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.
How can you tell if a recipe will fail — how can you know, in advance, if it will fail for you personally? This is something cookbooks generally don’t address, because the answer is, boringly, a mixture of experience and concentration. Helpful in this respect (and out of print) is What Every Cook Should Know (Nisbet & Co, 1932), by Jessie Lindsay and Helen Tress, head and lecturer respectively in Household Arts at King’s College London. It is not a cookery book, except in the most general sense: it’s a book about the basic principles underlying cookery, down to the biological structures of food. If you understand that yeast is an organism then you understand how to keep it alive and make it do what you want; if you understand that soft offal has quite different cell structures to muscle meat then you understand why it needs to be cooked so differently. The introduction states that the book “gives the amateur cook the information on which to judge if a recipe is sound or unsound . . . it summarises for each dish the commonly observed faults and gives the way of avoiding these calamities.” The first chapter is “General Proportions and Recipe Building”. The chapter which in any other book would be called “Bread” is here “Yeast Mixtures”. Their advice is to pay attention to the proportions of types of ingredients, and to learn which are necessary and which are incidental.
Today it is worth being wary of any style of recipe which becomes very fashionable very quickly across recipe blogs. I don’t really trust recipes which make a point of the small number of ingredients or which seem in some way contradictory — there’s no such thing as a “quick pho” (the very slowly cooked Vietnamese broth). “Two-ingredient no-churn ice cream”, which I’ve seen on various blogs, is made of whipped cream and condensed milk. It sounds revoltingly rich and sweet, potentially un-freezable, and is surely, by definition, not ice cream. Thug Kitchen’s “piña colada ice cream” calls for (pre-bagged) frozen pineapple, one banana, coconut milk and a tablespoon of maple syrup: it froze completely solid and barely tasted of pineapple at all. (I rescued it with lime juice and brown sugar.) Buzzfeed ran a recipe recently for miniature egg-white omelettes — “healthy breakfast cups” — baked in a muffin pan: “46 calories per cup!” This just seems pointless. The pressure for new recipes means bad things go viral.
But generally I have found my own errors more often to blame. I made a very nice pear cake (a Melissa Clark recipe from the New York Times food website) and misunderstood, totally, her instructions on the brown butter glaze: I left it on the heat, which cooked the glaze and turned it into toffee sauce. My problem was that I’ve made toffee very recently and icing almost never; foaming toffee looked familiar, so I stuck with it (and it stuck to me). Years ago my sisters and I were plating (for a large dinner party who were having drinks in a separate room) a classic autumnal salad: ripe pears, walnuts, a few salad leaves. There was an oven-toasted goat’s cheese element. I removed the tray from the oven. The next few seconds are unclear: there may have been an altercation, or I turned around too quickly, or I approached the plates from upwind, or Mercury was in retrogade. The tray inverted. The baking paper landed cheese-down on the floor. We silently scraped the cheese up, discarded the worst bits, and redistributed it. I believe everyone survived.