The most terrible thing happened a few weeks ago, on the morning of a co-worker's birthday party. I was making macaroni and cheese, at her request, a recipe that I have made many times before. It began with boiling macaroni on one burner while making a béchamel sauce on another. I have made terrible béchamel sauces before, burning the flour, overboiling the milk. Once, while using a plastic-coated whisk, we managed to melt the plastic coating, which stuck to the pan and burned. The sauce, of course, was ruined. On this fateful morning, however, all had seemed well. The butter was swiftly and evenly melted over low heat, the flour was lightly browned, the milk whisked in. An egg was lightly beaten and then tempered into the hot sauce (sometimes a tricky step). And then disaster struck. I began stirring the cheese into the sauce, when I noticed that something was terribly wrong. The sauce was beginning to curdle. Oh, I thought, I'll just whisk faster. But the faster I whisked, the more the sauce curdled, and it began to separate into a watery, scrambled mess before my horrified eyes. Fortunately, time was on my side, and in an hour I had run the three blocks to the grocery store and back, whipped up a new batch, and was on my way to work. (The second macaroni and cheese was, alas, not quite up to my usual standards, but it was acceptable).
As someone prone to kitchen disasters, it is reassuring to know that even the pros are not immune to them. Nigella Lawson once set her hair on fire while roasting lamb (fortunately, Salman Rushdie was on hand to smother the flames with his jacket); Amanda Hesser tried to save a little money by using dried morels (I think it was morels) instead of fresh, and she described the resulting dish as "tasting like dirt." She also made the mistake - as many people have - of trying to mash potatoes in a food processor, which yielded a gummy puree instead of a silky-smooth, buttery mash. (Jeffrey Steingarten has explained, at great length, that this happens because the blades pop the cells of the boiled potato, releasing all the starch and leaving you with a gummily-textured mess). Usually my disasters involve setting things on fire or over-salting things or over-cooking things (out of fear of salmonella) or not washing the greens thoroughly enough, leaving my family with the joy of ingesting a little grit along with their fiber. Which they are only to happy to point out to me.
Awful things happen in the kitchen all the time, writes Laurie Colwin, even to the most experienced cooks, but when it happens to you it is not comforting to know that you are supposed to learn from your mistakes, especially when you contemplate the lurid-looking mess in front of you. She adds that my own greatest disasters have been the result of inexperience, overreaching, intimidation and self-absorption. I thought of her words when I made molten chocolate cakes for my mother's friends, which were supposed to rise like pudding-like soufflés and release a flood of molten chocolate as you ate them. To say I failed in my objective is like saying Alaska is a bit chilly right now. They were not inedible, merely unimpressive, soggy, dense chocolate pudding-like cakes that had risen half-heartedly in their dishes and then collapsed as if overcome by their own failure. The truly disastrous has yet to happen, but I feel the day will come when I create something that, like Colwin's baked red snapper, emerges looking "like Hieronymous Bosch's vision of hell." I can only hope that the people at my table will love me enough to forgive me, and then send out for pizza.
Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. pp 140, 142.