My mother always told me never to serve a dish to others that you haven’t made at least once before. But really, who listens to their mother? I’ve been flouting that rule with success for years now, pulling off complex dishes at dinner parties from recipes discovered mere days earlier.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this behavior: hubris. A word derived from another classical language will figure prominently in this story as well: disaster, or literally something that is not in the stars.
I was supposed to bake something for an event. A friend gave me a family recipe, which went perfectly with the theme of the event. As with many family recipes, it was written somewhat cryptically. However, my friend had baked this very thing a few days before and invited me over to sample it. We had a nice long discussion about the oral history of recipes and how important it is to follow your elderly relatives around the kitchen with a measuring cup, pad and pencil to record these family heirlooms.
The day of the event was one of those when everything took longer than it should. Time just got away from me. I should have seen it slipping away but I was busy flouting the rules.
I called my friend when I was halfway through adding the flour and somehow things weren’t looking right. It turns out I had misunderstood the yield of the recipe; I thought I was making two baked items. The yield was for four. Ah well, I thought, I’ll just make something else out of the leftover dough tomorrow.
By the time I was done kneading (yes, this is yeast baking if you must know), it was much later than it should have been. I put the bowl of dough into the oven with the pilot light so it could rise.
It being one of those days, there was an errand that really could not wait. So off I ran while the dough rose.
When I got home, it was about an hour and a half before I had to leave for the event. The dough had only risen a little. I put it back in the oven with the pilot light, knowing from experience that sometimes it takes a bit of time to get going and it rises more quickly later.
I stood in the kitchen, coming to terms with the cold digital reality that I didn’t have enough time to make the fruit component of the dish from the lovely New York State apples I had purchased that morning. With a sense of creeping doom I considered my options.
The previous day, my friend and I had talked about the progression of family recipes through the generations. According to family lore, her great-grandmother had made the fruit part of this dish by hand from whatever fruit was in season. Her grandmother had used canned fruit filling. We both agreed that there was no shame in this. When these modern conveniences arrived on the scene housework was a lot more physical than it is now and women were thankful for one less thing to do as they hung the laundry on the line, kept the toddler from burning herself on the stove, and scolded the dog for digging up the garden again.
A light went on in my mind. If I used canned filling, I just might be able to get it baked in time for the event and it would be “authentic,” for some value of that overused word.
Leaving the finicky dough rising in the oven, I rushed out once more to the store to buy canned fruit pie filling.
When I got back I had about an hour of time left. I knew that I needed to bake for about 15-20 minutes and then cool for 15 minutes before I could leave the house. But, the dough was supposed to rise twice. There was no way I could allow it to do that. I had baked sweet yeast breads before (well, once). If I punched it down, then fitted the dough to the pan, added the fruit, and then allowed it to rise for another 15 minutes or so while the oven heated up, that would work, wouldn’t it? Come on, I reasoned, people like my friend’s grandma made these things all the time while doing six other things (see above). It must be pretty hard to screw up, and I’ve pulled off much more complicated dishes than this, right?
I pulled it out of the oven with about 15 minutes to spare. The edges were brown and lovely, but the apartment didn’t really fill with that fabulous baking, fruity aroma we all know so well. I briefly thought there might be something wrong, but shoved it to the back of my mind as I put the pan on the cooling rack.
In jacket and scarf, I put the still-warm pan on a piece of cardboard so I could carry it on the subway without burning myself and wrapped it all in aluminum foil.
Surrounded by rush hour commuters, I sat smugly on the uptown train thinking, “I’ll bet no one else’s dish will still be warm when it arrives at the event.”
Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.
When I unwrapped the item in the kitchen at the event site — and thank those gods mentioned above for that kitchen; more on that later — I discovered little blobs of what looked like butter had risen to the surface. I mentioned it to a colleague in the kitchen and she said, “well, you know what Julia Child used to say about butter…” and we laughed. Upon further examination, the blobs turned out to be pieces of uncooked dough that had risen to the top. I decided to cut a piece and make sure everything was alright. Well, that was the best thing I ever did. It was severely undercooked; beneath the fruit, the dough was slimy and wet. My colleague nodded gravely at the diagnosis.
My mind scrambling, I said, “I’ll put it in the oven and finish it off.” (Thank the gods for that kitchen!) My compatriots were very kind. Cooks everywhere know that sinking feeling when it all starts to go wrong, and so we try to help each other out.
In the main space, the event was beginning. I situated myself in the last row so I could nip off to the kitchen every once in a while and check the progress of the baking. By the end of the event, it was basically cooked. Warily, I put it out on the table with the other offerings, knowing from past experience that people stop at the food table both before and after these events. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the event had run long, and as soon as it was done, everyone rushed to clean up the food table and the kitchen and get out of there.
One person saw my dish and said, “Oh, I didn’t get to try any of that.” and I wryly replied, “That’s because it wasn’t cooked yet.”
Our story ends with me riding home in a mostly empty subway car, holding the same full pan and hoping its contents might be good enough to eat for breakfast. The very portrait of hubris.
I’ve got a whole bunch of dough in the fridge. This time, I’ll definitely let it rise twice — and I just might test it before I try serving it to others. Maybe.