If I had a buck for every time someone asked me to share my kitchen bloopers, your college loans would be paid off. The fact is, since I spend my life in the kitchen, I don’t make the mega-mistakes of a kitchen newbie. When I saw Julie & Julia, I laughed with nostalgia and real sympathy as Amy Adams (“Julie”) flopped a stuffed chicken on the floor—a first trussing attempt gone bad—then flopped there herself amid the stuffing mess. I remember some time in my twenties, making puff pastry in a 95-degree un-air-conditioned kitchen. I think I knew better but did it anyway. The butter got oozier with every fold and turn, but I pressed on, cutting the finished dough into little basket shapes that I baked and filled with sauced asparagus. They didn’t puff much but no one seemed to mind. (How bad can baked butter and flour be?)
But people love it when the chicken splats on the floor. They love it when the real Julia Child, on television no less, flips a French Omelette and flops it disastrously. So let’s recall a few incidents.
Perhaps you were too young to remember the Thanksgiving I made that brothy wild mushroom soup. (Fully half the crowd at that sit-down dinner for sixteen was kids and teens. What was I thinking!) As everyone began to gather, I removed the lid on what looked like a cauldron of foaming witch’s brew. Thinking it would subside, I gave the soup a stir. Instead the foam grew like an angry dark thundercloud. My soup had turned toxic.
Since then I’ve never served a Thanksgiving first course. Not because I’m scarred. I’ve just realized they’re mostly a waste of time, energy and calories when all people really want is the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie. When the whole point of the day is a lusty eating to excess, it seems Edwardian to invite guests to sit down and sip politely on soup.
And then there was just last week, when I made as big a mess as I ever have. I had a fridge drawer full of zucchini, which I decided to grill and use as a pizza topping. It made sense to grill the pizzas too.
David and I were running late with dinner prep, and I decided to wing it. It had been early Cook’s Illustrated days—1993 maybe— since I had grilled pizza, but I had made enough oven-baked ones to know what I was doing. Surely the principles were the same.
The problems were legion. There’s no pizza paddle down here in PA. Thinking the dough would slide off metal almost as easily as wood, I laid my stretched doughs onto cornmeal-coated metal pans.
Forgetting my own book advice, I made stovetop tomato sauce rather than mix tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil and let it cook right on the pizza. Before sliding the doughs onto the grill, I sauced them and topped them with the grilled zucchini, both of which were hot.
By the time I got to the grill, the heat from the sauce and zucchini had permeated the dough, steaming them to the pans. David raced inside for help—a spatula, more cornmeal. It was either this or scrambled eggs.
I guess I could have grilled them on the pans, but I didn’t want to. It was time for action. Growling like an NFL linebacker I shoved the pan toward the grill, lifted the dough and jerked the pan back. It wasn’t pretty but I managed to get the first topped dough on the grill. The second was more stubborn. It looked something like The Silent Scream.
Would that this were the end of the story.
Reasoning that pizza ovens are blistering hot, I grilled them full blast while I went inside to grate cheese. I returned in a manner of minutes to mangled pizzas with incinerated bottoms. I dragged the charred wreckage from the grill, scraped off as much black as I could, topped them with cheese, and set them in a warm oven while we ate salad.
The next day I flew to Cleveland for a taping and interview. Guess what the third question was on the interviewer’s list?