There is a moment in any doomed baking experiment when the understanding that something is very wrong is overridden by naïve hope and willful ignorance that urges the baker relentlessly onward.
This is a state of recipe-induced delusion. This is the moment in the horror movie when you scream at the senseless character, "Don't go in that room!"
Needless to say, they go in anyway.
The 11 stages of a Baking or Cooking Tragedy
We can summarize the roadmap to recipe disaster as follows:
- Ignorance. Maybe you, gung-ho, chose a random web recipe without following this flowchart. You are a believer. You wear an apron.
- Panic at the first sign that something is wrong. Deep breath. Glass of water. Calming tunes.
- Delusion. Maybe this is how the batter is supposed to look. Followed, almost immediately, by: This is definitely not how the batter is supposed to look, but how big of a difference could it make anyway?
- Acceptance: There is just no way the broken sauce, or super-glue dough, or sputtering cake batter bubbling like lava at the bottom of the oven is not problematic. (At this point, if you're like me, you'll go back and forth between delusion and acceptance for hours on end.)
- Blame. First, the recipe (because it must be the recipe). Then, after a brief ego-check, yourself. Where did you mismeasure? What crazy substitutions did you make?
- Desperate course-correction. Ask the Hotline (mark your question as urgent!). Cross-check with other recipes for ratios and techniques (and realize that maybe you should have done that before you started...).
- Pleas and prayers to a higher power. Just a little divine intervention!
- Inconsolable grief or anger, with a strong desire to dump whatever you've made directly into the trash can.
- Resignation and an attempt to eat the thing—raw dough, disemboweled dumplings, scorched meat—anyway.
- Misguided hope (maybe someone will eat it? maybe it'll be okay tomorrow?) that causes you to package it into a Tupperware or baggie, where it will live until you're far enough removed from the pain to turn your head and dispose of it.
- Replacement. Pizza, ice cream, tacos—anything to fill the void.
It was this self-destructive chain of thought that led me to a baking disaster that ate up the large part of a weekend. No matter that every step that could go wrong did; no matter that I could've called it quits while there was still time to salvage my Saturday.
Yet sometimes, there is real value in fooling yourself into believing that the recipe just might succeed after all. This is my sort of sad, sort of stupid story. But at least there is a happy ending.
The Extended Tale
From the beginning, I was pressing my luck: A few days before, I had already had success baking my obsession of the hour: a sweet bun called concha ubiquitious in Mexico City bakeries. What looks like a roll with a simple crackly sugar topping is really a fragile union of two parts, with each concha consisting of an enriched dough base plus a shortbread-like cookie that balances on top and spreads as the bread rises in the oven. One snack for the work of two.
La concha de chocolate de @panaderiarosetta se ha tenido que venir conmigo junto con una de vainilla y un pan de pulque. 🍫🍫🍫🍫🍫🍫🍫 #food #foodtrip #foodie #instafood #foodlove #foodporn #yummy #delicious #mexico #mexfood #breakfast #desayuno #sunday #sunny #domingo #pan #conchas #bakery #must #rosetta #cdmx
My first attempt had been fruitful—buttery, barely sweet bread rolls with crisp, sugar tops that, while nowhere near as perfect as any in a Mexican bakery, were passable—but the whole process had also been a great pain in the neck.
And for the cookie top, I followed Rick Bayless' recipe, which, like many others, has you roll out each cookie individually. That meant that after shaping eighteen buns, I rolled out eighteen balls of cookie dough, each of which then had to be cut with a round cookie cutter due to my deplorable rolling skills.
After all that, the concha tasted good, but there had to be a smarter, faster way. (Here's where I should've quit while I was ahead; here's where I should've realized that there isn't a shortcut for everything.)
So I cheered when I found a recipe in a respected, well-tested cookbook: Instead of brioche, there was easier-to-mix, less-expensive-to-make challah; instead of rolling the cookies individually, the dough was rolled as a sheet, then stamped into circles. Imagine the ease! There could be concha every weekend of my future life.
