The way the cookie crumbles

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Perhaps you've heard the story about the lady who on Thanksgiving Day marched into the dining room with a magnificently prepared turkey and then accidentally dropped it on the floor in full view of her horrified guests. Without missing a beat, she picked up the bird and headed back to the kitchen telling everyone not to worry. In the kitchen she wiped off the turkey, basted it again with pan drippings, and then returned to the dining room with it and announced, "Here's the other turkey!"

Not everyone has the quick-wittedness to recover so confidently from culinary disaster, but such moxie sure beats the reaction of Francois Vatel, chef to the Minister of Finance under Louis XIV. Mortified at running out of food when the king himself and his retinue came calling, he vowed to redeem himself at their next meal. Taking no chances, he placed orders with nearly every fisherman in the region. Later, upon receiving a delivery, he inquired apprehensively of the supplier, "Is that all there is?" Not realizing that it was just a portion of his order, the deliveryman mistakenly told him yes. Unable to bear the thought of being humiliated two meals in a row, Vatel went to his room and ran himself through with his sword. His body was discovered by another deliveryman coming to tell him the rest of the fish had arrived.

Cooking disasters are unavoidable, even for the best of cooks. As Karen Mamone of the Hartford Courant writes, "Any cook who doesn't have failures must be cooking the same old predictable boring stuff over and over. Experiments must come to no good from time to time."

For that matter, even when you're cooking tried and true fare, disaster may strike.

Not whether, but when

Take, for example, the lady who got a new stove. Knowing that slow cooking enhances tenderness, she decided to cook the meat for a dinner party for several hours overnight. She put it in her oven and then flipped what she thought was a lever that merely sealed the oven door, trapping excess heat. The lever, of course, activated the oven's self-cleaning cycle and in the morning she was greeted with the charred remains.

The question, then, is not whether you'll ever experience a culinary mishap, but what you will do about it when it happens. Short of suicide, as it turns out, there are measures you can take when confronted with culinary catastrophe.

The easiest thing to do when a dish does not turn out right is to simply pretend that nothing is wrong and serve it anyway. Occasionally you can even find virtue in the defective result. Thus, in her beautiful book "Chocolate and The Art of Low-fat Desserts," Alice Medrich features a recipe for Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Torte. There it is, pictured on page 32 in all its glory with a note from the author saying, "I like the sunken-soufflé look of this torte served right side up with a dusting of sugar." You have to wonder whether the dessert was planned to sag in the middle or if the shrewd Medrich is merely putting a favorable spin on things.

Similarly, Marcel Desaulniers, in his lavish book "Desserts to Die For," offers a recipe for Fallen Angel Cake. The cake is named, he explains, for "the precipitous fall it undergoes after being removed from the oven." Desaulniers advises, "Do not despair when this happens -- it gives the cake its interesting appearance and dense texture." Further grasping victory from the jaws of culinary defeat, he adorns each slice with a spun sugar halo.

Obviously, not every culinary disaster can be peddled as a triumph. Sometimes corrective action is required. That is what Stanislas Leszczynski took when he poured rum over a yeast bun that was too dry for him. He also invented baba au rhum, now a classic dessert, in the process.

Little beyond salvage

Food writer Judy Walker advises that few desserts are beyond salvaging. Though you may not invent a classic, she suggests that if your fudge is runny, you can simply serve it over ice cream; if your cake falls apart, you can layer it with fruit and custard to make a trifle; if your pie is runny, you can serve it in a bowl and garnish it appropriately.

Marina and John Bear, in their book "How To Repair Food," recommend that every kitchen be equipped with a first-aid kit -- not for the cook, but for the food. Among the items to include are Parmesan cheese ("a hurry up topping"), instant mashed potato flakes (for thickening failed sauces), Sherry (to add gourmet taste to just about anything), canned cheese soup (to dress up lackluster vegetables), baking soda (to sweeten soured cream or milk) and canned hollandaise sauce. "Who would ever dream you had made a mistake," they ask, "when you bring something to the table smothered in hollandaise?" They even suggest that burned food can usually be reclaimed by judicious scraping or, in desperate cases, adding barbecue sauce to complement the "smoky" taste.

In the final analysis, however, perhaps the best defense against culinary calamity is to keep the number for pizza delivery posted prominently on your refrigerator door.

Tart Tatin

This dessert was a specialty of the Tatin sisters, Stephanie and Caroline, at their hotel in the Loire Valley of France in the 19th century. Though now a classic, the original was quite probably a salvaged culinary disaster, the result of a harried cook mistakenly baking the tart upside-down. There's no mistaking this recipe, adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Pie and Pastry Bible," as the definitive version.

Ingredients:

Pastry for a one-crust pie

10 cups thickly sliced apples

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 stick butter

Directions:

Combine apples, lemon juice, and sugar. Toss and let sit for 30 minutes. Drain the liquid from the apples (there should be about 1/2 cup) and place in a skillet along with the butter. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until caramelized, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat and arrange apple slices in slightly overlapping circles over the caramel, heaping them in the middle. Cook, covered, over medium heat for 10 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking over high heat, stirring constantly, until apples are almost tender, about 10 minutes longer. Remove from heat and cool 20 minutes. Place pastry evenly over the apples, tucking the edges into the pan. Cut a few steam vents near the center of the crust and bake in a 425-degree oven for 30 minutes until golden. Cool 10 minutes. Using a small knife, loosen crust from side of pan and invert the tart onto serving plate. Serve warm with crème fraîche.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. and Saturdays at 11:59 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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