Recipe for culinary disaster I: Combine one sultry day with a wedding reception featuring a multi-tiered buttercreamcake. Decorate with an array of tea roses, orchids and baby ivy. As the icing begins to soften, rush cake into a freezer for 5 minutes and remove to a refrigerator. Minutes before guests arrive, open refrigerator to find cake covered with blackened tea roses, orchids and baby ivy.
Recipe for culinary disaster II: For an elegant dinner party, plan to serve a dessert of standing "tulip" cookies filled with sorbet and surrounded with a pool of raspberry sauce. Make a double batch to allow for breakage. Transport food across town during a thunderstorm. Get cookies wet while unloading them; remove to an air-conditioned home. Watch cookies become soft and sticky and as flat as crepes.
Recipe for culinary disaster III: Invite guests who have heard about your terrific dessert souffle's. The first time they come to dinner, have the ovens fail. And the second time around, accidentally reach for the salt instead of the sugar.
How to salvage such culinary mishaps? The solution to most such crises is to improvise, say professional chefs.
"Just about every situation is rescuable," says Peter Brett, assistant pastry chef at the Capitol Hilton and the man behind the buttercream cake fiasco. Fortunately for Brett, the cake in question was being served in a restaurant. His solution was to run through the dining room, snatch fresh sprays of flowers from the tabletops as he went, and hurriedly replace them with those that were frostbitten.
And when Francois Dionot, president of Bethesda's L'Academie de Cuisine cooking school, was confronted with the formidable task of reviving scores of wilted tulip cookies, he simply created a new recipe on the spot by dusting the flattened shells with confectioners' sugar and, instead of filling them, topping them with sorbet. Departing guests commented that "it was the best dessert they ever had," recalls Dionot.
Jeff Buben, executive chef at the Occidental restaurant, had to scratch the souffle's he prepared for two tasting dinners, although he has since trained his staff to store sugar and salt in containers of different colors.
Melted buttercream, dead floral garnishes, collapsed tulip cookies and failed souffle's probably aren't among the culinary problems confronted by most newlyweds and everyday cooks. But misery loves company, and it's a comfort to know that even professional chefs encounter disaster in the kitchen from time to time.
What separates their mishaps from ours is the benefit of training. Professionals know why sauces curdle and how to correct them. They know what to do to liven or tame a dish that has gone awry. And some of their prescriptions have less to do with technique than with common sense. Says Buben of his role in the kitchen, "My biggest job is to teach organization. Cooking comes second."
Practically speaking, you can't just ring up a chef every time something fails. And while a lot of cookbooks offer tips for fixing/embellishing/stretching food, "most of it is available in bits and pieces," says John Bear, coauthor (with his wife Marina) of the aptly titled manual "How to Repair Food" (Ten Speed Press, $5.95). The witty and useful compilation of tips demonstrates how to rescue hundreds of foods -- from abalone to zucchini -- that are overcooked, undercooked, curdled, collapsed, bland, salty, too thick, too wet or not enough.
In researching their cookbook, the Bears spent several months and hundreds of dollars intentionally ruining a multitude of dishes. The authors confess it wasn't their first encounter with mushy asparagus or burned pot roast, however; in a brief acknowledgement of wry gratitude, the Bears dedicate the book "to our mothers, whose cooking first inspired us to think about doing this book."
Here, as solutions for common culinary mishaps, are a few of the authors' suggestions of what to do when:
THE DOUGH DOESN'T RISE: Gentle heat helps; if you have an electrical heating pad, set it on low, put foil on the pad, and put the bowl of dough on the foil. Or set the bowl of dough in the dishwasher, on the dry cycle. Alternatively, mix additional yeast into 1/4 cup warm water or milk, let it stand 5 minutes and work it into the dough.
THE BREAD IS HARD TO SLICE: Heat the knife first. To slice soft bread very thin, freeze it, slice it and defrost it.
THE BREAD IS STALE: To revitalize stale bread, try pouring 1/2 teaspoon water on the bread, seal it in a paper bag, and place it in a 350-degree oven 10 to 15 minutes. Or plunge the entire loaf into cold water for an instant and follow that with 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
THE CAKE IS CRUMBLY: When you find you can't slice or ice a cake without reducing it to a pile of crumbs, freeze it, ice it, slice it and thaw it.
THE FUDGE IS TOO HARD: During cooking, add a bit of milk and cook to the proper temperature. After cooking, if the fudge won't pour, add a tablespoon of milk and 2 to 3 tablespoons of corn syrup. Beat until smooth and pour at once. After it has cooled, place in an airtight container. The fudge should become softer and more velvety with 24 hours.
THE COOKED CHEESE IS RUBBERY, TOUGH OR STRINGY: Dump cheese in a blender or food processor and blend at low speed for a minute or so to break down the rubberiness. Pour back into the pan -- or better yet, a double boiler -- and continue cooking. If the blending made it too loose, add some browned flour (browned on a cookie sheet in a 400-degree oven) until it is the proper consistency.
TO AVOID GRITTY CLAMS: Sprinkle the clams with lots of corn meal and pour on enough water to cover. Wait three hours. They clams will have expelled any sand/grit.
THE DUMPLINGS ARE FALLING APART: Scrape the bits from the pot and transfer them to a paper towel-lined colander. Press them to make dry bits. Pile in a buttered baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve as baked dumplings.
THE GELATIN IS STUCK IN ITS MOLD: Loosen the gelatin around the edges with the tip of a knife. Dip the mold in hot water (not so far that the water runs into the gelatin) for a few seconds, invert it on a plate, and shake the mold and plate together in an up-down direction. Try to lift the mold off slowly. If it is still stuck, repeat the procedure.
THE LEMON IS DRIED UP: Boil the lemon for about 5 minutes, and a lot more juice will come out -- about 1/3 more. (It is better, but not vital, to let the lemon cool in the refrigerator before juicing.) Heating for 5 minutes in a 300-degree oven will have the same effect, and so will 15 seconds on high in a microwave oven.
THE MEATLOAF IS STUCK TO THE PAN: This time, scrape it out as best you can with a spatula, and reassemble it, using a sauce to hold it together. Next time, place a strip or two of bacon underneath the meatloaf before cooking; not only won't it stick, it won't taste of bacon, either.
THE POPCORN WON'T POP: Perhaps it's too dry. Soak the kernels in water 5 minutes, drain and try again. If this doesn't work, freeze the kernels overnight and pop them while they are still frozen. (Some people store their popcorn in the freezer for this reason.)
THE RAISINS ARE CLUMPED TOGETHER: Heat the mass at 300 degrees several minutes, until they break apart from each other.
THE RICE IS BURNED: Turn off the flame, place the heel of a loaf of bread on top of the rice, cover and wait 5 minutes. Virtually all the scorched taste should disappear into the bread.
THE SOUP IS TOO SALTY: The best solution is to increase the quantity of liquid without increasing the quantity of salt. If that's not possible, try adding a few pinches of brown sugar, or a slice or two of raw potato (and leave in until the potato slices become translucent).
THE TOMATOES ARE TOO ACIDIC: Add a taste of sugar.
THE WHIPPING CREAM WON'T WHIP: Chill the cream and the bowl and the beaters. If that doesn't work, add one of the following: 1 unbeaten egg white, 3 or 4 drops of lemon juice, a pinch of gelatin powder, or a bit of salt sprinkled in. And keep whipping.