Sunday, 20 February 2011

Kitchen Philosophy - A Comedy of Errors

I have rarely read a cookbook which outlines the value of making a few mistakes in the kitchen and I think this is a great shame. If one looks to the great scientific discoveries of the past 500 – even 1000 – years then it is easy to see how many frustrating mistakes and miscalculations were made before a solution was gained. This should be the same with cookery.

It is unfortunate, yet a fact of life, that not all recipes work nor can even the most accomplished chef get it right every time. Testament to this are the small number of disappointing dishes that I have eaten where the chef has tried to be too clever, or perhaps has over or under seasoned. The same is true of home cooked meals where agravy fails to emulsify, the potatoes are a bit overdone or a cake fails to reach the right consistency.

Of course it is extremely disappointing when something doesn’t turn out right, did not Robert Burns talk of mice and men? However this should neither get you down, nor should it discourage you from experimenting or trying out new recipes in your kitchen. Think of it strategically, make a mental note of does and doesn’t work and steer clear of it like the plague.

You might find that a large number of recipes in books yield disappointing results, this could be for a number of reasons from methodology to poor grammar in the print. Most often it is down to the use of a home economist by the author. In many instances, professional chefs tend not to measure out the ingredients for a large number of dishes, leaving this to a home economist who will have to surmise a rough estimate as to the quantities of ingredient used. It is an unenviable task having to second guess someone and this is made even more difficult from the vague recipes given by the chef who will more often that not created the recipe on instinct and intuition.

Sometimes you might have to man up and accept some responsibility for mistakes in the cookery. This will often be caused by the desire to cut corners or the assumption that you can substitute ingredients when the original is not available. Let me give you an example from my own experience:

One winter’s Sunday I found myself home alone and for want of anything better to do I decided to indulge my more homely instincts and embark upon some baking. Having recently had my 22nd Birthday I had also received some very attractive cookery books, one of which was Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics. Chock full of exciting and original recipes I thought this was a real find and although there were some things I’d never dream of making myself there were also a number of goodies that any home cook would be happy to try out. However I was a little stuck for most of the recipes did not merit the effort only to feed one person. However, near the end of the work is a section on baking and confectionary and I thought that this might probably be my best bet. Passing sections on petit fours and oatcakes, I suddenly came upon a recipe that I had yet to see in any other cookery books…Fig Rolls. Now, if you EVER see this recipe in any of your books my advice would be to shut the book, put it back on the shelf, forget you ever saw the recipe, head round the corner and buy a pack of Jacob’s finest fig rolls from the shops – it is both time saving and gastronomically sound!

But being an intrepid gastronaut, I made my way to the supermarket and forked out some money for the ingredients. However, the first problem soon made itself painfully aware, Morrisons had run out dried figs. This struck me as rather strange considering that dried figs have never been at the top of any shopping lists that I’ve ever written or seen, obviously there were a lot of people on a serious roughage kick that weekend! But thinking that I was a bit clever I thought that I would substitute the figs with the next best thing…prunes. And so I paid my money and went home setting out all the ingredients on the kitchen work-surface and it was then that I encountered my second problem, which was a slightly more crucial one than that of the ‘great dry fig shortage of South West London’, in that I had no plain flour. At this juncture I let out some loud expletives, cursing my poor logistics and made a fatal error – fatal for the cake not my person.

Common sense should have prevailed at this moment and I should have taken the five minute journey round the corner and purchase a trusty bag of Homepride’s finest. This, however, was not the case and I ended up finding a packet of self-raising flour in the store-cupboard. As the recipe was already using baking powder, I thought that I could exclude it and use this type of flour to kill two birds with one stone…Oh how very wrong I was!

The prep took absolutely ages as there were three different stages to attend to, the fig – I mean prune – puree, a frangipan surround and the brown sugar pastry to encase it all. I must have used every bloody utensil in the kitchen as pots bubbled, blenders rumbled, fruit macerated and hands kneaded. It was incredibly wearying work, especially on the pastry which, because it was for a sweet recipe was extremely fragile! - The almond paste was a fucking nightmare! That is all I shall say on it. As I was working I noticed that there was an awful lot of sugar in this recipe, but I thought little of it at the time as I was sure that Mr Rhodes knew best and who was I, an amateur, to challenge the large collection of Michelin stars and AA rosettes that he had racked up over the years?

