Cooking 101: Learning from mistakes
Flat banana bread, soupy coffee cake, and molten barbecue beef stuck to the bottom of a pressure cooker.
My daughter Katie is learning how to cook.
It wasn’t until recently, at the age of 25, she decided to take the culinary plunge.
Growing up, she was never interested in cooking. She was barely interested in eating. She liked spaghetti, hot dogs, tacos, and pizza and that was about it. She turned up her nose at most meats, fruits and vegetables. When she found out chicken nuggets were made with real chicken, she cried and stopped eating them.
Even as a baby, she was fussy. I would grow fresh string beans in my garden, cook and puree them, only to have her spit them out with a vengeance. I tried to teach her how to cook, but except for baking cookies at Christmastime she wasn’t interested.
When she went off to Wheaton College things changed. She met people from around the world and started trying new food. And one day, voilà, she had developed a palate. When we went out to dinner a few weeks ago in Boston, I was shocked to see her order a side order of asparagus. My baby has grown up.
So now she seriously wants to learn how to cook. On a recent visit home she asked if she could have a copy of Yankee Peddler Fare, a church cookbook I edited back in the 1980s. Happy to oblige. Last Christmas I gave her Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, but she doesn’t use it much. I’ll have to get her a copy of the 1975 Joy of Cooking. It’s the edition I have and it’s a brilliant guide for a learning home cook.
In the meantime, she’s playing around with the comfort food in Yankee Peddler Fare.
She first tried a recipe for soft and light Banana Bread. She sent me a text message afterwards with a picture of her holding the flattest banana bread I’d ever seen. What happened? She had no idea. “It tasted good, so I don’t know what went wrong,” she said.
Next up, Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Crumb Topping. The “crumbs” liquified and ran off the top making the cake a soupy, inedible mess. Over the phone, we tried to figure out what happened. First, the cake was supposed to be made in two 8-inch pans, or one 13 x 9 x 2 pan. Katie made hers in a single 9-inch pan, too small.
But the biggest mistake was the recipe itself. The crumb recipe omitted a key ingredient – flour! Without flour, all that was left was brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, which of course wouldn’t make crumbs and would simply melt into goo.
So the recipe was to blame too. It wasn’t all her fault. Katie suspected the recipe had a mistake in it because when she was home recently she made a Rhubarb Upside Down Crumb Cake under my guidance, and it came out beautifully. “You know, mom, I knew something was wrong. When I mixed the sugar and butter together, I knew it didn’t look like crumb mixture,” she said.
Then it was onto Barbecue Beef. We had given Katie a pressure cooker for Christmas and she decided to try it out. She jazzed up the recipe by adding more vegetables than were called for. But she didn’t increase the amount of liquid. The handle on the cooker didn’t fully close initially and a lot of steam escaped. She eventually closed it, but didn’t add any more liquid. The beef mixture burned, badly. “The good news is what didn’t burn tasted really good,” she said.
Katie has learned some valuable cooking lessons from her trials and tribulations. Lesson One: When it comes to baking, pan size is important. Lesson Two: Trust your gut. If a recipe doesn’t seem right double check it with another source. Lesson Three: When it comes to pressure cooking, check the handle to make sure it’s closed, and make sure there is an adequate amount of liquid in the pan.
As for the banana bread, what went wrong remains a mystery. But Katie decided to make it again last night. This time she split the recipe up as a one-layer cake and cupcakes. Success!
And with that she learned the most important lesson of all. Never give up. Just keep on cooking!