The first problem arrived early on, when the dough didn't come together properly: Instead of a smooth, tacky dough, I had a mass so tough, heavy, and lumpy that the stand mixer was fighting a losing battle. When that dough didn't rise, I tried again the next day, this time with new yeast and a newfound determination to measure accurately and without any distractions. (Any recipe from a beloved book, I think, deserves a second chance.)
But still, the same unyielding, inflexible dough. Having not fully grasped the concept of the sunk cost fallacy in Econ 101 (that is: it's not rational to make decisions based on costs you've already incurred), I went forward anyway, figuring that if the dough had turned out like this twice, it had to be right. (Clearly I had also missed the lesson on logic.)
As the dough "rose," I mixed together the cookie dough, which, from the get-go, seemed like a huge volume of ingredients to top just twelve buns: The 3 1/2 cups bread flour, 14 tablespoons butter, and 2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar should have tipped me off. But no: Onward I went!
Only the cookie dough didn't come together either. When I rolled it out, only managing to fit half at a time on my work surface, it crumbled apart and into every crevice of my kitchen, even though I was working between two sheets of parchment paper as the recipe instructed.
I managed to cut out circles, but I had no idea how large to make them (the recipe said to use "a glass"), and was left with so much extra cookie dough that I will have the two residual logs in my freezer for perpetuity.
I then persuaded myself that the barely-risen dough mass was ready to be divided up and shaped into buns. As I corralled the leathery lumps of dough into round balls as best I could, I knew it wasn't right: When you've got good dough, you can feel it—supple, smooth, cooperative. Bad dough fights against you.
Still, I attempted to transfer the cookie cut-outs on top of each bun. This, it turned out, was like balancing a thin sheet of chocolate on a sharp rock. Perched atop the tiny, unrisen rolls, most of the cookies shattered immediately; those that stayed intact broke apart over the next hour, which was the dough's second "rise."
But after one hour, the dough balls hadn't puffed; even after two, their texture was nothing you'd describe as a "softer than firm balloons," as the recipe indicated. In the end, I balanced a half or a third of each cookie round on every still-shrunken dough ball, like some sort of Stonehenge parody (see example below) before shoving the baking sheets into the oven with my eyes closed.
Then, I prayed.
The concha came out of the oven looking gnarly—angry, tightly-wound balls of dough with cookies in weird places. Some had slid off during the baking process; others clung to the sides of the bun—liver spots.
And then, the deal-sealer: When I ripped open the first bun, it was raw inside. Same with the second and the third. I cannot utter the fate of those doughy, inedible concha (I can say that I picked off most of their cookie hats and ate those while hunched over my counter). But having known from the beginning that the concha were destined to flop—and turning a blind-eye to the failures (whether these were my own or the recipe's) at every step of the way—I was more resigned than upset.
I was supposed to bring the buns—impressive-looking and warm from the oven—to a dinner party. Instead, I bought two pints of ice cream at a drugstore around the corner. They were much tastier than anything I could have made.
The Happy Ending
You could say it was my stubborn will to succeed, even when all signs pointed to failure, that ultimately condemned me: Had I been smarter, less bullish, I might have have corrected course along the way (or thrown in the towel earlier, thereby sparing myself hours of labor over a cursed pursuit).
Or, you could say that my delusion made it possible to keep going (even if that was, uh, sort of dumb)?
But in the end, I learned something at least. The final recipe reverts to Alice's brioche and Bayless' cookie dough, but incorporates the smartest tip from the second recipe: to roll out the dough as a sheet rather than as individual balls. Sure, I might have thought of this myself, but what fun would that have been?
Give it a try. And if anything seems amiss along the way
just keep going send me an email before your concha veer too far off course.
For Alice Medrich's brioche:
- 3 cups (425 grams) bread flour
- 2 1/2 sticks (280 grams) cold, unsalted butter
- 1 envelope active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
- 1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon (70 grams) sugar
- 1/4 cup warm water (105° F to 115° F)
- 5 large eggs, cold
- 1 tablespoon plain yogurt or sour cream
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
For Rick Bayless' cookie tops and shaping:
- 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon or matcha
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 egg, beaten, for egg wash
How do you cope when a baking or cooking project has gone terribly wrong? Tell us in the comments below.