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Learning from Mistakes


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Those of us who cook and bake have all made mistakes . . . some more spectacular than others. Of course, in many cases, I find that I learn more from my mistakes than my successes. Some are "happy" mistakes that result in something wonderful and unanticipated. Others are sheer disasters but educational nonetheless.

Dorie -- Would you be willing to reveal some of your mistakes and what you learned from them.

So long and thanks for all the fish.
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I can't imagine anyone who has cooked or baked and not made mistakes -- and mistakes, as you said, are all part of the learning process. But it took me a long time to learn that I could learn from mistakes. Instead, when something went wrong, and it did so often, especially because I taught myself to bake and knew zip, zero, nothing when I started, I'd be frustrated, I'd blame myself and I'd be very, very discouraged. Ridiculous, I know -- but true. (Writing this, I realize that when I was frustrated, I was just being me -- it was exactly the same with me and high-school algebra!)

The most spectacular mistake I made was burning down my parents kitchen when I was 13. The second most spectacular mistake was trying to make pumpernickel bread and producing a regulation-size hockey puck instead! And the time I tried to get a bunch of dishes ready at the same time and ended up with a tough steak that has since been referred to as "London bake' ...

And then there was the knish dough. I had seen my mother-in-law make knishes and I wanted to make a batch myself. She gave me the recipe and told me that, if the dough was stiff, I should add more oil; if it was loose, I should add more flour. At 2 am that morning, I was still in the kitchen, adding more oil, then adding more flour, and watching the dough reach proportions rivaling Mt. Everest.

I never made knishes -- that night or ever. Nor did I learn the lesson that night that I should have: there comes a moment when it's best to give up and start from scratch again.

I'm a born tinkerer and I never want to toss things out, but sometimes it's all that can be done. I can remember my husband, Michael, coming into the kitchen one night, seeing me trying to ressurect a batter that had clearly gone very wrong, and saying to me, "Ditch it! Just chalk it up to the cost of learning."

I guess if I had been a poker player I would have known this -- it must be the same as the learn-when-to-fold-them rule.

Of course, there are also the joys. In Baking, there's a recipe for Fluted Polenta and Ricotta Cake, and in the headnote I relate how everything might have gone wrong with the recipe -- but didn't. I had found a recipe in a booklet that came with a French magazine and I wanted to try it, but as I was reading it through, it looked like it was doomed. There was no flour, no eggs and what looked like way too much polenta to me, so I started re-working it and ended up with a success. More often than not, restructuring on such a grand scale leads to disaster or, at best, an incremental improvement. I got lucky that day.

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I appreciate your sharing the above post. I still get frustrated when things don't work out as I had imagined they would. I think a lot of people find baking intimidating and give up on it after a couple of tries. It's nice to hear that you've been there with us!

As for the knishes - don't give up on them! There's nothing better then a fresh, home-baked knish. (There may even be a knish demo right here on eGullet to help you out :wink:!)

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About 6 months ago, I tried a new recipe for oatmeal cookies. The cookies weren't pretty; they came out flat and crisp. I usually do not like crispy cookies and the family didn't want to try them so without tasting them I took them to work for the staff. The staff loves to try my "experiments". Well, everyone went wild for them. I tasted one: they were delicately crisp and brown and tasted of caramel. So good!

The next day, a staff member told me she dreamt about my cookies last night and would I bake another batch.

Would you know, I made a mistake in one of the measurements when I baked the first batch. The second batch baked up like normal chewy oatmeal cookies and were okay. I tried different combinations of increasing one ingredient at a time but was never able to duplicate those wonderful cookies.... :laugh:

"A few days ago, I heard a doctor talking on television about the dangers of stress. It can kill you. It can cause a heart attack or stroke. The doctor listed many ways of coping with stress. Exercise. Diet Yoga. Talk a walk. I yelled, "Bake cookies." I often talk to the television. I yelled it again and again. The doctor went on with his list of 12 ways to reduce stress and he never once mentioned my sure-fire treatment......"

Maida Heatter

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