Figuring it Out as We Go Along

We could not have been luckier to find Ali, our current babysitter who comes twice a week in the afternoons while I attempt to piece together a freelance career. Beyond the fact that Ali has a clean driving record, always shows up on time, texts me with we’re-at-piano status updates all day long (no such thing as TMI in my house), and is generally great with the girls, she is from a family of professional educators and she herself is a student, getting her masters in special education. If homework hour with her at the helm is any indication, she is well on her way to graduating summa cum laude.

But here’s where my luck is ratcheted up to I-won-the-lottery levels: She is in her 20s and wants to learn how to cook! Well, at least I think she wants to learn how to cook. It’s also entirely possible that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with cooking and is merely humoring me because what choice does she have when her new employer  a) leaves the Jim Lahey pizza crust recipe for her to assemble on her first day of work b) gives her a box set of Barefoot Contessa cookbooks for a holiday gift and c) thrusts a Dinner: A Love Story galley in her backpack with the instructions that I need her feedback — good and bad — immediately.

Whether she wants to learn or not, she’s proving to be as good a student as she is a homework tutor. She mastered that life-changing Lahey crust on her first try. After the holiday she reported back with praise for Ina Garten, in particular the super simple zucchini with Parmesan recipe in Barefoot Contessa: Family Style. And — always the hallmark of a star student — she asks a lot of questions. Like: Is it OK to use parsley in guacamole instead of cilantro since they look so similar? (Not OK) Or: If I want to make sugar cookies, do I just leave out the chocolate chips in my chocolate chip cookie recipe? (No.) And, perhaps my favorite, the answer to which she figured out on her own: Is it OK if I use an American oven instead of a Dutch Oven called for in so many of the recipes in the DALS book?

I can write this without feeling mean because all of these questions are exactly the kind of questions I asked when I was her age, when I wouldn’t have ever been able to identify a Dutch Oven; when I bypassed recipes in my Silver Palate because they called for an exotic ingredient called chicken stock; When I went to Chanterelle in downtown Manhattan and almost ordered sweetbreads thinking they were some form of glazed pastries.

My Uncle Mike, a loyal reader of this blog (as well as a recipient of a 2011 Dolly Award), emailed Andy and me last week to tell us a story about how, back in the early 80s, when he was teaching himself how to cook, he decided to make a whole fish with coriander from his brand new Time-Life Middle Eastern cookbook. For a dinner party. “Of course, I had no idea that there was such a thing as fresh coriander/cilantro,” he wrote. “Not even sure I could have found it then, but the recipe called for a cup of coriander.  So I went out and bought three bottles of dried coriander leaves and used it on top of the fish while it cooked.”  No one at the dinner party commented.  “Maybe they didn’t know better, and since the fish was not skinned, you could kinda push the mass away with the skin, but still a frightening memory.”

I could hear stories about these frightening memories all day long, and in the interest of teaching Ali the most important lesson — that you can only learn how to cook by actually cooking, even if it means you feel lost or screw up every now and then — how about you guys share a few?

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GREAT idea! First let’s laugh at my husband, who used to think mayo was made out of cabbage.


When I was in college, I wanted to recreate my mother’s cream of cauliflower soup from memory. I remembered how delicious it was, and all you needed were onions, cauliflower, milk and cream, and some seasonings. I put all the RAW ingredients in a blender and then heated the pulpy mixture in a pot. Needless to say, it was horrible. The strength of the raw onions kept us from eating more than one bite. My boyfriend and I ordered pizza that night.


I wanted to make chocolate “bowls” for Easter. So I melted the chocolate and dipped inflated balloons in the chocolate. The idea being when it cooled, (upended in a glass) you pop the balloon and are left with the bowl.

Well. You should really wait until the chocolate is a little cooler. I had 4 bowls sitting on my counter, and the balloons popped without warning. All of them. The chocolate was too hot, and it splattered ALL over my kitchen. I was finding chocolate spots for years afterwards.


