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My biggest failures in the kitchen
Failing big, failing often, to improve as a home cook.
Today I had planned to share a new recipe from I Love Toscana, our serialized-cookbook weekly project, but it didn’t come up as I expected. It was totally wrong. I failed. I failed big.
So, instead of just skipping a newsletter, or sharing something from the archive, I thought I would address one of the themes that are often considered less important when we talk about food: failure in the kitchen.
I’m a home cook, I didn’t go to culinary school. I learnt to cook by curiosity, and mainly through mistakes. I am an artisan, rather than an artist, and failure is one of the components of this job. It makes me not only a better home cook, but also a better teacher and a better recipe writer, because now I recognize the pitfalls of a recipe, and I can explain how to defuse them.
In the last fifteen years, hence since I started cooking seriously in every free moment of my day, experimenting with recipes I found in magazines, old clippings, family cookbooks, or just playing it by ear following ideas, suggestions, or seasonal inspirations, I failed many times at cooking, or, even more often, I made disasters that required a thorough cleaning afterwards.
These are just some of the first episodes that come to my mind when I think about failing in the kitchen, or simply about plain disasters:
I failed at baking bread for about 8 years. I cannot even recall how many times my loaves ended directly into the trash bin, because I was not even able to slice through them. Stone is the word that Tommaso used more often to define my loaves before I got a hang of my lievito madre, the sourdough starter. I’m still far from succeeding every time, but at least now, when a loaf is not perfect, it can be sliced and toasted, and happily eaten for breakfast or with a fried egg.
I attempted pumpkin gnocchi, and they melted into the hot water, turning into a watery soup. I still have to find the courage to make them again.
The first time I decided to make gnocchi using potato starch instead of flour to make them gluten-free, I ended up with gummy balls that squished in your mouth. A very weird feeling. But I eventually perfected the recipe, you can find it here.
Every time I use agar agar to make a jelly, I use too much of it, and I end up with grainy, gummy, bouncing jellies. That’s why my favourite panna cotta has to be the one made with gelatin and yogurt.
More than once my meringues turned into sad brownish mounds.
I scraped a ricotta cake batter into a too small cake pan and part of the batter spilled on the bottom of the oven.
I poured - a tad too abruptly - a dash of cold white wine into a pot with hot olive oil and garlic (I was working on a recipe for aglione tomato sauce), swiftly put a lid on it, and turned my pot into a time bomb. It exploded a few seconds after, splashing oil everywhere in the kitchen, and throwing the lid to the other side of the room. We slid on the floor for days.
To be honest, similar episodes involving fried food and spurts of hot oil are quite recurrent in my kitchen, but this doesn’t deter me from enjoying fried sage leaves, zucchini blossoms, and chicken during the cooking class season.
I turned on my Vitamix to the highest speed with steaming hot strawberry jam in it, without the lid. After my panicked screams, Tommaso run into the kitchen to find a Pulp Fiction scene in front of his eyes.
I burned my pressure cooker twice (and both times happened in the last month). The reason? I forgot to add water to steam potatoes. -.-’
One of the dessert recipes that I had planned to include in Cucina Povera turned out to be a bland, flat, mushy polenta with a load of expensive dried fruit we could not even stomach. I resolutely crossed it off the final list. Different story was for passatelli (spoiler!), one of the recipes that gave me a hard time to develop. After four complete failures, when I was ready to leave it behind, I found a solution that makes the recipe work every time, whatever the ingredients. Thank you failure.
My most common mistake, however, is to forget food on the stove, burning it to a charcoal status. I often blame the fact that I tend to test more than one recipe at a time, but the truth is that I get sidetracked by researching stories, ingredients, or recipes down a rabbit hole, by notifications, or emails. I eventually started relying on multiple timers (Alexa, Siri, and oven timers).
When I asked Tommaso which are my best/worst failures in the kitchen, he started making a list: many a heavy pizzas, your millet croquettes (they crumble every single time), the burnt panforte... Oh, and don’t forget the panettone: almost every year I try to make panettone, one of the most demanding sourdough projects, and invariably I spend money and time in a complete failure. Eventually I decided to focus on local traditional Christmas desserts to avoid a failure (hence stress) in a moment when there are already enough reasons to put you under pressure. Choose your battles.
Which is your biggest failure or disaster in the kitchen? Let me know in the comments, and let’s have a laugh all together.
