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.

Sad burgers and the barbecue that wasn’t

So, we’re away on holiday at the moment and I haven’t really mentioned this yet because a) this blog is only a week old and I only have about 10 Twitter followers and b) I’m never really sure how much about my whereabouts I should broadcast to the internet.

As a compromise, I’ll share some details, whilst remaining extremely vague at the same time. We’re staying in a beautiful wooden cabin, which is all kinds of romantic and pretty and makes me want to run away and become a hippie and change my name to “Sunbeam” and wear clothes made from hemp. Around the back of the cabin is some decking which overlooks long stretches of lush greenery.

Before we even arrived at the cabin, we promised ourselves a grand barbecue, watching the sun disappear on the horizon, sipping some cold beers and tucking into some almighty burgers.

I’m very favorable of barbecues. The mere whiff of burning charcoal and grilled meat seems to awaken some sort of ravenous carnivore in me.

With our idealistic notions of the perfect holiday barbecue firmly lodged in our minds, a smokey burger mere moments away,  we set to. Mr. Hedgehogs and Sandwiches (I really don’t know how to refer to my boyfriend in this semi-anonymous blog) headed out to the decking to make fire and I spent too long puzzling over how and what to make as vegetable side-dishes.

I’m very idealistic about barbecues and often forget that they’re something of a wild culinary beast that need to be approached with confidence and treated with respect. One cannot haphazardly toss coals into the grill, lob in some fire-lighters and hope for the best.

The barbecue gods laugh in the face of such a cocksure manner – and they punish accordingly.

Sure enough, hours later, we were prodding coals and igniting handfuls of fire-lighters, hungry and frustrated as the pile of cool and ever-so-slightly charred coals looked back at us.

Back in the kitchen, an equally sad state of affairs was taking place in the oven, where two jacket potatoes stubbornly refused to resemble anything other than rocks wrapped in tin foil. I can only pin this experience down to culinary amnesia, instigated by a kitchen with no microwave. My brain had simply deleted the extremely lengthy cooking time of large baked potatoes from my brain.

Any sensible person would have put the potatoes in a hot oven straight away, so that even if you’re resigned to spending the next two hours repeatedly attempting to get the barbecue lit (as we did), the potatoes would be ready.

But no. I spent a good hour scratching my head about other side dishes to make.

After too many futile attempts out on the decking, and the weather growing distinctly chilly, we hurriedly fried tepid failed barbecue sausages, only to then completely overcook them thanks to my attention being elsewhere (on the glum, uncooked, still very raw potatoes).

After a course of charcoal sausages and limp salad, we decided to fry some burgers, toss them in a bun with cheese slices and ketchup, and call it quits.

Dream burger. Does not resemble rubber frisby.
Dream burger. Does not resemble rubber frisbee.

The burgers went into the frying pan a whopping three and a half hours after we had cheerily danced onto the decking to light the barbecue.

Despite being purchased at the local butchers, the burgers had a gelatinous and yet rubbery texture. I’ve eaten a lot of burgers in my time, but never a burger that could be so accurately described as “very bendy”.

Four hours into our barbecue that wasn’t, I surveyed the wreckage. I had used ever pot, pan and utensil in the cabin. Everything, including us, smelled like charcoal, paraffin, and failure. My additional side dishes (stuffed peppers, in case you’re interested) went uneaten and after the bendy burgers went into the bin, we resorted to dessert of shop-bought cheesecake before drinking rum until we passed out on the sofa.

The potatoes are still cooking.

Pasta pesto and my carb-addiction

I was born to eat pasta. I have a full-on love affair with the stuff. I crave it more than I crave chocolate. I love it and despite numerous (admittedly, half-arsed) attempts, I cannot give it up. I cannot quit pasta; I just want it all the time. When I’m hungry, I want pasta. When I want to cheer up, I want pasta. When I go out for dinner, I have to talk myself out of eating pasta because I can make it myself at home, but during weaker moments, yeah, I still want pasta.

My love of pasta knows no bounds. I know the paleo ways; I know that carbs, specifically pasta, have a soporific effect on me so profound, that I’ve been known to assume the foetal position and nodded off shortly after consuming it. I know that eating it will make me stodgy and sleepy, but dammit, it’s all I want.

I know that eating lots of leafy veggies and lean meat is the way to a healthier me, I know that salad is, despite appearances, actually quite filling, and I’ve perfected my salad making skills to make an interesting salad rather than a dish full of flaccid leaves and sad slices of cucumber. But I can’t quit pasta.

Even as I type this, I am munching my way through a mountain of pasta. It’s not even an interesting; merely quick-spaghetti, boiled in vegetable stock and covered in a mountain of grated cheese. Quite possibly, one of the most simple, bland dishes to have ever existed and yet, somehow, it just really hits the spot. Every mouthful is a cheese-smothered delight, I don’t need anything more.

Last week, I had spent the entire morning fantasising about a big pile of pasta pesto. As a student, pasta pesto was one of my favourite things to eat, and because pesto was relatively expensive (in student terms) it was also one of the more extravagant dinners I would make for myself.

Pasta pesto
What pasta pesto should look like

Despite the evolution of my cooking skills over the last decade or so, pasta pesto is a still a treat, armed with regret. It always seems like a good idea, but it’s only during the final mouthful I’ll admit I’m having second thoughts.

This was especially true last week when I used the remainder of a jar of pesto that was past its best. I’d been fixated on my basil and garlic infused pasta mountain all morning, and such day-dreaming had forced me into being a little optimistic with how long the jar of pesto had been opened for.

My assurance that the pesto was still good waned significantly after the first mouthful. But it didn’t stop me. As I munched through the hot herby mound of pasta pesto I steadily became more aware of the fact that what I was eating tasted like mown lawn and sadness.

What my pasta pesto tasted like
What my pasta pesto tasted like

Disappointed, yet still hungry, I pressed forth, forcing myself to believe it tasted just as good as I believed it would earlier in the day. Eventually, I could not ignore the sick feeling, and had to abort eating mid-forkful, where I lay back on the sofa and groaned excessively.

Just as a bad hangover prompts many promises and declarations of never drinking again, I vowed I would lay off pasta and only eat salads for lunch for the foreseeable future.

A week later, I’ve fallen off the wagon.