Thursday, November 05, 2009

Why I always read the recipe before I begin

When I was in college, I lived in a student run co-op house for two years. It was a great arrangement; your rent went for room and board and in exchange you had to spend a few hours a week working at some assigned task. The house I lived in had 27 residents; it was one of the smallest in the UC Berkeley co-op system.

Breakfast and lunch in the house I lived in were on one's own. There was plenty of food available that one could prepare for oneself, and a full industrial-sized kitchen. But six nights a week, dinner was prepared for the residents who would be around. Each semester, the occupants of my house would vote on when dinner would be served (generally this revolved around when the local Fox network was airing The Simpsons), and to be a cook once a week (always with a partner) was one of the best jobs one could be assigned for one's work hours. There was always a regular meal and a vegetarian option, and one could sign up to have a plate set aside if one were going to be out late and want a dinner waiting up one's return. It was a pretty good setup, all things considered.

The first semester I lived in the house, I was lucky enough to be assigned a cook shift once a week (my other shift was cleaning the oven/stovetop once a week, which sucked ass). As cooks, we had to make up and submit menus to the Kitchen Manager, who trained the cooks as needed, ordered all the food, and planned when each menus would be served. I knew how to cook, since I'd been doing it for 8 or 9 years at that point, and I had a great time trying to figure out how to turn a recipe that would normally serve five into one that would serve 25. (The answer wasn't always to multiply each ingredient by 5, btw.)

My fellow Tuesday night cook was a pretty Persian guy named Bijan, who was used to flexing his muscles and flashing his dimples to get girls to drool over him. He didn't know how to cook, but the Work Manager that year had the hots for him, so she gave him a cook shift. So Tuesdays I taught Bijan how to cook and generally made him do the chopping and other prepwork because he didn't know how to do anything else.

Cooking with Bijan was fun most of the time, but I learned over the semester that I had to kind of watch what he was doing a lot of the time, because he liked to experiment, especially when we were making something that he thought might be "improved". He had a habit of adding Chinese five spice or hoisin sauce to things that really should not have been seasoned or sauced such. One time we were making marinara sauce, and he added several tablespoons of cinnamon while my back was turned "because I thought it might make it spicy." But the most awesome time, oh, the best time, was the Cream Puff Incident.

The dinner we were making that Tuesday night was well underway, and Bijan said he wanted to make something for dessert. I tossed the cookbook at him and told him to go to town, but to read the recipe before beginning. "Of course," he said, since I thought he'd already learned his lesson from previous culinary failures. "I'm making cream puffs," Bijan declared.

Somehow I lost the coin toss and ended up whipping cream by hand with a whisk, because our house didn't have a hand mixer and neither of us wanted to clean the industrial stand mixer. So I spent 20 minutes or half an hour hand whipping the cream while Bijan made the puff parts. They went into the oven and came out a few minutes later, looking great.

Finally, my arm aching, I triumphantly finished whipping the cream for the cream puffs and they had cooled enough for each of us to try one. I cut two in half, filled the middles with whipped cream, and as we bit down on our respective cream puffs we looked at one another in horror as we realized we were eating cream-filled salt dough.

"Bijan," I said, "did you read the recipe?"

"I did!" he swore.

I looked at the recipe. It called for 1/4 teaspoon of salt. No way there was only 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt in my cream puff alone. I pointed this out to him, and he realized that he must have put in 1/4 CUP of salt, not 1/4 TEASPOON.

I do not have to tell you the huge difference putting 1/4 cup of salt in any dessert-type baked good is from 1/4 teaspoon. Needless to say, the puffs were completely inedible. I put the remains of my hand-aching hard work in the refrigerator and we served dinner without dessert.

After dinner, one of our housemates found the whipped cream and somehow decided it would be a good idea to start a whipped cream fight, so the next half an hour involved 10 or 15 people flinging the product of my labor at one another, making a huge mess. I did not assist in the cleanup, since I figured I'd done my part to aid in the fun by whipping the cream in the first place.

I never let Bijan bake anything during one of our shifts again. And that is why I always read a recipe all the way through before I start cooking or baking anything.


Anonymous said...

Two things:
Salt has always fascinated me in that it can completely make or break a recipe by its presence or absence. Obviously it is a lot easier to add it then take it out, but I am always fascinated by that. Although in this case the difference between 1/4 tsp and 1/4 a cup is so huge, many many things would also screw up a recipe with that proportion wrong.
Second, I love that your tag for this post was "Fail"

Hillary said...

I would be so disappointed.