Dishing Out Disaster
Who burned all the cakes? King Alfred in a Victorian illustration
In the catacombs of most home cooks’ minds a slideshow of horrors is constantly playing, along the lines of Glen Baxter’s “Great Culinary Disasters Of Our Time”. This group of cartoons, in Atlas (1979), presents a series of surreal failures, catalogued like natural disasters: “Filets de Caneton au Cherry Marnier (pour deux personnes), Newport Pagnell 2/3/73”, is a mountain of something indistinct on a table with elongated parts pointing out. A waitress stares in horror. “Stewed Figs American Style — Antwerp, November 3rd 1974” is depicted as an explosion. Exactly how things went wrong is not revealed. (Perhaps this is how the dish is meant to be served, and the disaster is in the concept and not the execution.)
Kitchen failures are generally maddening rather than dramatic. Occasionally the scale is large, such as the time I tried to cook rice for 40 people, didn’t measure the water properly, and ended up with a very large pan of rice that was underdone, gritty, and slightly burnt. Sometimes you ruin equipment. I destroyed an enamelled pot by leaving stewing plums unattended. The plums and sugar fused to the bottom of the pan and the enamel completely flaked away. My sister, making caramel for the first time, got sugar cinders. My mother removed a lemon meringue pie from the oven (presumably this was in the 1970s) and the meringue part slid right off. And I once boiled stock in a slow cooker, took it off the heat, and forgot it — for about a fortnight. You don’t need to imagine the smell but it was memorable.
For all of these the lessons are fairly basic: measure things, don’t leave them unattended, go slowly, remember where you left it. Lots of the tricky bits of cooking are really just about burning something in a controlled way. And if you have, for example, never made mayonnaise before, you are much safer literally adding the oil drop by drop, beating it in with a hand whisk, than trying anything with a Magimix.
But sometimes recipes appear to be booby-trapped. In the 1990s the prestige failure was the River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis, an enormous, very rich chocolate cake (barely even a cake) which I assume attracted hopeful dinner-party hosts because of its apparent simplicity. It has only four ingredients: chocolate, eggs, sugar and butter, but in colossal amounts — 675g chocolate, the same of sugar, a pound of butter, ten eggs. The whole thing is baked in a bain-marie. As related by Julian Barnes in The Pedant In The Kitchen (Atlantic, £7.99), it always went wrong, and “why it went wrong we Nemetics never discovered”. He describes the result: “something circular, brown and sloshy, and definitely not looking its best — a kind of cowpat, really.” The guests are sympathetic: they too (at this peak moment of Nemesis fame) have tried, and failed, to make the modish dessert, which “is nevertheless displayed openly, as proof that it has been attempted”. Conspiracy theories raged. Had a crucial ingredient been left out? Was the sugar content too high? Were professional ovens just that bit more powerful? His conclusion is that there are some dishes better not attempted at home. (I should mention that my mother made the Nemesis several times and for her it has always “worked”.) For anyone who feels enticed, the revised “easy” (read: smaller) version in River Cafe Cook Book Easy seems not to have provoked the same widespread despair.