A bit like Uncle Mike, I found out the hard way that 1 tbsp peppercorns cannot be replaced by 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper. Not only will your chicken be an unsavoury (ha) shade of black, it will also cause your unflappable dinner partner + spouse to say, “I think this might be a little too spicy for me,” as he tries to discreetly remove coating. My notes in the cookbook’s margin say “surprisingly spicy; use less pepper next time” but have been mentally updated to include a distinction between peppercorns and ground pepper.


When I was 10 years old… my father and I decided to make oatmeal raisin cookies. We did not have butter in the house so my father figured we could use olive oil instead. The cookies (if you could call them that) actually melted off the pan and started a small grease fire in our oven. Good times.

I can not recall the name of the recipe… but I do know that it was some sort of pan seared slamon with a creme freche & herb sauce on top. When reaching for creme freche.. I grabbed cottage cheese instead. You would think I would have noticed the difference right then and there. Not so much. The fish was great but the sauce looked like some sort of disease.



Apparently, when my parents were first married (in 1969, when they were both in their early 20s) and learning how to cook together, they thought that a clove of garlic = a head of garlic. As garlic lovers, it wasn’t the overwhelming garlickyness of the recipes that put them off, so much as the frustration that recipes claiming minimal prep time hadn’t taken into account the work of peeling & mincing 1-2 heads of garlic!


Oh my gosh, can I babysit for your girls? Your babysitter is so lucky!

I love to cook, and so almost every night, but sometimes things just don’t work out according to plan. Take last night for example: I set out to make what seemed like a quick, even under 30 minutes, recipe from the Pioneer Woman for her Cajun Chicken Pasta. Everything was going well until I put the cream in my pan of chicken broth and white wine and reduced the heat and started stirring to allow it thicken – just like Ree said in her recipe. Except that my sauce didn’t thicken. At all. It stayed really really soupy. And now it was almost an hour I’d been at this recipe and we were hungry and I needed to leave to take the dog to obedience class. So, after the boyfriend looked with bewildered frustration/annoyance/amusement at my “soup,” I drained it, told him to consider it lightly sauced and headed out. While I’m still not exactly sure what went wrong, I’ve learned (again) a valuable lesson about time management and how you really shouldn’t try new things when you’re sort of in a rush. Oops.


Ali: Parchment paper will catch fire at high heat!

Parchment paper is one of my favorite “tools” in the kitchen now that I’ve mastered how to use it. It took some experimenting, to say the least!

I was making a fish recipe that called for a minute or two under the broiler in the end. I did not consider that my new found love, parchment paper, would catch fire, set off the smoke alarms, cause mass hysteria and make me swear off cooking fish in my kitchen for a long LONG time. (You know when you put newspaper into a fire and little bits of flaming paper fly about…. yes, that was what came out of my oven)

On the plus side the fish was amazing and we couldn’t even tell it had a little flambe there at the end. 🙂


I laughed out loud at the sweetbread comment. When my husband and I were about 22, we had his birthday dinner at Gramercy Tavern and he decided the only thing he would eat on the appetizer menu that was more interesting than a garden salad was the sweetbreads. Neither of us knew what that was, but I have a strict policy that I will not eat something that is unidentified unless I can be certian it is vegetable (as opposed to animal) in nature – that way, I may not like it but won’t be grossed out by what it is. Anyway, it came and he ate it, said it was good and asked if I wanted to try. It looked like chicken fingers, decidedly animal in nature, so I declined. We told people about it the next day and it turns out EVERYONE else knew what they were except us. This was roughly 13 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. And I still have not tried sweetbread and do not intend to 🙂


I made my first chocolate cake at the tender age of 10 years. The recipe called for ‘shortening’. Well, coming from a Mexican family in the barrio, the only shortening I knew about was lard…. The cake looked great but no one in my family got past one bite. Haha! Live and learn.

