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?
Oh Pam this is too funny! One because one of my worst kitchen bloopers was also over grilled pizza (I thought I could wing it and quickly realized – no dice) and two because I am pretty sure I was the one who wrote that blooper question for you!
My other worst blooper I blame on Martha Stewart – I made a plum upside-down cake from her website that only called for 1/2 cup of flour, which needless to say turned into plum soup. I should have know better but I was stressed and decided to blindly follow the instructions. I learned my lesson there.
Well, well, well. This might be one of those (exceptionally) rare moments when the student becomes the teacher. I actually do know how to grill pizza. (Just this summer, when I was working at Fine Cooking we shot a video of the technique.)
Here’s where you went wrong: You have to start grilling the dough before you put the toppings on.
The best way to do it is to have a cool zone and a hot zone on your grill. So, turn those back burners up to medium or medium-high and keep the front ones on low. Take your dough rounds and put them on the hotter zone and let them grill for a few minutes. Once, you’ve got those textbook grill marks, pull the dough rounds off the grill and put them on a cookie sheet, grilled side up. Sauce and top the grilled side, and then put them back on the fire, but this time on the cooler zone—raw side down. Close the grill (but keep checking to make sure the pizzas don’t burn), and pull them off when the toppings are warm and the cheese is melty.
To be honest, I thought I’d relish this opportunity more, but I’m not getting as much deliciously superior pleasure out of it as I’d hoped. (There may still be hope for my soul yet!) But, if I’m the teacher, then I get to assign homework, right? Your job is to try again. Preferably when I can be around to sample your assignment because, knowing you, you’ll nail it on your second try.
A lot of people don’t like baking—but I actually took to it quite easily. I enjoyed the simplicity of it: combine ingredients, pop in oven, wait twenty minutes, pull out cupcakes. Most of all, I enjoyed sharing my baking with other people. Trying out new recipes became a weekend hobby for me, something I looked forward to. It was therapeutic, a peaceful activity amidst the chaos and brain pain of my Master’s degree. And it went on this way for about six months. I could do no wrong. I thought I was a pretty good baker.
Then I had a series of absolute kitchen disasters. First was the batch of cheese puffs I made for a dinner party. They turned into shiny, rubber disks. Then I used some leftover bananas to make banana bread—black on the outside, gooey on the inside. Followed by chocolate chip cookies that melted into one gigantic cookie (good in theory, gross in reality). Then came the red velvet cupcakes I forgot to add baking powder to. Rock solid. And the classic baking blooper that sent me over the edge: a beautiful carrot cake stuck in the pan which, despite my babying and coaxing, eventually tore in two (yes I greased the pan). This all happened in the course of about two weeks, and by the end I just wanted to lie down on the floor and wail. Time, effort, ingredients—all gone to waste. What was going wrong?
I was kitchen-shy for at least a month. Without the confidence, I simply lost interest in baking, and my baking apathy spread to a general disinterest in cooking. I started to assume that there was at least a 50/50 chance anything I made would end in disaster.
And then (having forgot) I remembered we had planned to do a bake sale at Andy’s office to raise money for the Malawi project. I had no choice. I had to get back in the kitchen and bake. Not just one batch of cookies, but dozens of perfect, individual cakes that people would pay money for! This was baptism by fire and I wasn’t happy about it. As each batter or dough went in the oven I found myself fretting, checking on it every few minutes. I was sure something would go wrong, but it didn’t. I had selected my recipes carefully. No wildcards, nothing complicated. Just tried and tested recipes from family and friends. A good choice. Everything turned out beautifully. After eight hours of baking and with over 120 (beautiful) cupcakes, brownies, and cookies covering every surface in my kitchen, I felt like the baking queen. Move over, Rose Levy Berenbaum!
Tracy Porter says
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I have just discovered your site…Pam i own many of your books as does my mother (she is the home cook i admire and put on a pedestal more than any other for sure…god bless our mamas!!) Love that you darling women share a passion for cooking and learning in the kitchen! I think it’s my favorite thing to chatter with my mom about…what’s for dinner….what are you making now……and then i am always and forever grateful when my Godess cooking mom tells me…oh, dam….it didn’t work out…i dumped it in the garbage. I always think it’s just me forgetting this or that……how did i mess this one up?….But alas we all do……we all forget, we all dump it, we all start over. We are all human…and cooking….is always a wonderful work in progress…..i figure if I don’t mess up from time to time….I must not be experimenting enough…….right? Perhaps my own therapy…but man it works!!!
cheers to you all…so glad to have found you darling kitchen loves!!!
Donna Moughty says
It’s good to know that professionals sometimes don’t get it right. My first grilled pizza was similar to yours, but now I’ve got the hang of it and we grill pizzas frequently down here in Florida. Makes more sense than heating up the kitchen.
Thanks for a good laugh.
Julie Potter says
I’m quite sure daughter Dawn will never forget the Red Velvet Cake I made from scratch for her b’day years ago. We both witnessed the 3 layers of this red cake oozing with too much butter frosting… as it slid all over the place on its glass pedestal while I kept respreading the frosting around. Finally,
it rested pitifully uneven & appeared most “unappetizing an hour before family arrived to celebrate. I broke up the red cake into pieces and added vanilla ice cream & topped with red cherry and everyone had no clue of the great disaster!. Dawn just didn’t blow out the candles on the cake that particular year!
Julie Potter ~