Yesterday I posted my 50th recipe. That’s 50 things that I’ve made in the past seven weeks or so that have been triumphs: delicious, well-made, well thought-out, properly executed… I could go on, adding superlative after superlative, talking myself up. I was starting to believe I could make anything and it would be a success, I was starting to believe my own hype. Pride comes before a fall…
I am very selective about which television programmes I watch; there isn’t a great deal that I do like to watch, though I am a sucker for a well-made cooking programme. Watching top chefs go through their paces on a live show; watching a top chef cooking up an unlikely delight on a tropical beach with only a couple of breeze blocks, a bit of wire mesh and a propane canister to hand; or watching a top chef breeze through a tricky French classic without missing a beat – et voila! These are the rarefied heights that I guess anybody who takes pride in their cooking would like to reach: unshakeable confidence; easy concentration; pinpoint knife skills; a flawless and sophisticated palate; an encyclopaedic knowledge and, most importantly, error-free execution.
Except it isn’t really like that. You only have to watch professional cooking challenges such as Masterchef: The Professionals, The Great British Menu or Britain’s Best Bakery to realise that, like everybody else in any other profession, the experts do get it wrong. They mess dishes up, they run out of time, they spill things, drop things, forget to season things, season too much, forget to carry out an important piece of prep, they cut themselves, scald themselves, swear, panic, sweat and wobble. They’re just like us.
I have seen culinary geniuses get it spectacularly wrong when faced with the pressure of their peers, a TV crew and a tight deadline. I have seen professional chefs, who have made the same dish thousands of times, simply forget the most basic processes when faced with a challenge that they would laugh at in their own kitchens. I have seen extraordinarily gifted amateurs competing on Masterchef making the most rudimentary errors of judgement. These are people whose skills I admire and (not so) secretly envy.
But they get things wrong. I am just like them in that respect, I also get things wrong. Perhaps you wouldn’t think so; after all I spend my time writing about how delicious is the food that comes out of my kitchen. That is my role though; if I were to tell you that this dish was okay, or quite nice, or that I hadn’t quite nailed it and the recipe needed a bit of tweaking… well, why would you bother to read any more? If you are going to spend some time in your life reading about what you might like to cook then you have to be sure that what I write has been road-tested to death, tweaked and perfected, and that it can be made exactly as I say it can be made. I therefore choose not to share my disasters, failures, works-in-progress and basic errors. Well, until now.
I had spotted a recipe for a pasty with a creamy vegetable filling in a magazine. I liked the idea of making a pasty, it would be a first for me and I might be able to add another kind of pastry to my toolbox. I didn’t much fancy the filling though, I thought I could come up with something much more exciting and flavourful.
I made small dice of potato, carrot and butternut squash and roasted them in a hot oven until they were just starting to caramelise. I sauteed some red onion, yellow pepper, mushrooms and garlic, added some finely chopped fresh rosemary from the garden, a tablespoon of flour, then some single cream so I ended up with a thick creamy sauce into which I added the roasted vegetables. I seasoned it and left it to cool, while I made the pastry, a simple affair of flour, butter, vegetable shortening, mustard powder and cheddar. So far, so good; lots of individually delicious ingredients that all complement each other, cooked sympathetically to their strengths.
I made my pasties, had a little bit of trouble pinching them closed while keeping them looking neat but practice makes perfect and I will of course make them again, otherwise it was all good. The oven was hot, I glazed them with beaten egg, put them in, baked them for half an hour, made a lovely salad to go alongside them, wobbled out to the garden with plates and cutlery, a bottle of wine and some glasses, sat down and waited, smugly.
They came out of the oven looking good and the pastry smelled delicious. They looked good on the plate, I took a couple of photographs to blog later, cracked open the pastry and… couldn’t really smell very much. Hmmm, I had a taste and… not much. I had committed the cardinal and unforgivable sin of making something that was, well, alright.
My error was as terminal as it was basic: I hadn’t paid enough attention to my seasoning. My pasties were bland, there is nothing worse. I was embarrassed, apologising profusely to my wife – my greatest champion and severest critic, how else is one to improve unless you have someone who is prepared to be brutally honest. She has spent weeks and months saying this was delicious and that was divine, now she had no option but to say: sorry, it doesn’t taste of much.
So much for swaggering around (in my own head, not in the real world); so much for thinking I could cook anything. I had failed the most basic test, if this had been Masterchef or The Great British Bake-Off then I would have been going home. I was careless, distracted, not paying attention, dare I even say arrogant?
It’s not the end of the world of course. I shall cook again today and it will be delicious. I know it will because I got a kick in the seat of my pants yesterday; I was reminded that no matter how good you get at anything you always have to bring your best game, you always have to give it your all and you always have to think about things from every possible angle. That is, you have to do all that if you care, no matter what aspect of life you might be referring to.
I guarantee you that I will make mistakes in the next seven weeks, but they will be because I will be experimenting with and perfecting recipes. What I won’t do is get careless – until the next time I get careless, and then I will have to give myself a good talking to again.
I was taught to always finish on a high, and yesterday did have a gleaming bright spot at its centre: the pastry was absolutely delicious. I’ll work on a delicious, properly-seasoned filling, then I will share it with you.