Adrienne @ How to Ice a Cake

One of the first times I made a cake, I was convinced there was nothing that could go wrong. I mean, I was using a boxed cake recipe. The directions are clear as crystal…right…
I made the mix like I was supposed to and breezed over the fact that I needed 3 round cake pans instead of the two I was using. A few minutes later, my kitchen smelled horrible and smoke was coming out of the oven. I opened it and found my cakes erupting like volcanoes into the bottom of my oven. I clumsily removed the pans, scooped out half the batter and let them finish cooking.
Not my proudest moment but I learned something none the less 😀


When I was about 9, I was making a cake with my mom, and the recipe said to “mix by hand.” I double-checked with her (“mom it says mix by hand” “yep, go ahead”), took a deep breath, and plunged my hand in to give it a true hand mixing! My mom thought this was so hilarious that she took a photo…

Jennifer @ Raisin Questions

I’ve had so many crazy mishaps in the kitchen while on this journey of learning to cook. Earlier this year, I tried making my first strawberry rhubarb jam using a “quick” freezer jam recipe that involved stirring a hot pectin mixture into the fruit. It turned out looking like bubblegum. I was massively disappointed, and I blogged about how bummed I was by this my first jamming experiment. Then my friend called me up and said, “That’s how it looks before you cook it. Maybe you should cook that jam.” Looking back, that advice is as obvious as the recipe was misleading for a first-time jammer. I’m glad I haven’t given up on learning how to can though because it’s true, I keep learning more along the way!


I loved reading all these comments! I don’t think that I have had any MAJOR kitchen mishaps. I learned to cook from my talented parents. However, a freind of mine made a Thanksgiving turkey last year and when the recipe called for covering it in white wine soaked cheesecloth, she rolled her eyes and used white wine vinegar instead. Uhg. To this day thinks it was a success and always tells me, “They are pretty much the same anyway!” My response? “Um…nope. No they are not…”

Mary Cooksalot

My sister did not know the difference between a clove of garlic and, you know, the whole head. Recipe called for four cloves. You could smell it cooking a block away. We had to fumigate her apartment. Surprisingly edible though.


Love the comment about hand mixing. That’s how my kids would probably like to mix all cakes.


I was maybe 12 and so proud to be making the pecan pie for the big Thanksgiving dinner. Not knowing any better, I substituted margarine for butter and the pie never set up. The top still looked gorgeous, but when we cut in, it was soup. We used it as an ice cream topping instead. All was not lost (only my pride).


When my now husband and I were dating, we decided to cook steaks one night at his place. I turned on the broiler nob and placed the steaks in the “broiler”. At my place, the broiler in my gas oven was on the bottom. After a few minutes and not hearing any sizzling or smelling anything, I opened the “broiler” to check. Looking back at me were 2 RAW steaks as they had been sitting in the storage drawer of an electric oven!


When I was housesitting for a co-worker back in the 90s, I was delighted to find a state-of-the-art kitchen in her home. Since the holidays were coming, I thought it’d be fun to try making homemade toffee for holiday gifts in that fancy kitchen.

Not only did I burn the sugar in her lovely Calphalon saucepan, but when I poured it into her never-been-used cookie sheet, it warped and quickly spilled burned sugar onto the stove top and all over her wooded floors.

I cleaned it all up and bought her new cookie sheets and a pan and have never, ever attempted to make toffee again.

Now, who do I have to speak with on getting a galley copy of the cookbook for “editing” purposes?!?!?!


As if Pasta Puttanesca isn’t salty enough…In my early twenties, I cooked it for a first-date. Rushing around the kitchen, I tossed the 3 TBS of salt that were intended for the pasta water into the sauce! Dis-gust-ing! This was definitley NOT the guy who married me.


Unfortunately I don’t have a very memorable kitchen flub up…however, I have burned enough garlic bread to feed a small country !


