It occured to me, as hot butternut squash soup spaffed itself merrily across my work clothes the other evening, that no one really writes about their own kitchen mishaps. Yeah, sure, there’s troubleshooting guides aplenty by lots of foodies, dressed up in warm, genial tones:
“Hush, hush darling, don’t worry about your split ganache; just warm it gently with a splash of milk and it’ll come back together again. Oh, sweetheart! Don’t cry! Have some brioche.”
But where are the personal anecdotes about how it all went wrong? I’ve never once read a Nigel Slater column where his tangerines had gone mouldy in the fruit bowl, or he’d knocked the oven to grill rather than fan and incinerated his rustic pumpkin and squirrel-cheek galette by accident and had to fix it before anyone noticed. And maybe that’s why Nigel is a very lovable, professional food-person and I am not.
Anyway, in order to bridge the gap between foodie Gods (those who never wear their soup) and kitchen pond-scum (those who always wear their soup) I have decided to become somewhat of a messenger. I occasionally wear my soup – sorry, this is now impractically metonymic – but try not to make a habit of it. So to help other middle-of-the-road-sometimes-soup-wearers from despairing, I’ve written a guide to silly things I’ve done in the kitchen and how I’ve sometimes fixed them, leaving no toad unturned along the way in revealing the way I cook. Which involves jazz-hands and a worrying lack of object permanence.
Here are seven of my recent and very real kitchen fuck-ups, plus how I fixed them, so you can either laugh and learn something, or do neither and just be miserable.
- Dropping things from cupboards into hot soup
This is how the soup got spaffed all down my nice linen top the other day. The hob is just on the edge of the cupboard’s firing line – I opened it and a tube of tomato paste fell neatly into the bubbling pot below, splashing everything in range with chorizo-spiced orange goo. I fished it out with some tongs, and gave it a stiff telling off before rinsing under the tap and putting it in a taxi home.
Key takeaway: tidy your cupboards and don’t buy an SUV.
Note: soup sucked out of linen has a pleasantly twine-ish quality about it.
2. Over-thickening bubble and squeak
I hate food waste, and have mastered the art of using up every last scrap in whatever I’m cooking. I have a sadistic tupperware full of bones in the freezer – chicken bones, you heathens.
If Lewis even so glances at the bin when clearing up dinner, I give him what I call The Look. He then dutifully scrapes whatever’s left in the pan into a small box and stashes it in the fridge, rolling his eyes a bit. Our fridge is full of little boxes, which I then make use of in other meals, sort of like a really weird sourdough starter vibe. I fried aubergines in leftover pesto-infused chicken fat the other day. Big win.
So when it came to using up a tub of sad mushrooms, a flaccid spring onion and some spare mashed potato, I thought hey ho, nothing too complicated here – I’ll make buttery mushroomy potato fritters. And then I tried to get too clever. I tried binding the mixture with flour and egg, and wildly overestimated the amount of flour I’d need, turning my potato mash into grey, sludgey goop piles, which refused to brown on the outside. My lovely boyfriend usually eats everything I put in front of him, but I just couldn’t bring myself to serve this as dinner. So I did a thing I never do. I binned the lot and made scrambled egg. I’m sorry, everyone; sometimes hypocrisy wins.
Key takeaway: Keep It Simple, Sucker.
3. Forgetting about béchamel
I am a naturally scatty person. Sometimes I forget to wash enough pants, so end up wearing bikini bottoms for a day or two. Often, I forget where my train of…
But as soon as I turn on the oven, and tie my hair up, Cooking Brain wakes up. It stops wanking in the background over thoughts of olives stuffed with weird things, and glides elegantly into the role of Senior Events Manager, organising everything to run on a relaxed but efficient schedule. This transition is automatic, and when I’m in the kitchen (especially when baking) I’m kind of zen.
That is, unless I have something else to do alongside producing a bounty of edible delights.
For example, the other week I was leafing through my brand new shiny pension plan, so Cooking Brain was back on the olive-wanking. Hence, I forgot about some béchamel on the stove for a few minutes. I don’t get to retire until 2066, which is annoying, but not so annoying as hearing the ‘plop’ of your sauce in the background, because it’s turned into one of those volcanic mud baths: thickened far too much, and stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Unlike my Aviva policy advisor, I had to think quickly. Or quink thickly, in the case of my sauce.
I took a big balloon whisk and beat the betch like a madman, removing it from the heat as I did so. I’d only added around half the liquid needed, but you need to be getting rid of any lumps ever at all stages when it comes to béchamel. I assaulted that sauce within an inch of its life, making sure any lumps had been obliterated by the force from my right tricep. I’m sure you could get the stick blender to help you at this stage. I then added the rest of the liquid, bit by bit. I think this worked because the bottom had burned to the pan, but that had somehow insulated it from any more burnage – which was lucky because I’d really been going over clause 18.3.1 in detail by that point. I then used the sauce for a salmon and potato bake, and it was just fine.
Key takeaway: don’t bother with a pension plan
4. Scraping burnt bits of bread with a microplane
I frequently out-do myself and burn whole loaves of bread, partly because my oven has made a pact with beelzebub and partly because I never use a recipe for bread so have no idea how hydrated my loaf is, which affects cooking time drastically. One way I get round this is basically sanding any loaves down with a microplane, taking their singed corners back to a lovely, if slightly roughened, golden brown. No-one notices when the loaf is sliced thickly and used as a vehicle for borderline illegal amounts of butter.
Key takeaways: a) butter hides a multitude of sins b) use a timer for baking
5. Trying to puree parmesan rinds
Probably the only thing I have in common with Nigella is that we both freeze parmesan rinds for soups and stocks. What Nigella certainly won’t do is forget that her parmesan rinds are hiding in a deceptively opaque soup, and try to massacre them with a stick blender because she’s under the impression it’s just a stubborn bit of carrot.
Key takeaways: carrot soft, parmesan rind hard.
6. Over salting
I tend to get seasoning pretty much on point most of the time these days, but there are occasions where I’ve overdone it and my ragu tastes like an umami version of the dead sea. However, this is usually quite rectifiable, and the answer begins with V and ends with Olume. The only way, really, to reverse over-salting is to add More Stuff. If it’s a ragu or sugo type thing, add an extra tin of tommies and some wine; if it’s soup, blend a cooked tattie or two in plus some water (not stock, you wazzock) and if it’s meat? Well. It’s probably not as bad as you think. Mix it with some salad leaves and lemon juice and olive oil – it probably won’t be so awful after all.
Key takeaways: 4/3πr^3
7. Freezing ricotta and expecting it to be the same texture when defrosted
Ever had thrush?
Defrosted ricotta has a different texture to ricotta that’s never seen the inside of a freezer – it’s grainier, and leaks more water if you decide to bake it with spinach and nutmeg in what would have been a nice dip, had the bloody thing not split. Anyway, if you’re freezing ricotta for whatever reason, make sure you beat it well with some icing sugar and use for a dessert rather than re-cooking it. Someone sciency can tell me exactly why, I’m sure.
Key takeaways: canesten.
So that’s it for now folks. Hope that helped inspire confidence that even the most mediocre of cooks can get it wrong sometimes and it’s really nothing to be ashamed about. If you’ve anything else trouble-shooting-wise you’d like to to cover in deep, soothing tones, do let me know.
Have fun, fruitcakes.