The Heartbreak of Recipe Failure During Lockdown

Messing up your food always sucks, but now — when waste seems even more wasteful than usual — it’s downright traumatic. Here’s how to cope.

Photo: Joy via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Work with food enough and you’ll learn to intuitively anticipate how ingredients will behave. However, with all the practiced instinct in the world, you can still screw up. For example, once a year, Bad Pasta happens to me. No matter my ingredients or method, the result is dramatically awful, leaving me let down by a favorite food, and with a vague sense that I was cursed very specifically at birth and need to embark on a valiant quest to undo it.

Today I baked a flourless chocolate cake, making up the recipe as I went. Rich with cocoa, melted chocolate and almonds, and fluffy with whipped aquafaba, the mixture tasted delicious, rose evenly in the oven, and smelled heavenly. Then, the mixture kept rising. Billowing. Bulging. It’s going to be okay, I reasoned, surely the cake will know to stay in the tin.

By the time I gave up and turned off the oven, there was not so much a chocolate cake waiting as that scene in Alien where the creature bursts through John Hurt’s torso. Now, food waste is abhorrent at the best of times — and I always ate every bowl of Bad Pasta to prove the hard-earned money spent on it wasn’t squandered. Food waste during COVID-19 lockdown? The guilt was overwhelming.

My brain obligingly spiraled: My mother risked her health to get my ingredients, the supermarket workers put their bodies on the line — chocolate, almonds, cocoa — what reckless expensive arrogance! What if we need that money next week? Countless people are barely subsisting, and I assume I can make up a chocolate cake? In a pandemic? With almonds? Should I try again with new ratios, or should I be arrested and sent to jail?

Guess what: Failure comes for us all. With no break from cooking every meal in lockdown or isolation, that failure is bound to occur more often. Plus, heightened anxiety and stress make it harder to focus on precision.

It sucks when a recipe doesn’t work. It doesn’t make you a terrible person — or a terrible cook. The science just didn’t go how you intended.

Acknowledge your feelings, then remind yourself this didn’t happen on purpose, and furthermore, your guilt won’t help anyone. Not the supermarket workers, not the millions subsisting, not your mother — in fact, getting mired in the guilt is a waste, too, of your precious time and energy. Accept that we are all trying to push our regular lives into an irregular context, without giving yourself permission for irresponsibility. Accept that you can hold several truths at once without them cancelling each other out. Your options now? Find a sensible way to eat your failed recipe, or move on.

I’m going to eat the sticky chocolate remains tonight with ice cream — though an unsuccessful cake, it’s a pretty decent sauce. Indeed, many baking disappointments can be saved with ice cream — dry overcooked brownie, fudge that won’t set, or cookies that spread and fused into one big mess. Stir that blunder into ice cream and you have a luxuriously good time on your hands. Cakes can also be turned into pops or truffles, or layered with fruit and custard to make a trifle. For emotional distance, stash the cake crumbs in the freezer till you’re ready to face them again.

Salvaging savory failures requires more improvisation. I find that most fall into two categories: Can I blend it till super smooth, or, can I fry it till super crisp? Puree your lackluster, incoherent sauce or soup with salt and oil till it tastes reasonable — use it now, or portion it up and freeze for adding flavor to future recipes, until it’s finally gone. You can’t turn back the clock on burnt food, but scraping off the inedible parts and stirring what remains into couscous, rice, or a similar grain with plenty of punchy dressing and toasted seeds or nuts is a solid distraction. Frying — truly the pinnacle of scientific achievement — can counteract blandness, while a mere dash of sriracha can bring a whole dish to life. As for Annual Bad Pasta — I truly hope it’s a curse only I suffer from. Eat it if you can, but it’s no help to your mental health to turn dinner into punishment either.

If you have the means to donate money to charities aiding essential workers or families in need, let this be your prompt — though you don’t need to wait to offset any kitchen-related guilt. If you’ve spent your last dollars for the week on ingredients you just ruined: I know that feeling, and again — cannot stress this enough — these are unprecedented times, and you did not do this on purpose! You may feel no better than a cartoon character lighting their cigar with a burning hundred dollar bill. I assure you, it’s not the same.

Finally, increase your chances of success by learning from me. While making cake is always the right choice, trying to straight-up invent a fiddly flourless chocolate cake is a decision probably best postponed until after the global pandemic.

Food blogger and author from New Zealand. Writing at hungryandfrozen.com; Twitter at @hungryandfrozen; and exclusive stuff at Patreon.com/hungryandfrozen.

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