Testing Times


Balancing two recipe books at the moment is fascinating. Recipes from Brixton Village, which I’ve just been doing more edits on, is primarily recipes from professional cooks and chefs that I’ve been testing, editing and writing up while Slow Cooked is all my own recipes, created from scratch.

Both books complement each other beautifully and I’m enjoying the challenge and privilege of writing them. Testing other people’s recipes has improved my skills at testing my own, but that doesn’t stop me having a moment when things just don’t work. I’ve only had two or three total failures in the slow cooker since I started testing but it knocks me when it happens. I feel a momentary wobble in my own confidence and then a sense of guilt at throwing out food.

I mentioned this last week on Twitter and people suggested that I needed the company of a canine who would chomp down on anything to counter that one. Sadly the only furry friends near my house are the local squirrels and I’m not sure how fond they are of risotto…

However someone else made an excellent point about kitchen failures. Your failures make your successes possible. And your anecdotes funnier quite often. This got me thinking. When I first starting blogging, I was following other people’s recipes and generally massacring them as I went. Dan Lepard even had to tweet me to try and troubleshoot me wrecking one of his foolproof cakes. Those mistakes gave me something to write about and they taught me how to cook and eventually how to create my own recipes.

I look back on the slow cooked broccoli or my infamous salt fish and leek stir fry or the celeriac and clove soup that tasted like mouthwash with a celery stalk stirrer with amused fondness. I am immensely grateful to my mum who ate everything I cooked when I was 19 and learning my way round the kitchen, even though most of it was probably awful. I’m even more tolerant of those dim and distant Home Economics lessons with rock cakes you could have used as a door stop and ratatouille that more resembled a chemical weapon than a side dish.

Without all those dishes, I wouldn’t have learned to trust my instincts and skills and understand the formula of a recipe instead of simply following the steps. I may have had to go to bed hungry on several occasions after ruining the only food in the house, but it was well worth it long term. I just have to remind myself that mistakes now are all still part of that process and a way to keep myself focused.

They also make my successes something to feel really pleased about. You’re never too experienced not to feel a frisson when your cake rises perfectly or your roasties are the best ever or something else comes together just the right way. The only better feeling is when people use my recipes and enjoy them. There’s something amazing about sharing those recipes and the way it introduces you to new people, places and influences. It makes up for the moments when you ruin 2 kilos of marmalade for sure!

What about you? Do mistakes in the kitchen give you new impetus or send you back to the ready meals? Can you laugh at your mistakes or do you hide them from everyone else?

12 replies
  1. Disorientated Dave
    Disorientated Dave says:

    They don’t quite send me back to the ready meals, but there are certain failures (usually baking related) that make me stop, take a breath and shake off the disappointment for a few weeks before I tackle them again. Very much like stumbling on the Travelator during the Eliminator round of Gladiators, to use a popular reference.

  2. Caitriona - Wholesome Ireland
    Caitriona - Wholesome Ireland says:

    The gluten free “fake meatballs” made with rice flour, cauliflower and broccoli that were, frankly, inedible. I can’t hide my failures, they’re part of my journey to better food. Actually it’s a metaphor for life don’t you think?
    Cannot wait to buy your book on slow cooking. Let me know when it’s on pre-order and I’ll stick mine in line!

  3. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Dave: that sounds more mature than my inclination to wail and gnash my teeth. Had an epic baking fail on Friday night though which made me shrug. Baking is science. I was terrible at science at school. Any time I bake and it works I feel I’m winning at life!

    Caitriona: Definitely a metaphor! And what is it with meatballs? When they fail you can’t hide it. I made some last year that were so awful my then boyfriend who had to eat them said ‘they taste a bit like Linda McCartney ones if you think about it.’ Note that we are no longer together…

  4. Diane-crewe
    Diane-crewe says:

    every thing we do is a process of trial and error xx thats how we move on and become better .. be it cooking sewing .. and being the person we are xx So well done for learning from your mistakes .. and keeping going x

  5. Lee
    Lee says:

    It can go either way. After being blown away by Herme macarons from Claridge’s I made a batch myself. They came out as inedible pucks of overcooked biscuit and I was gutted. I haven’t tried again yet. However, in the meringue department, a couple of early screw-ups spurred me on to stiff-peaked, chewy middled perfection.

    The opposite can work too of course. I remember the first full sunday roast we all cooked together in our shared house at uni. We were all clueless and yet the fates conspired to allow us to pull off one of the most perfect roasts with all the trimmings. Beginners luck!

  6. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Lee: first time I made pastry, it was utterly perfect. I’ve massacred it everytime since so clearly it was beginners’ luck. hopefully your roasts are more successful these days. And I thought macarons were like your driving test and it’s best if you fail first time?

    Diane: I like your calm thoughtful viewpoint of learning from it all. I think I’ve just been being bloody minded!

  7. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    Oh my I’ve had a few total fails in the kitchen! Your post made me smile wryly and nod yes in recognition. The work for me is to refuse to give myself a hard time and go sob in the bathroom…And to remember that the more I make mistakes, the more I learn and the better it gets…

    Having said that I had a string of really AWFUL bakes just before Xmas – creamted cakes, soggy pastry, oily cookies and sunken sponges. It’s like I couldn’t get anything right. And the more I told myself that, the more it was true! Self fulfilling prophecy stuff and all that.

    I managed to pull through – but only just! Onwards and upwards. Looking forward to your book. I love slow cooker recipes!

  8. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Audrey: that’s a really good point about self fulfilling prophecies in the kitchen. I definitely have a touch of that with custard (and then I scrambled the fresh stuff in the microwave on Christmas night to my mum’s amusement!)

    I think the thing to do is just start again with a new way of looking at it. Wait til you learn about slow cooker baking. I’ve been making the best cakes of my life in there. Obviously the shape is a bit comical being oval, but the cake is amazing and can’t sink or burn! I’m obsessed…

  9. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Claire: I am so on for doing French Toast. Was it the only thing two veggie teenagers could actually cook? Apart from Cheese Dreams over a campfire that was?

  10. Sharmila
    Sharmila says:

    Have to admit, I’m not the best at dealing with failures in the kitchen. I have a tendency to want to throw my toys out of the pram. A case in point was when I first made a massive pork pie from scratch, and at the last, the lid came away from the sides upon final baking. Resulted in me calling up my husband and crying down the phone – he thought it was something serious. I was actually crying about a pie.

    First forays into fresh filled pasta did not result in me going back to the drawing board, but eventually giving my pasta machine away – I think that was more recognition that I would probably never get it as good as I wanted it to be 🙂

  11. susan
    susan says:

    I love this blog – I heard about it on the food programme (radio 4) I think and have been popping in to visit ever since – I love the contrast between the two areas of England. I was born in the North (Newcastle) and lived in the South (Oxford, London and Woking) but now live in France so it is great to keep up this way.
    Failures in the kitchen – I have two dogs and that really helps and no I don’t think squirrels like risotto unless its got chestnuts in it!
    Thank you again and happy posting

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply