Tag Archives: FAIL

when life hands you a tough hen…

…make des nouilles «coq au vin»!

It’s always a goal of mine to try to source the most authentic ingredients possible when making food from other countries.  Partly for this reason, I had never attempted one of the most classic of all French dishes, Coq au Vin.  In the U.S., our chickens are sold young and bred for their plumpness and would fall apart in a recipe that called for long, slow stewing.  Coq au Vin is a recipe designed to make the best of a lean, sinewy old rooster rather than a hen barely past pubescence.

So imagine my delight when I saw for sale at the farmers’ market, from one of my favorite farmers, stewing hens for sale!  Ok, so it was a hen, not a rooster, but I figured it was as close as I was going to get.  They were frozen solid and had a layer of frost on them, but I optimistically bought one anyway, along with some cippolini onions and button mushrooms.

Once I thawed the old girl out, I held her up for inspection.  She was the scrawniest bird I had ever seen.  In the schoolyard, she would’ve garnered taunts of “flat as a board” while her double-D supermarket cousins pranced past. Her legs and thighs were similarly spare; I wasn’t going to get much meat out of her.  But I wasn’t overly concerned; I was looking at this as somewhat of an experiment anyway, so I forged ahead.

I followed the recipe’s initial steps, marinating the bird in wine and aromatics for a day and then braising it in the marinade and stock until the liquid had reduced by about half.  Despite the low, slow braise, the chicken appeared tough as shoe leather- what had I done wrong?  I decided to chuck the whole thing in the fridge and resume the next day; perhaps it needed a longer braise to break down the collagen?  Any bird I’ve ever dealt with, when cooked properly, you can move the joint freely between the drumstick and thigh.  This bird’s joints were completely stiff and unyielding.  However, the sauce tasted absolutely phenomenal, so I figured all was not lost.

The next day I decided to take the dish over to Marvin’s and finish it there, but fate would intervene.  As I was loading the car, walking down my wooden porch steps, unable to hold the railing because I needed both hands to carry my insanely heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, I slipped on a wet leaf.  The lid went flying, as did all the lovely sauce.  Somehow I managed to keep the pot itself upright, but my hands were scraped, and the pot handle was broken. And that sauce!  I think I was more upset about it than anything.

That night we ended up getting carry-out, but I wasn’t giving up so easily; I still had the uncooked mushrooms and onions, the meat, and a tiny bit of sauce left.  I began to hatch a plan. I reheated the meat with a couple more cups of wine and stock, some fresh aromatics, and let it simmer for another hour or so.  It wasn’t as spectacular as the original sauce, but it sure wasn’t bad. I added the onions to the sauce, fried the bacon and mushrooms as per the original recipe and added them.  At this point it was more than clear that the meat was inedible, but at least it had rendered some body  and flavor to my sauce.  I boiled up a package of wide egg noodles, and we had a delicious meal of noodles with wine sauce and mushrooms (hence des nouilles «coq au vin»).

I’m still not sure what happened with the meat.  I had a similar experience with a braised rabbit recipe- it had a few similarities (the meat was frozen, the recipe called for marinating in wine ahead of time, and used the same cooking technique) and I also ended up with meat so dry it practically crumbled.  If anyone out there reading this has any insights, please let me know!  Meanwhile, I hope this goes to show that even if a recipe goes awry, many times it can still be salvaged into something delicious and worthwhile.

P. S. I didn’t manage to get any photos for this post (it was 9:30 and after a long day, my hard-working better half needed his supper, stat!), but take my word for it that the mushrooms, onions and bits of bacon looked absolutely gorgeous glazed with the rich reddish-brown wine sauce atop a tangle of noodles, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley.  Actually, that description probably does the dish justice better than a photo could have!

why i hate cookbooks.

“Why I hate cookbooks” may seem like an odd blog post title for someone who owns as many cookbooks as I do, and who regularly swoons over them.  But every so often, I have one of those frustrating cooking experiences that make me almost angry at the cookbook author for whatever flaw in their recipe that caused the demise of my dinner.

a half-baked chicken recipe

The primary problem with cookbooks is obviously that they’re not interactive.  Have a question or need something clarified? You’re outta luck.*  Unlike blogs, where you can usually get a question on a recipe answered via the comments or an email, cookbooks are static and unyielding, leaving many home cooks up in the air and having to guess at what was intended.

Part of this has to do with the fact that many cookbooks assume a level of knowledge or background that may or may not be there.  Many foodies probably scoff at cookbook authors such as Nigella Lawson, who is not a “real chef” but just a home cook like (most of) the rest of us.  But that’s exactly the thing I love about Nigella’s cookbooks (and blogs like the Amateur Gourmet)- they bother to describe mishaps or trouble spots they experienced while making the dish, in hopes of sparing you the same problems.  Details like “don’t worry if your dough appears clumpy” can be invaluable when making a recipe for the first time. (I try to include these types of details in the recipes I give here- it makes them longer, but I’d rather give too much info than not enough!)

rillettes rejects

Another pet peeve is cookbook authors who don’t seem to test their recipes with American ingredients, even though the U. S. is the primary market for their book sales (they should take a page from Julia Child- she specifically tested her French recipes in an American kitchen with American ingredients, to make sure they would work).  I frequently encounter this problem when cooking from ethnic cookbooks whose authors live abroad.  There are big differences in ingredients such as flour or even meat, and adjustments need to be made.  The person executing the recipe should not be expected to know to make these modifications.

you deserve to look at something prettier than my failed recipes…

So, what prompted this bout of cookbook disaffection?  Spending an entire afternoon and evening in the kitchen one Sunday, and having two different dishes not turn out as expected. The dishes attempted were pork rillettes (from Charcuterie) and a baked chicken and freekeh dish (from the The New Book of Middle Eastern Food). The rillettes, made with expensive pastured pork, turned out the consistency of chewed tuna fish. Note to self: next time, do NOT use the stand mixer as suggested in the book!  Next time I’ll use a fork to gently break apart the meat.  Another issue was that there was not even a ballpark indication of how much liquid to add, and I think I added too much, which also contributed to the “wet tuna” consistency.

pork that reminds you of tuna is just… wrong.

