The Stuffed Carrot Cake I baked was obviously a failure but it was extremely tasty as a pudding
First, a little first-person backstory.
I quit my job as food editor and columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, after 18 years in 2007. It was arguably the best job for a food journalist in Canada. Four years later, I re-invented myself as a freelance Food Sleuth. Meanwhile, I did a couple of community cookbooks with residents of Toronto public housing and for an advocacy non-profit group called FoodShare.
Since then, I’ve created a blog on my website marionkane.com and a series of food-focused audio podcasts called Sittin’ in the Kitchen. They number almost 100 episodes in almost 10 years. I like the excitement of interviewing celebrity chefs, home cooks and people who have a consuming passion for food with only a state-of-the-art, foolproof and easy-to-use microphone called a Flashmic. I don’t do well with technology but I do have a way of enticing interviewees to feel comfortable and to communicate honestly and eloquently.
Food is a universal connector. For me, it’s an excuse to be curious. People let me into their kitchens — from humble to haute — and eagerly talk about their culinary exploits. It makes me happy.
The series has evolved organically to include social issues I feel strongly about: The way our culture treats vulnerable people like the homeless (i.e. badly); addictions among chefs and others in the food industry (it’s an epidemic), and the way we grow food and distribute it (i.e. food security).
The current pandemic has temporarily interrupted my podcast adventures. I don’t do interviews on Zoom, over the phone or with curbside chats. Via those methods, the emotional interchange between me and my subject — body language, intonation and looking each other in the eye — is missing. What to do? I took to the kitchen and I’ve cooked up a storm for several weeks.
This is a double-edged sword. I love cooking. Two quotes by my late friend and mentor Julia Child come to mind: “This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” and, on the topic of this blog post: “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”
It is my recent experience that things often go awry — from pot to page, from soup to nuts, from cake to cookies. The stove is my source of joy and a dark place- and sometimes in between.
I learned the hazards of publishing recipes for an unsuspecting audience the hard way at my first full-time job as a newspaper food editor in the summer of 1983. My editor at The Toronto Sun — an eccentric and brilliant man who looked like a long-haired Peter O’Toole — hired me, I suspect by instinct and desperation. I had never used a computer. They had clunky and primitive “word processors” in the compact, lively newsroom. I usually didn’t agree with the paper’s politics but I was grateful for the challenge and the dental plan. People smoked and ate lunch on trays at their desks. It was a fun time.
I was thrown in at the deep end. Nothing promotes learning as quickly as necessity. As for recipes, it was a couple of weeks when I had calls from readers. They had made the recipes in the minuscule food section — sometimes at 8 a.m. — that appeared via wire copy and the occasional freelancer. Sometimes with disastrous results.
I had a small budget and a mandate to improve the content of the fledgling food section. I am a sensitive person. Some people close to me call me an empath. It hurt to hear distress calls from readers when their recipes failed.
I vowed to remedy this. I hired a young woman recommended to me who had attended the Cordon Bleu in London UK. The Toronto Sun paid her per recipe. I was called into the managing editor’s office. He questioned me. I replied that we were responsible (I in particular) for the accuracy of published recipes. I still believe that with all my heart almost 40 years later.
That’s the gist of this heartfelt saga. See my blog post from 2009 about the history of recipe mistakes in cookbooks and other publications.
In a nutshell, the weight of the world is on my shoulders when I offer a recipe to my audience. That’s a lot for an anxious woman with an obsessive, perfectionist’s bent to bear. I have company, distinguished company. Nigella Lawson, who said we are “kitchen cousins” in a podcast with her, said this about testing recipes with her name on them: “It’s exhilarating when it goes well and monumentally lowering when it doesn’t.” (from “Women in Food” by Charlotte Druckman.)
The pandemic has caused many people to have low-level anxiety. Society is broken in most places. Vulnerable people — the sick, the poor and the homeless — are hurting in a big way.
Recipe-testing seems frivolous in that context but it’s now the core of my professional endeavour.
First, the good news. Nigella has, on average, good recipes, especially her cakes. Her Guinness Gingerbread is moist, sticky and sensational. I substitute golden syrup (it’s hard to find in North America) with molasses. Her online recipes have a choice of metric and Imperial. She has Americanized cookbooks that are mostly reliable. My favourite book of hers is a recent one: “At My Table.” Butternut and Sweet Potato Curry, Chicken Barley, Queen of Puddings, Sticky Toffee Pudding and No-Churn Salted Caramel Ice Cream are all stellar. Breaking news: She has a new book called “Cook, Eat, Repeat” coming out in the fall.
There’s another culinary icon at the other end of the spectrum. I’m hopping mad at the British-Israeli chef, restaurateur and prolific cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi.
