Trial and error

By Hyacinth Miles

My mother has always been a fantastic cook. She specializes in recipes that have a reputation for difficulty, a good soufflé, for instance, or a good crème Brule. She is one of the few people I know who can weave pie crust into a lattice pattern, like the kind on the top of ceramic dishes that are supposed to look like sinisterly shiny pies (and which I never understood the point of).

But since she is always trying new things, she has the odd failure. In fact, she has almost as much of a reputation in the family for creating strange new dishes out of her cooking mishaps, almost as for her cooking in general. These dishes are best described as obscure British desserts that no one has any basis for comparison for in the first place. The fruit pudding cake that didn’t go so well became trifle, for instance.

But many of these transformations are less urbane. The stunningly sweet and thin homemade strawberry preserves became a delicious ice cream syrup (that one lasted awhile, years at least). Incompliant tart became fruit shortcake.

The most notorious of these, from my perspective at any rate, was a try at making the traditional Christmas dessert, Buche de Noel, which she has subsequently become good at, but which, the first time she tried to make it, unhelpfully crumpled instead of rolling up into a neat log. Undeterred, my mother added some brandy to the mess, on the theory that alcohol makes everything better, and served it in little cordial glasses.

“I call this ‘dirt de Noel’.” She joked.

I didn’t speak French, nor did I have the slightest idea of what Buche de Noel was even if I did. I was only about 5 at the time. All I knew was that I thought the crumbled cake in the glass was good. I thought it was actually called dirt de Noel and for years I was irritated with the adults who laughed every time I begged Mom to make it.

Bread is something else my mother is good at, though she usually only makes it three times a year—for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. This year she made the dinner rolls for our Thanksgiving meal. Between picking up two children at the airport, cleaning the house for guests, and (for reasons passing understanding) re-wallpapering the guest bathroom, something went a little off with the recipe. The rolls turned out slightly hard and dry.

“It’s hardtack,” said Mom. “For a special treat I made you all hardtack for Thanksgiving.”

“How do you know?” asked my sister. “Have you ever eaten hardtack?”

“No,” Mom confessed. “But I’m sure they would be very similar to those rolls.
Personally I disagreed. Hardtack always looked like it would have more salt and baking soda in it than my mom’s rolls did.

“Well, there’s only one thing to do,” said my mom. “Try again.”

Which she did, not only new rolls, but a loaf of cinnamon bread. This is a recipe I can not recommend highly enough. n