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Kitchen Disasters

Last week I received a call from a friend who needed help with a cake. He had baked it in a heart-shaped aluminum pan for his wife’s birthday, and because he hadn’t sufficiently greased the pan, the cake came out in pieces. What was he to do? I asked whether his wife liked chocolate, and when he said she did I suggested that he glue the cake together with a simple frosting. After all, layer cakes have lots of frosting, on top and between layers, so why not have unexpected veins of frosting throughout a cake? He took my recipe for a delicious and sticky chocolate frosting and reported later the repair was a success and that the cake looked and tasted really great.

Food repair taken to the absurd

This incident reminded me of a sketch I saw on television some years ago with comedian John Candy playing a character dubbed Roy, the food repair man. He sat in an office at a desk with a ringing telephone and a constant stream of clients coming through the door seeking help for their food disasters. One needed broken taco shells put back together, another needed to clean up a slice of cinnamon toast that had been dropped butter-side down onto a dirty floor.

With his can-do attitude, Roy decides he will first freeze the toast with liquid nitrogen, then sandblast off the lint and other debris, then rebutter the toast to make it as good as new. But my favorite bit had a customer asking Roy to reattach the salt that had dropped off the pretzels the man had in a large bag. Roy patiently explains this would have to be done by hand and would take many hours at a cost of about $80 or $90.

“I’d go buy another bag of pretzels,” he tells his customer.

Julia Child shows us how it’s done

As it happens, real people, even famous people, suffer food disasters and don’t mind telling about them. Julia Child did television work not only for her own shows, but as a regular feature for TV’s “Good Morning America.” She would tape her spots, sometimes repeatedly, until the director was fully satisfied, then hand over the cooked dishes to the television crew for their enjoyment.

One day when she had done a show about roasting turkey, she thought she had wrapped for the day so the stagehands, as usual, immediately stampeded for the food and ate up half the turkey. It turned out, however, that the director wanted a beauty shot, so Julia propped up the bare side of the bird against a can and decorated the turkey with parsley, successfully primping it up for the camera.

As we know, Julia would have disasters on her own shows, especially the early ones when she made teaching moments out of a failed soufflé or a mishandled technique, such as the time when her flipped potato pancake landed outside of the pan and onto the stove. She showed us how to remedy the immediate situation and how to do better next time.

The ‘other’ turkey and broken brownies

The subject of food disasters comes up every year in my family at Thanksgiving when we tell our favorite Eleanor Roosevelt story, which may or may not be true, about the time a server bringing the Thanksgiving turkey to the Roosevelt’s table stumbled and dropped the bird to the floor. As the story goes, without missing a beat, Eleanor said, “That’s quite alright. Bring in the other turkey.”

The story has resonance for me because one year, while I was carrying the turkey to the dining room table, the bird slipped off the platter and fell to the floor. Everyone at the table, almost in unison, chanted, “That’s quite alright, bring in the other turkey.” I lifted the turkey from the floor, disappeared into the kitchen, put it on a larger platter, and reappeared to the laughter and cheers of my guests.

What all this tells me is how forgiving people can be about kitchen disasters. I was at a dinner recently with good friends, one of whom is a professional baker. He had brought along a pan of something mysteriously covered up in foil, which he uncovered at dessert time to reveal a pile of broken brownies, the shards sticking up in all directions. He explained that the pan had fallen to the floor shortly after coming out of the oven, breaking the brownies to pieces, but that he decided to bring them along anyway, calling the dish “earthquake brownies.”

Served with ice cream, the brownies were sensational, and everyone at that table was pleased that our friend had faith that we would appreciate his baking and be happy that he had brought the brownies along despite their unorthodox appearance.

The more we cook, the more likely it is that we will run into similar problems, but we must take inspiration from the likes of Child and my friend Greg Case, the baker, and soldier on with heads held high. After all, who among us has never faced a kitchen disaster?

Earthquake Brownies

Recipe by Greg Case —


5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
6 ounces (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon instant espresso or coffee
4 large eggs, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
8 ounces (2½ cups) walnut pieces (optional)


  1. Adjust oven rack to center shelf in oven and heat to 425 F.
  2. Grease a 10-by-13 inch baking pan. Line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper.
  3. Melt butter in sauce pan over medium heat, add the chocolate and reduce to lowest heat. Stirring occasionally until the chocolate is melted. Add the instant coffee and stir to dissolve. Set aside to cool.
  4. Meanwhile, in bowl of electric mixer at high speed, beat eggs and salt until foamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until mixture forms a ribbon when the beaters are raised, about 8 minutes.
  5. Add vanilla extract.
  6. On low speed, scrape the cooled chocolate mixture into the egg batter. Still using slow speed, add the flour and salt. Beat only enough to blend. Fold in the nuts if you are using them.
  7. Pour into prepared pan and spread evenly. Place in oven, lower oven temperature to 400 F. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out barely dry, 18 to 22 minutes. The toothpick should have some crumb stuck to it. It’s important not to over bake, so begin checking earlier.
  8. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack for 30 minutes. Cover pan with cooling rack or cookie sheet and invert brownies. Remove parchment. Cover with a cutting board or cookie sheet and invert again. Refrigerate at least 30 minute before cutting. Brownies last longer stored in the refrigerator but taste better at room temperature.


Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.

Photo: Earthquake brownies. Credit: Barbara Haber


Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.