just lucky all those other times.

It isn’t just that the fatless sponge has emerged from the oven and looks like a cow pat. That’s not why I’m upset. It’s because there’s a whirlwind of negative thoughts in my head. I’m upset because I didn’t do it right and the sad cow pat in the bottom of a cake tin is evidence of that.

Eventual cakes

The last time I baked cupcakes was the first time I had baked cupcakes with any success. The first time, I overbaked them and they were rather crunchy. The second time, I put peanut butter in the icing and it congealed into a solid mass. The third time, I underbaked them and removed them from the cake tin when they were still hot. As a result, each cupcake had a dent in one side. The fourth time, I got it right.

Practice makes perfect, but I think failure paves the road to success. And sometimes, I think things just go wrong.

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