I can’t roast a whole chicken to save my life. I’ve tried high heat, I’ve tried low heat. Tried using a probe thermometer; it doesn’t matter–it will always be raw in the middle. The first meal I ever cooked for my now-husband was a roast chicken (the first I’d ever done). Yep–raw. I didn’t know then that it was a failing I would never overcome, and I was mortified. Now on the rare occasions I bring home a whole chicken, he jokes, “You’re not going to roast that, are you?” That would be NO. Oddly enough, I never have this problem with turkey.

Oh–and did you know that the bottles for corn syrup and white vinegar look remarkably similar? Fortunately the error is an easy one to smell…before one finishes making the pecan pie.


When we got our slow cooker, it included a little recipe book. The first one we tried was orange chicken, which called for a cannister of thawed OJ concentrate dumped on 10 pieces of raw chicken. So easy and yet, so gross. It tasted like ear wax. Too much information?


I decided to make peanut butter saucepan cookies. You know, the ones with peanut butter, corn syrup, sugar and cornflakes? I was a little bit short on corn syrup and figured that since molasses is also a liquid sweetener it would do in a pinch. They were so tough and sticky I was afraid that they would pull out a filling.


In high school, I attempted to make grilled BBQ chicken, not knowing that bone-in chicken pieces with skin, especially when coated in sweet sauce, need to be cooked over indirect heat. I set all the grill burners on medium, plunked on the chicken, closed the lid, and went about my business for a few minutes. Came back to find the entire grill ON FIRE!
I turned off the burners and poured some water on the remaining flames. Mom stepped in with the helpful indirect heat advice, and the meal was salvaged. Mom very nicely insisted it was the best BBQ chicken she’d ever had. So now, I know the secret to good BBQ – set it on fire first!


Oh, the mentor… I´ve never had one. I should have tried cooking with my mom while I still lived with my parents, but she really cooks as if she were a grand chef who doesn´t want her recipes stolen. No measures, no clear directions, “you just take a look at it and give or take”, which is impossible to repeat by someone else. I´ve spoiled far too much food trying to follow her instructions in vain. So… I left home without having a clue on how things work, you know? How water, oil and flour become dough, and how water, oil, flour and eggs become batter (I´ve figured that one out, at last). Vegetables are still quite mysterious, and I only know two ways to cook chicken and four for cow meat. I´m still clueless with any other stock, and thoroughly disgusted by organs or anything that comes from the sea.

I think I would be a much better cook if I had shared the kitchen with my mom. But I´ve been finding my way around cookbooks for a decade, and I´m happy to report that I´ve mastered a thing or two. Hopefully.


When making a chocolate cake in my early 20s, the recipe called for butternilk. I didn’t have any, so I just substituted the skim milk we had in the fridge. The cake was so dry- and we didn’t even have any milk to drink with it since I’d used it up in the recipe.


i love this post. when i moved into my first apartment in college, i decided i would learn to cook. my biggest failures have been when i’ve invited friends over for dinner, and always wanting to impress them with mad skills, tried to cook something i’d never made before or trying to cook too many complicated recipes for one meal. now, i’m married, and my husband always asks me before having guests over for dinner, “you’re not going to make anything too crazy, are you?”

i’ve also made squishy, gross textured eggplant a number of times and i originally thought that baking powder and baking soda were interchangeable. too much baking soda in any baked good is absolutely gross. i’ve made that mistake multiple times.


The American/Dutch oven question made me laugh out loud at my desk! My best learning moment – when I tried to make mashed potatoes in the food processor to “speed things up.” My husband (then boyfriend) smiled, said he thought it tasted interesting, and offered to run out to get a different side dish.


My first attempt at making a red velvet cake was a disaster. I was in a hurry, making the cake for Thanksgiving dessert. Instead of adding 1 tsp of vinegar, I added one cup. My husband knew something was wrong before I did. Luckily, no one had a chance to taste it. At least the cream cheese frosting was awesome!!!


I think tsp vs. tbls is what gives my husband & me problems most of the time. Twice we have misread tsp for tbls in recipes involving red pepper flakes…the results were tasty but almost too hot to eat.