I’ve eaten at two of his restaurants in London UK: Ottolenghi Islington and Nopi. They were both excellent serving delicious food in beautiful rooms with good service. His recipes are another story, in particular his 2017 dessert book co-authored with pastry chef Helen Goh called “Sweet.”
Ian Brown is a brilliant journalist at the Canadian national newspaper the Globe and Mail with a special interest in food. He bravely broke the news that the American edition of “Sweet” was riddled with mistakes. Others noticed them. The publisher posted updates and corrections to the first edition. They sent me a “corrected” copy of the book at my request. I found mistakes in there too.
I tried to make the Tahini Halva Brownies from both copies of the book — repeatedly. I gave up and assigned the two recipes to a professional recipe-tester. She made each of them twice and, together with my input, came up with the perfect version. The brownies – deep and delicious – got raves.
I like Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem” the best of his numerous cookbooks. His recipes have the potential to yield spectacular results. He specializes in vegetables and he’s known for whole roasted cauliflower concoctions. I made his Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onions with Tahini and Za’atar, with resounding success.
But this devastating experience with a happy ending kick-started a rash of baking failures. First, there was the Stuffed Carrot Cake (pictured above) — a cake that a cheerful cook made at Colette’s Place in Cape Breton on my favourite Food Network show “You Gotta Eat Here.” I cobbled together several recipes several times. Every one of them failed.
Then came the biscuits. Recipes touted as “the best” baked up flat and dry. The flour is different in the U.S. and the UK than in Canada. I reached my breaking point when I found an online recipe from “Once Upon a Chef” by chef and cookbook author Jennifer Segal. I like her rendition for Chicken Marsala and her Best Buttermilk Biscuits contain cornstarch — and, best of all, work.
The baking fiasco continued with Milk Street’s Chocolate Meringue Cookies. I ate those delectable creations a few weeks ago baked by Francoise Briet, a Toronto personal chef and caterer via take-out from The Depanneur. I baked them twice. They were failures twice. They were flat and dense.
Next up was Coq au Vin. Recipes for that tried-and-true French dish from reputable chefs and cooks were all underwhelming. I finally gave up.
I had a fracas with meatballs. The goal was to make them tender and tasty but still hold together. I tried ricotta, breadcrumbs and other ingredients. I found the secrets to meatballs are bread soaked in milk, ground beef, ground pork — and sausage. Stay tuned for the ultimate recipe I have yet to create and other shenanigans in my pursuit of recipe rescue on my Facebook community page “Sittin’ in the Kitchen.”
You can find other recipes that haven’t failed — in fact, they work perfectly — on the above Facebook page e.g. Sky High Yorkshire Pudding (Allrecipes), Apple Sharlotka (Smitten Kitchen) and Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric (by Alison Roman). Please note these people and entities as a good source of recipes.
Talking of good sources, my friend and fellow Torontonian Bonnie Stern has been publishing great recipes for years. I made her mom’s apple dessert — Ruthie’s Apple Cake — recently. It was delicious.
Another buddy and fellow foodie Mairlyn Smith has great recipes, especially in her most recent cookbook: Peace, Love and Fibre. She has a list of good sources on her website: Mairlyn Smith’s recommended recipe sources
Chefs don’t usually measure their ingredients except for baking. Watch “Chopped” on Food Network and see the evidence.
One chef who meticulously tested his recipes — at home — for a sadly out-of-print book called “Nightly Specials” is Michael Lomonaco. He is an excellent chef and a lovely man. He was executive chef at Windows on the World in New York City when 9/11 struck. By happenstance, he was getting eyeglasses on the main floor when the building crumbled. He survived. You can hear my interview with him and read my blog here. He now owns and operates Porterhouse, a Manhattan steakhouse where Anthony Bourdain had his own table.
Here’s his recipe from “Nightly Specials” for a perfectly balanced, easy-to-make, delicious chicken cutlet in a luscious sauce.
Chicken Breasts with Chives and Mustard Sauce
Chef Lomonaco modelled this delicious dish on one of his favourite classic bistro dishes: Steak Diane. He calls the latter “a paragon of quick cooking that finds steak swathed in a cream sauce mightily seasoned with mustard and enhanced with cognac.” He recommends roasted garlic mashed potatoes as a perfect accompaniment because the potatoes will soak up the sauce. It is now one of my go-to chicken recipes. I substitute chopped parsley for the chives.
Add shallots to skillet; cook over medium heat until softened but not browned, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat; add brandy, scraping up browned bits from skillet. Cook a few minutes. Add wine, raise heat to high and bring it to a boil. Whisk in mustard; cook about 1 minute. Pour in chicken stock; cook 2 to 3 minutes more.
Stir in cream and bring just to a boil. Stir in chives. Return chicken to skillet; cook over medium-low heat until sauce thickens slightly, 4 to 5 minutes.
Makes about 4 servings.