May 14, 2012

All cooks have at least one kitchen disaster that follows them for life. I love to cook and I am pretty good at it. But I have had my disasters. One of mine was an applesauce cake I made when I was 18 - just before I joined the Navy. It seemed heavy when I took it out of the oven, but I had never made one before.

My little brother loaded a bite on his fork and discovered a lump of baking soda that he pronounced the size of a ping pong ball. My mother speculated that might be why the cake was so heavy. The heaviest thing they’d ever eaten one of my sisters said. The heaviest cake in the history of cake another offered.

Someone picked up the cake and weighed it on the bathroom scale. It was two ounces shy of a full-term baby. I received my first hand mixer later that week. That mixer is still alive, as is the cake story.

When we lived in North Carolina we had a newly-wed couple move in next door to us. We soon became fast friends and the wife often consulted us about cooking. One day she had her family over to her house for dinner in an attempt to live down the rumor that the only thing she knew how to make is tacos.

We were invited to join them and were told to prepare “to have our minds blown.” The evening began with a cheese ball and crackers. Her mixer had burnt up the week before, so she had mixed the two 8-ounce packages of cream cheese and seasonings by hand. She was nothing if not determined.

The recipe said to add 8 ounces of cheddar cheese to the cream cheese and so she did – by cutting cubes from a block of cheddar. It was a cheese ball you could choke on.

The garlic chicken was superb, the green beans perfect, the salad delectable and the tiramisu out of this world. All anyone will remember is that chunky cheese ball.

My cooking misadventures were largely ancient history when one day a few years later she asked me to show her how to roast a chicken. Simple, I said.

I slathered olive oil on the chicken, added herbs and spices and threw it in a hot oven. I may have overdone it on the olive oil, as the chicken began to smoke.

Whiffs of smoke turned to puffs. Puffs began to billow. Smoke poured from the vents, setting off two smoke detectors mounted to the ceilings.

It was a pricey Sunday roaster and we were determined to go down with the bird.

I dragged a ladder beneath a smoke alarm, scrambled to the top and waved junk mail beneath the smoke detector. That one silenced; then the other one began beeping. Back and forth, back and forth. It was 15 minutes before the oven could be lowered to 350.

The neighbor opened doors, bundled her baby and her 2-year-old toddler shivering from the cold. The toddler was alternately frightened by the piercing beep of the smoke alarms, yet entertained by "Uncle Joe" waving his arms like a crazed flagman teetering on the ladder.

It is the two-year-old who insisted on keeping this particular disaster alive. Until we moved back to Pennsylvania she distinguished me from her other relatives by calling me “Uncle Joe Beep Beep.”

Lady Laura loves to tell about the time when we lived in Delaware. I baked a crumb cake but forgot to include the baking powder. I ended up with a large, flat, rock-hard pancake that tasted like a cinnamon stick. The worst part of that was the fact that we were both out of work and we had nothing else left in the house to eat!

Some disasters were simply meant to outlive us.