The baked chicken dish was rescued but turned into something completely different from what was intended.  I thought the instructions were a little wonky- boil the chicken for an hour, then cut it up and bake it for 30 minutes- but forged ahead, trusting the recipe. After 1 hour of simmering, however, my chicken was falling apart and unable to be cut up into pieces. What would the additional 30 minutes of baking have done anyway, besides drying out the meat?!  Bizarre. (Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve had an issue with a recipe from this book.)  I ended up picking all of the meat from the carcass, putting it back in the broth with the freekeh,  and just calling it soup.  It tasted fine in the end, but what if I hadn’t been experienced enough to shift gears and transform the dish into something else?

I’ll never fully turn away from cookbooks, but right now, I’m more than a little disenchanted.  My resources (both time and money-wise) are limited, and I can’t afford to devote them to recipes that can’t deliver a reliable result.

6/4/10 UPDATE: I had houseguests from France to whom I hesitantly served the rillettes, explaining that it was my first effort, etc.  They both said that the rillettes were “tout à fait correct” (i.e. just fine), and judging by the quantity they consumed, I don’t think they were just being polite! They said rillettes can range from fine to coarse.  I still think I’ll hand-mix them next time, but it was good to know they weren’t the failure I thought they were. I do think a few weeks in the fridge improved the flavor & texture.

*A couple notable exceptions are Rick Bayless and Paula Wolfert, both of whom are great about answering questions via Twitter!

ceci n’est pas un macaron* (daring bakers)

*French for “Giant Macaron Fail!” But I figured the least I could do was pretty them up with a nice seasonal photograph.

macaron fail horizontal

I was so excited about this month’s challenge, really I was.  I’ve been enviously eyeing the beautiful photos of macarons all over people’s blogs for the last little while now, but not having much of a sweet tooth, I needed the Daring Bakers gauntlet to be thrown down to give me the push I needed.  I was a little apprehensive after doing a lot of reading about how difficult and temperamental they can be. But I thought that at the worst, mine might turn out a little flat, or a little browned, but otherwise reasonably resembling a macaron.

Macarons are known for their exotic flavors.  I knew the DB’ers would bring it and that I’d have to be fairly creative to stand out in the crowd.  I rummaged through my cupboards and came up with three flavor ideas: Malted Milk Ball, Ginger Green Tea, and Chai Pumpkin Spice.  Sounds good, right?  The Malted Milk Ball macarons were flavored with cocoa powder and malted milk powder and were going to be filled with a malted milk ganache.  The other two were flavored with powdered dry tea, as per a suggestion from one of the folks in the DB forums.  The Ginger Green Tea flavor was going to be filled with mascarpone with little bits of crystallized ginger, and the Chai Pumpkin Spice was going to be filled with cream cheese blended with pumpkin butter (this combo is really good on an English muffin, BTW.)

Why “going to be filled”, you ask?  Well, all three of my batches of macarons were complete and utter failures.  None of them even came CLOSE to resembling the beautiful macarons on my computer screen. (Did I mention I made THREE batches?  I’m nothing if not persistent! But apparently I had some subconscious need to make good on my “I am not a baker” statement from last month.)  I think I just don’t have that attention to precision and detail (or obsessiveness?) that one needs to attempt a macaron fail 1recipe like this. My macarons were all pathetic, flat, dense little creatures, none of them rose or developed “feet”, nor did any of them have that characteristically shiny shell.  Duncan of Syrup & Tang did a 5-part series on the macaron, which I read diligently (twice!), but it did not unlock any secrets as to why I failed (other than mentioning that the type of recipe chosen by DB had a 50% failure rate).  I have made flourless cake and soufflés before, so I’m familiar with the “folding” technique. I know one batch was definitely overmixed, but with the others I really made an effort to thoroughly combine it without going overboard. (I have to say, though, as I was mixing, I couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t understand how 5 egg whites could possibly hold 2 cups of almond flour & 2 1/4 cups of sugar without collapsing… that’s almost a full pound of solids!)  I thought my last batch (the chocolate ones) actually stood a chance; the batter looked similar to Duncan’s photo of correctly mixed batter and seemed to have the same properties.  But alas, they were just as flat as the rest, if not more so.

I really wish I could have had time to try again and get it right, but I just don’t have the resources (time OR money- that almond meal was $10 a bag!).  I don’t think I’ll ever attempt to make macarons again unless I can get a tutor to come to my house.  Any volunteers?

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S.  She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

ginger green tea cupcakes

P.S. I gave the ginger-green tea flavor a second life as a batch of cupcakes.  I don’t even love cupcakes but I felt I had to redeem myself after the total failure of the macarons!  I took a standard yellow cake recipe, added two teabags of Tazo Ginger Green Tea that had been ground to powder in a coffee mill, and topped them with a lightly sweetened whipped cream/ mascarpone and chopped candied ginger.  I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so these were perfect for my taste- an ever-so-slight bitter edge from the tea and a warm kick from the ginger.