When I was in my early 20s, I had been invited to a holiday party, and I said I would make an appetizer. I chose an onion dip, and since I did not have a food processor at the time, used a blender. About half way through I decided the sides needed to be scraped down, but did so while the blade was still running (what could be wrong with this time-saving method?). When I brought the spatula back up, most of the plastic had been chewed off – egads! Needless to say, I bought an appetizer at store.


the coriander story reminds me of my own. I was 11 years old and taking a home ec. class (yes, they had home ec. in the 80s). We made delicious cupcakes from scratch, and the frosting from scratch too! So that weekend I decided to recreate it from the copious notes I took the week prior. A family friend was coming over to visit. I had no idea what “confectioners sugar” was. I figured sugar was sugar and as long it was sweet we were good to go so I used what we had, which was granulated.

I had no idea why my frosting was not stiffening so stuck the frosted, melting cupcakes in the fridge. The family friend came over and we ate cold, crunchy cupcakes. She said a kind word about the cupcake and asked if I used granulated sugar and I told her I didn’t know and showed her. She chuckled and explained the difference.


Back in the olden days (early ’70s), I was attempting to make yeast bread for the first time. Had no idea what I was doing. The recipe must have said, “beat the dough….blah, blah.” I thought they meant with an old-fashioned egg beater. I think I actually ran out and bought one! Well, the egg beater OBVIOUSLY didn’t work – what a mess. I think my boyfriend (soon to be husband) suggested I use a wooden spoon. Did we even HAVE wooden spoons back then? The bread turned out ok.


Aw man! In a”creative” and “healthy” moment, I decided to use an awesomely purple cauliflower I bought at the neighborhood farmer’s market as a subsitute for (half) the potatoes in a potato/cauliflower mash. The outcome: delicious but ugly and gray. Mushy gray food… yum?

Jessica@ Stay at Home-ista

My worst flop was when I was in graduate school hosting a dinner party for my architecture studio of 12. I decided to make individual chocolate souffles, baking them in a water bath. Something went wrong along the way and they never set. I just scooped them into champagne flutes, topped with a raspberry each and called it chocolate mousse!


My most infamous kitchen “whoops” was while attempting to make rice. I had added olive oil to the water like the back of the box called for, presumably to prevent sticking. I walked away from the stove for a lot longer than I meant t. When I returned and took the lid off the pot, all the water had boiled away and the remaining olive oil caught on fire and sent up a fire ball that burned the front of my hair, my eyebrows and my eyelashes. The week before my senior prom. My eyelashes and eyebrows recovered. The front of my hair still has a weird cowlick. and now I buy my rice, microwavable from Trader Joe’s.


Can I tell one on my sister? She got into making yogurt a while back. She would mix up the starter and the milk and put it in a plastic yogurt tub, then set it in her oven which she’d turned on for a few minutes, and then off, and let the residual heat do its job.

One afternoon, when I was visiting, we smelt something bad, and I do mean bad!

She’d forgotten about the yogurt, and turned the oven to pre-heat for something else she was making. Hot sour milk and melted plastic – mmm, mmm, (not) good!


When I started to get into cooking, I happened to have a boss at the time who was a big cook. I specifically remember asking her what a dutch oven was because it was mentioned in so many recipes.
I was also often confused about the names of different cuts of meat. I mean, I could identify ground beef and cuts of chicken. Anything else and I would break into a cold sweat at the meat case.


When making homemade burnt caramel icing it’s best to use a giant pot. Otherwise when you add the burnt sugar to the milk/sugar mixture it will boil over leaving you standing in the kitchen with burnt caramel and sugar on your stove screaming “It’s not going to work!” while you scramble to find any bigger pot to pour the scalding hot icing in. It’s only once you do find a pot and get everything going again that you realize you broke the candy thermometer in the midst of all the insanity.


