a good run of bad luck in the kitchen

Have you made anything absolutely delicious lately? Can you please tell me about it? I’d like to live vicariously through your successes because I’m stuck in a vortex of mediocrity. Like, really stuck.

It started a couple of weeks ago when I set out to tinker with a blackberry cornbread. I’d been inspired by a dish at DC’s Iron Gate—a simple salad of corn, basil, and blackberries. I thought cornbread made with fresh corn would be an even better vehicle for the summer-y combination.

a defiantly uncoupled blackberry cornbread

a defiantly uncoupled blackberry cornbread

The result was so-so. The flavors didn’t marry, so one bite would be all cornbread and the next all blackberry, and never the twain did meet. I’d wanted the two flavors to play off of each other and become better than the individual tastes, but I didn’t get there.

No big deal, I thought. First attempts at new recipes are almost always imperfect.

A few days later, I turned my attention to a crisp. I had a pile of mealy apricots and figured to save them I’d have to cover them in a layer of buttery, crunchy sweetness. I was going to wing a recipe, but my whiff on the cornbread made me doubt myself, so I leaned on The Kitchn for guidance. After adding about a cup of wine berries to the apricots, I tossed the fruit with sugar, lemon juice, and cornstarch. I sprinkled the top with a stick-of-butter’s worth of flour-sugar-oat topping and stuck it in the oven.

a crisp that was simultaneously too tart and too bland

a crisp that was simultaneously too tart and too bland

It baked up with a toasty crust and a bubbling base of stunning coral-sauced fruit, but it didn’t taste like anything special. It was a bit too tart (I didn’t realize until I read this that apricots get more tart as they bake) and a bit too boring. It needed a splash of almond extract or another shake of cinnamon or a pinch of flaked coconut or something. The best part was the heaping side of vanilla ice cream.

I tried not to dwell on having two duds in a row. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re always trying new recipes. It had definitely happened to me before. Besides, aren’t most crisps ho-hum, anyway?

Undeterred by my two strikes, I loaded up on West Virginia peaches at the Saturday farmer’s market. I had peach cobbler on my mind. A few summers ago, I found The Perfect Cobbler recipe. The topping was lighter than a biscuit, but it had just enough cakeyness to sop up the sweet, gently spiced peach juice and support itself under a mound of ice cream. It’d been way too long since I baked up a batch and I was in the mood for a guaranteed winner.

someone else's idea of a peach cobbler

someone else’s idea of a peach cobbler

And then I couldn’t find the recipe. I could’ve sworn it was from Gourmet, but it wasn’t in my old magazines or on Epicurious. I searched my email — thinking I’d sent this gem to a friend. I looked through a few handwritten recipe cards. Nothing. I settled for a recipe online that maybe, possibly, could’ve been the right one. I had a sinking feeling.

As expected, the recipe was dead wrong. The cobbler was just okay. The topping was too dense and there weren’t enough peaches. My dad tried to tell me it was good, but I saw the truth in his bowl: the vanilla ice cream was gone and the cobbler remained.

After three flat recipes, I was getting itchy. I needed a softball, a cinch, a literal and figurative piece of cake. Manic feelings were creeping in and I wanted to shake the internet until it gave me something foolproof.

It was just one day after the cobbler, but I needed to make another dessert. I fixed my sight on the blueberries I’d bought with the peaches. I opened my browser, typed in “best blueberry,” and let Google take the wheel. It took me to AllRecipes.com and a “best blueberry buckle” that twenty-some reviewers loved. I read all of the comments. The upshot was that it was easy and delicious. That’s all I needed to see. I’d call it “Redemption Buckle.” I sifted, I folded, I tested with a toothpick. This cake was going to be wonderful. It looked perfect—packed with blueberries and topped with a flattened rubble of butter, flour, sugar, and cinnamon. I served myself a piece as soon as it cooled.

no redemption here

no redemption here

Not again. Yes, again. It was dry. Ordinary. Mediocre. We were running out of ice cream.

What now?

I turned off the oven. No more baking for a while. How about a savory recipe? I remembered a soup from The Washington Post — a cold, cream-less cucumber soup with only a few ingredients and a very simple technique. Aside from salt and pepper, the soup is made from cucumbers, white wine vinegar, and scallions. Too good to be true?

Definitely too good to be true. “It needs something,” my dad said. He suggested sherry. I added some. “Can’t taste the difference,” he said. I couldn’t either, so I added more. And more vinegar, more salt, a squirt of honey, and a pour of extra virgin olive oil, tasting all the way. Blandsville.

should've added a lot more stuff to that blender

should’ve added a lot more flavor to that blender

The soup is meant to be topped with a tomato-cucumber-scallion-basil salsa, but I was so defeated that I didn’t even bother. I wanted to hurl the bowl, the soup, the blender, and all of the dirty dishes across the room and fill the Post’s comment section with sassy vitriol. Instead, I cleaned up, poured myself a glass of wine, and let Dad make dinner. A day later, after the soup and I’d both had time to chill, the dish had developed more flavor, but it still tasted like gazpacho’s boring, pale green cousin. It was better, but certainly not good enough to recommend to my butter poached readers.

Being on the other side of these five mediocre recipes, I’m surprised to say I don’t feel like a mediocre cook. I made a few mistakes in technique and I made a couple of bad recipe choices, but I learned a lot, too (including the fact that Hershey’s makes a good pint of Creamy Vanilla). I have no intention of slowing down, though I do hope to get better results. Soon. I’ve flagged a handful of new recipes to try from blogs, cookbooks, and even those old Gourmets I searched. As soon as I restock the butter, I’ll be back at it.

But seriously, if you’ve found any rock solid recipes lately, let me know…!

PS – The title of this post is a riff on one of my favorite Clint Black songs, “Good Run of Bad Luck.” If you ask me, Clint’s high roller sounds a lot like a dogged food blogger, “I’ve been to the table, and I’ve lost it all before / I’m willin’ and able, always comin’ back for more.”

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2 thoughts on “a good run of bad luck in the kitchen

  1. This reminded me that I don’t think I told you about a failed baked oatmeal (meant to be an ideal breakfast on the go!) I made a few months back. Looked bad, tasted bad, all bad. I don’t think even vanilla ice cream could have saved it. Thanks for the push to try try again!

  2. Every cook goes through a boring slump of unexciting recipes and bland taste buds.
    Happens to me more than I like to admit. There is nothing more fun than really nailing a great dish !! Cheers to your next go around.

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