Have I ever failed at doing something during a class?
Of course I have. Through the years, I learnt to remain calm, and face the mistakes. Cooking is a never ending learning process, and you can actually learn a lot when you explain why a mistake happened, how you could have avoided or how you can mend it. Julia Child was a master in this, and her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking is full of wisdom words on how to fix potential failures.
The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude. - Julia Child
3 tips on how to prevent failure in the kitchen
It’s impossible to avoid failure completely, and after all we’ve said, it would be counter-productive. Failure is a growth driving force and a powerful learning tool. But there are three tips that can help you in the kitchen.
Start cooking in a clean, organized kitchen. I noticed that this makes a difference for me: your mind is clearer and it’s easier to follow a recipe.
Especially if you are a novice in the kitchen, read a recipe thoroughly before you start, from beginning to end, so you know what is coming next.
Know the ingredients, experiment with them, and begin with simple recipes. Once you know how a vegetable, or a flour, or a piece of meat behave, it will be easier to improvise with them avoiding resounding failures.
And as a recipe writer and cooking class teacher, how can I prevent failure in the kitchen?
putting you in contact with your senses, which means giving you not only time measurements, but also visual references (bake the cake for 45 minutes, or until…)
reminding you to taste the food, multiple times, at crucial steps. Seasoning is layering rather than dumping salt at the end.
being persuasive. There will always be improvisors who use your recipe as plot outline rather than a set of binding instructions, so you should be compelling in explaining why a step should not be skipped or a technique altered. On this subject, I found extremely mind-openingarticle: Sticklers, Improvisors, and “Following” Recipes.
My go-to meals to save a disaster in the kitchen
So you failed. And now what? What are you having for dinner? If you keep these ingredients in the pantry you know you have a plan B.
eggs, to make a frittata or a fried egg. I always have fresh eggs in the pantry, either freshly laid from our chickens, or organic from the supermarkets. Eggs are one of those must-have ingredients I cannot live without. In 5 minutes you can prepare a meal fit for a queen: a fried egg with a shower of grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a few turns of black pepper, or a frittata, plain or with seasonal vegetables (as this squash frittata).
a jar of beans. When you have a jar of beans, a good meal is behind the corner, as you can always improvise pasta e fagioli. Here in the newsletter I also shared the Neapolitan recipe to make pasta, fagioli e cozze, that is a bean and pasta soup with mussels. More on beans, the pantry protagonists, here.
a can of good quality tuna. I love good canned tuna, I find it is such a versatile ingredient. Have you ever tried the canned tuna and tomato sauce for pasta? Nothing fancy here, just good home cooking, and a recipe that students on a budget really love.
anchovies, capers, olives… that is umami packed ingredients. Add canned tomatoes and you can make pasta alla puttanesca. In this archive newsletter I celebrated the resourcefulness of this dish, its thrifty appearance – it was a fixture at the cafeteria at the university – that gives way to a punchy flavour, an umami richness that makes this dish filling, satisfying, and mouth-watering.
Frozen pizza. Yes, frozen pizza. We live in the countryside where there is no way to have food delivered at your door, so no sushi to forget your failure in the kitchen. A frozen pizza - the ones my mum makes in our wood burning oven in the summer, but also plain frozen pizzas from the supermarket - can save your dinner. Add-on ingredients is where the magic happens: extra mozzarella, olives, or even your homemade baby artichokes in oil.
Cucina Povera: The Italian Way of Transforming Humble Ingredients into Unforgettable Meals
Our new cookbook is available online, at your local bookshop, and everywhere books are sold.
In 100 recipes, Cucina Povera celebrates the best of this tradition, from the author’s favourite, pappa al pomodoro (aka leftover bread and tomato soup), to Florentine Beef Stew, Nettle and Ricotta Gnudi, and Sicilian Watermelon Pudding. Soul-satisfying, super healthy, budget-friendly, and easy to make, it’s exactly how so many of us want to eat today.
Food & Wine | The Best Spring Cookbooks for 2023
“As a home cook that likes to stretch every ingredient as far as possible, Giulia Scarpaleggia’s Cucina Povera has become a favorite in my household.” – Sean Flynn
“This book is an invaluable cultural guide and history lesson in the foundations of Italian cooking that enthusiasts will not want to miss.” – Jessica Levy, Booklist