You are such a great writer, it is a pleasure to read about cooking and food while laughing!
Learn as you go is how I have prepared hundreds of terrible meals, only to be reward with dozens of spectacular dinners. The key is remembering the good ones 🙂


One year for Christmas I received the cookbook, The Gourmet Slow Cooker. After grinding the spices by hand one morning before work, I realized I was running really late. I asked my husband to add 2 cans of chiles in adobo (Recipe called for 2 chiles, not 2 cans). He asked if I was sure it was 2 cans. Irritated I snapped back, why do you always have to question me? Man was I sorry. The dinner was not even edible despite loads of sour cream and cheese. Rightly so, my husband will never let me forget that one…


When I was in 4th grade I decided that I was going to be the chef and make a big fancy dinner for my family . . . I went through my mom’s cookbooks and chose the ‘fanciest’ thing I could find, Chicken Cacciatore 🙂

It was all going well until the recipe called for 1.5 cups of chicken bouillon – and I added 1.5 cups worth of chicken bouillon cubes. I thought it was so stupid that they were individually packaged when you need so many cubes for just one recipe!


My sister and I engaged in a number of unsupervised baking experiments when we were kids. (Curiously, she was always the one to initiate them, although later, as we grew up, she lost much of her interest in baking and cooking, while I got really into it.)

One time we tried to make meringues, and for some reason when we put them in the oven, the individual pastries all melted into one giant meringue that filled the entire baking sheet from end to end and had to be scraped off…

Another time we wanted to cook something out of an international cookbook that my mom owned, and settled on donuts (this was a Russian translation of an East German cookbook, and the donuts were in the American cuisine section). These particular donuts were supposed to be baked, not fried. Anyway, we followed the recipe precisely, but left out the baking soda… Needless to say, the donuts came out completely flat and had the consistency of hardtack. My dad actually compared them to ceramic tiles. He ended up taking them to work, where he and his colleagues dipped them into daily their afternoon tea and slowly but surely worked through the entire batch.


When I was an undergraduate, I lived with my three best friends. We decided to pool our grocery money so we could learn to cook by each cooking something once a week. Needless to say, we each cooked up something hilariously terrible at least once. I remember I once made something with anise in it, without knowing what anise tasted like, and we all hated it. Another time a roommate made chicken cordon bleu and used colored toothpicks to hold it together. When it was done the colors has leaked onto the chicken where the toothpicks had been; tasted fine, but looked like confetti chicken – gross! Fortunately we all knew we were learning so we just laughed about our kitchen disasters.


Late to this comment game but reading my way through the archives. In high school, I took a cooking class and wanted to replicate a friend’s mint brownies. Asked the teacher to buy the ingredient list but she came back and said she couldn’t buy Creme de Menthe for a minor/student. I hadn’t realized it was alcohol-just thought Cream of Mint like Cream of Mushroom. She got me peppermint extract instead and not understanding that alcohol cooks off in recipes, I used the entire 3 T bottle in my brownies. Toothpasty brownies ensued, luckily a hungry senior student came in and ate the entire batch for me before my embarrassment was made known.


When my parents were visiting us in Colorado a couple of summers ago, we went up to the mountains for a relaxing weekend. I was really getting more and more into cooking and wanted to show them my favorite new recipes I had found. I made the chocolate pudding pie from Homesick Texan’s grandma’s recipe, something I have come to serve after bbq in the summer. My dad loves salt. He tried the pie first and didn’t say anything, I tried it and the meringue tasted like pure salt – my dad piped in that he thought the pie strangely tasted kind of salty! We laughed about it and later on, looking through the photos of the weekend, there is actually a photo of me mistakenly putting 5T of salt into the meringue instead of sugar, it’s hilarious.


I laughed out loud when I read this…..during my first solo cooking experience in college, I attempted to thaw a frozen chicken breast by putting it in the microwave…for seven minutes…on high power. It came out about the size of my thumb and looked like a chicken finger. It was awful! My mom still tells people this story.