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(post, Joan Menefee)
At times, I have believed that my greatest asset in life is my ability to live with my mistakes. In cooking, this often results in quick changes of plan or wolfing down the evidence before anyone else even knows I was trying to prepare food. Phyllo dough dried out? Pop the sheets spritzed with water in the microwave and drape the resultant “noodles” in a baklava-ish pattern. Too much baking powder in the biscuits? Blam: six eaten at the stove. In search of dramatic unities, television shows depict failed dishes as inedible. But the truth is that cooking failures are a gray area the size of Siberia. It’s not that the calories cannot be wrenched from the steaming tray before us without our retching; it’s that these calories do not represent the ideals we were chasing when we first opened our pretty cookbooks. I pride myself, by the way, on not forcing my husband to lie to me about my cooking overmuch. I don’t ask how he likes a dish, nor do I fret aloud about its quality. I just eat and grimace when somebody at the table finds a sticker on her baked apple. One of my most recent screw-ups was when I left walnut shells in a pan of baklava. Luckily, I had succumbed to a cold the afternoon of the party where the baklava was to be served, so I didn’t witness the following exchange: A friend’s molar met a walnut shell quite suddenly (which happens when hard objects sneak into desserts). He exclaimed, “Who made this baklava?” My husband, in good health and near the snack table, responded “My wife did.” To which our friend said, “I nearly broke my tooth!” Then he took another bite, this one more gingerly, and pronounced the baklava good. To date, we have received no dentist’s bills in the mail. Not a cooking success, but not a catastrophe either. Like I said: something in between. Of course, I am smushing many different types of error together. Errors of ignorance and laziness are one thing: I definitely could have checked the pile of nuts more thoroughly before I scattered them on the crazy silly-string phyllo. Errors of inexperience and lack of judgment are another: salting food always gives me fits. I usually undersalt because I am afraid of heart disease and drowning every other flavor in the dish. And then sometimes, one cook’s error is another cook’s goal. In other words, taste determines a cook’s moves in the “if-then” forest of cooking. Some cooks say, “If there’s something black on the edge of the food, then I scrape it off.” Others say, “If there’s something black, then I know it’s done.” Smoke can be a cause for panic, or a sign of lip-smacking searing. Or, in my case, “If there might be shells in the baklava, then I should eat the baklava slowly.” Even in the making of jelly, for a while at least, I can find a gray area. The same day I made the infamous baklava, I tried my first batch of grape jelly. I was fascinated by the deep blue boil in my pot. I remember experiencing a small thrill squeezing juice from the pulp-filled cheesecloth; the mass was warm and full of body. The fretting began when I was boiling the juice I had extracted. First, I was not happy with the amount of sugar the recipe called for (too much!). Second, I had been cooking all day and no longer felt like jumping through the hoops the recipe writers had recommended (putting a plate in the freezer and dropping a thimbleful of juice on the plate to see how its jelly qualities were developing). So the failure here begins in not following directions and continues on to cooking past the point of pleasure. Predictably enough, I put jelly juice into a dozen cute little jars. Also predictably enough, when I realized my error, I simply decided that juice was good enough for me. This was September. This month, I was struck by a bout of “do-over fever,” perhaps inspired by the revisions of an essay a journal editor required of me before she would agree to publish it, or by the revisions to our house my husband is undertaking. Everyone, it seems, was saying, “Don’t live with mistakes. Correct them!” Some believe that January is a grandiose and delusional month, all of us scurrying around with resolutions, five-year plans, and dreams of self-actualization, some of which we will abandon before the forsythia blooms. But isn’t that hope of change worth something? Isn’t it good to believe that we don’t have to live with all of our mistakes? In true January spirit, I pulled the jars of grape juice from their hiding place in the cellar, dumped their contents in that same pot, and thought, “Jelly or bust!” In this particular instance, re-boiling the grape juice was a way of avoiding work on the essay revisions. I chuckled when I realized that both the grape jelly and the essay had originated in September and that cooking, once again, was displacing writing. But I digress. I got jelly this time. Rather than adding more pectin (my original plan), I added more sugar. I used the test method as directed. I conquered my fear of hot liquid and let the sucker boil away for a solid 20 minutes. I followed directions and got good results. The essay is now in the editor’s hands. We’ll see if it too finally got enough sugar.