The Dangers of Winging It

today we have a guest post by Kerry Knight

cartoon by Liza Donnelly for the New Yorker

"Hello? Risotto Crisis Hotline?"

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If this is so, I am a dimwitted terror in the kitchen. A little too cocky, I like to wing it, extemporize, or “improve” on the tried and true. I am also a Lazy Larry when it comes to sticking to the minor details known as “ingredients,” “quantities,” and that most egregious example of bossy booting, “Directions.” I also don’t like to wear my reading glasses because they make me look old but not wise. Most often, this has disastrous effects.

Even if you have made baking-powder biscuits over a hundred times, I guarantee you that one-day you will dim-wittedly reach for the baking soda and triple the amount, oblivious to the semantic distinction between Tsp and Tbsp. It will start with a hubristic sense of entitlement and ability and it will end in laughter through tears, my favorite emotion. If you are lucky, you can salvage your flop, but most often, the disaster is a total write off that a goat would turn his nose up at.

My first flop, and attempt at salvage, centered on an assault on Maple Walnut Fudge for a bake sale in Grade 6.

Deciding even then to forego the “You’re not the Boss of Me” directions, I just put all the ingredients in the pot and boiled for about an hour. I dubbed the result “Mystic Mixture!!” and attempted to sell Dixie cups of it for a nickel. I earned enough to buy one Popsicle, thanks to Sister Eusebia.

Recently, inspired by a post on this very blog, I made a tomato soup cake and forgot to add the baking soda. The result was a heavy orange bottom feeder that tasted ok but you wouldn’t want to serve it at afternoon tea. Luckily my ingenious wife was able to turn it into a Bread Pudding that was gobbled up by an unsuspecting crowd of drunks at a Christmas party, a fate that awaits a gingerbread that suffered a similar indignity.

One fateful day many moons ago, I read about this new technique in Cook’s Illustrated called “brining”, and proceeded to brine my chicken for 10 hours in a solution of 1 cup sugar and ten cups salt. I have never forgiven Cooks Illustrated for this, and for refusing to print any of my “Quick Tips”.

If I can leave you with one tip that will help you it is this hint I am taking from a poetry appreciation class I suffered through years and years ago:

Read the recipe aloud.

It will make more sense to you; your brain will remember the sound of your voice saying “Baaaaking Poooowder.” And if you hear yourself saying, “Brine chicken in ten cups of salt” you can stop the madness before it begins.

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