After a while (2½-3 hours) I had assembled the rolls, laid them out on a greased tray and slammed them into a heated oven for 20-25 minutes as the recipe suggested. It had taken me so long to construct the rolls that I became a little arrogant, congratulating myself on my prowess as a pastry chef. I poured myself a large scotch and sat back, half watching season 3 of NYPD Blue and half looking and the dark depths of the oven. I felt that I must be patient and not check lest I let out the accumulated heat in the oven and ruin the fruits of my hard labour. I needn’t have worried for I had already ruined it in the preparation.

Suddenly I smelt something acrid, as if there was burning, but surely it couldn’t be my fig rolls. But plagued by curiosity and the added attraction of not letting the house burn down I checked. If there was ever a let-down in my cooking life it was at this moment. The self-raising flour had reacted, puff up the pastry and causing it to overflow spilling over the sides of the baking tray and amalgamating the rolls to form an uber-prune pillow in which some parts had cooked through and other parts had merely remained an almondy goo. ‘No,no, no!’ I panicked, the cardinal sin of any worthy cooked and started trying to remedy my mistake as best I could with a spatula and an oven glove. After repeatedly burning my fingers with a combination of hot sugar, flour and aluminium I felt I had fixed it at the sacrifices of half the collection of rolls. Therefore I put the prune rolls back in the oven for a further five minutes and awaited results.

I had trodden too far down the path and like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, I couldn’t turn back the clock. The rolls seemed now to have a life of their own and like the possessed brooms, grew larger and larger until they became puffy and vulgar. It would be wrong to say that I was distraught but I must say that I was pretty peeved off, I had now spent about 4½ hours slaving over the stove for no good reason and all I had to show for it was about 4 rather uninspiring biscuits. But I let them cool and then the moment had arrived to taste them and work out if they were anything like those great biccies I used to enjoy in the school playground when I was much younger.

I had never really considered at the time that prunes might be a lot sweeter than figs, nor that the home economist whom Gary Rhodes had employed to work out his recipe measurements might have had a sweeter tooth than most. I took my first bite and I will give myself one piece of credit from this disaster, the texture was pretty much as a fig roll should be. Then I noticed the taste and was almost poisoned to death by the saccharine sweetness that hit my tongue. Truth be told, it was awful and taught me the valuable lesson of never ever, EVER attempting to make fig rolls again. There are some things that should be left to the biscuit companies, and this was certainly one of them!

Despite this failure I have only be reinforced in my kitchen confidence and will not be making those mistakes again, nor put myself in a position where I have to spend the whole night scraping prune paste from the inside of the blender! I think the best way to look at cookery is not as an exact science but similar to medieval alchemy. When the method was proven and the results seen then the process worked. A number of recipes work a treat and one should not be scared of failure when attempting a number of recipes that appear in books. However there are a number that bare similarities to the idealistic Philosopher’s Stone, which of course was never attainable even by the most ambitious of methods represents that number of recipes that you will try to replicate in your life and fail miserably at. Please, please, please do not be put off by this it is just a fact of life. The above is only one of many recipes that haven’t worked quite the way that I was expecting – Keith Floyd’s Cullen Skink, Claudia Roden’s Baba Ganoush and Stephane Reynaud’s Country Vegetable Soup. 

I would hate anyone to be put off by the ineptitude of a cookery book or their own mistakes. Life is full of slip-ups from which we learn, and the art of cookery should be no different. Therefore, keep experimenting and building up your repertoire and take your failure in your stride and let it build your confident in the kitchen rather than flatten it.


  1. You have written such a darling post here. I love that you have made me laugh out loud and implore you to buy Prepped. I have given gone wrong options where things can go wrong... I've also had over 50 ladies test every recipe in the book and have taken all the advice into account as I've written the recipes. . I hope I won't disappoint you.


  2. I have also slaved over a Gary Rhodes sweet recipe (profiteroles of some sort I think) only to find the end result disgustingly sweet. This is no co-incidence and, for an explanation of this phenomenon, I suggest you look no further than Mr Rhodes business relationship with the UK's main sugar manufacturer. I managed to offload my Rhodes at the next available car boot sale. Good riddance.