I don't know why so many of my hellish stories involve cooking fiascos. I've always thought of myself as a good cook, or at least a good baker, but now that I actually think back over my kitchen career, I have to admit a disaster average well above the standard deviation. I'm talking rice puddings the consistency of soup, burned cookies, fallen cakes and baked goods generally ranging from dry to sodden. Over- and under-cooking and -salting has turned many of my non-dessert forays into disappointments as well.
While I can destroy a meat loaf or bundt cake any day of the year, Valentine's Day is prime time for dashed dreams of culinary glory. Two examples:
My boyfriend was coming over for Valentine's Day dinner at the first apartment I ever had without a roommate. I felt so grown up, with my two skillets hanging on nails next to the stove and the cookie sheets my first boss had given me for my 21st birthday.
My plan that year was to make a classic man's meal: steak and mashed potatoes. I was barely making a five-figure salary at the time, so springing for steak was a big deal and showed how much I cared. Reinforcing that message was the peeling and hand-mashing of potatoes.
I made the potatoes first, then put them in the oven to stay warm while I was broiling steaks in the broiler below. I seasoned the meat and placed it on the broiler. Within minutes I heard a muffled explosion: It turns out the bowl was not Pyrex and couldn't handle the 500-degree heat. Glass rained down all over the expensive cuts of meat. Lesson one in the science of cooking.
The boyfriend refused to allow me to rinse off the meat and eat it anyway, a move which I'm embarrassed to say infuriated me at the time. I was sure I wouldn't miss a shard! But he insisted on treating me to dinner at KFC. We got it to go and still ate at my place, but it didn't live up to my fantasy of him telling me what a great cook I was. (I realize now that fantasy had no basis in reality!)
The following year I decided to show off the baking prowess I still misguidedly believed I possessed by making chocolate truffles for my office. The recipe is simple: butter, cream and melted chocolate, shaped into balls and rolled in cocoa. I put together a beautiful box and brought it to work on the subway.
I made a big announcement that I had a Valentine's Day treat for everyone. They gathered around and I dramatically lifted the lid on the beribboned box. We all leaned in to see...a melted brown mush that looked like chocolate would after it had been fully processed by the body of a Valentine's Day reveler. There was a chorus of "No thanks!"
From each disaster I learn a lesson, and apparently there are hundreds of lessons to learn. Don't forget to set the timer. Read through the recipe before you start to make sure you've left yourself enough time and have all the ingredients. Read through the ingredient list before you finish to make sure you didn't leave anything out. And don't forget to put fresh batteries in the smoke detector.
Happy Valentine's Day!