Even when you write about food for a living, there remain certain culinary stumbling blocks, the dishes that—try as you might—you just never seem to get right. You attempt new techniques; you troubleshoot with friends. And still, your creation ends up looking more like a Nailed It! creation than the photo in the cookbook. In solidarity, we’ll share the recipes we individually just cannot seem to get right. Tell us yours in the comments, and maybe we can brainstorm solutions together.
What’s especially frustrating about my recent cream puff failures is that I’ve made this recipe successfully in the past. My mom always used the Silver Palate Cookbook recipe for profiteroles, and I’ve made them for winter parties in years past. This fall, I consulted the recipe again, following it to the letter, and could not make the dough work. On no fewer than four occasions, I made and remade the dough, trying all manner of stirring and heating variations to make it work. I asked my colleagues for help. I used different sized eggs. I stirred quickly, and then I stirred so long I thought I’d damaged my rotator cuff. Each time, the dough turned out overly runny, or the cream puffs deflated in the oven. There’s no joy left in these treats for me, so I’ll need to set them aside for a while. —Kate Bernot
Ice cream. All ice cream. Every time I make a batch, it’s as though the machine senses the fear and uncertainty hovering just above it, and fails to crystallize the mixture under the weight of my expectations. I’ve had my ice cream maker for 5 years, and every summer, I’m excited to try out new recipes. I give it a go five to 10 times per year, and I’m lucky if a single batch comes out actually looking, tasting, and feeling like ice cream. I’ve tried ordering a new freezer bowl when I thought mine was defective (thank you for honoring your warranty, Cuisinart); I tried switching to Jeni Britton Bauer’s method, which uses cream cheese and doesn’t require tempering egg yolks; I tried plunging the mixture in the biggest, coldest ice baths you could imagine. Most often, I’m left with cold soup. I have no idea what goes wrong 97% of the time, or more specifically, what goes right about 3% of the time. What keeps me coming back is not only the richer flavor of the homemade stuff, but the fact that even when a batch comes out looking like ice cream sludge, the components of ice cream are all still there to be enjoyed sans judgment in the privacy of my own home. I can call it a milkshake if I have to. — Marnie Shure
BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks is one of the best cookbooks I have ever read, and I will defend it to anybody. Parks’s brown butter chocolate chip cookie recipe is now my go-to. I credit her homemade Oreos with sparking at least two friendships. Her interpretation of the Twinkie is the platonic ideal of a Twinkie, not the debased thing you find in gas stations. The marshmallow meringue on the lemon meringue pie looked like it would be a true pain in the ass, but it puffed up beautifully and didn’t shrivel the slightest bit. But the one thing in that book that I’ve tried and can’t get right is the Wonder Bread. It’s supposed to be soft and fluffy like the Wonder Bread you buy at the store, but without the chemical flavor, and you’re supposed to be able to bake it in a single afternoon. But all three times I’ve attempted it, I’ve ended up with a solid, cream-colored brick. It makes me very sad, though because Parks is so brilliant, I accept all the blame for my failures. But this post has inspired me, and I might give it another go. I will not be defeated! — Aimee Levitt
I have not attempted to tackle my edible nemesis—pecan pralines—for over a decade. That is how much they have infuriated me. When I began teaching myself to cook, they were the first candy I tried to make, and I failed spectacularly. Sometimes I’d end up with a crystallized mess, sometimes it would be bits of burnt nuts floating in syrup. I became a woman obsessed, making pralines dozens upon dozens of times—pralines that tasted of butter, pecans, and shame.
In 2002, Alton Brown was teaching a class at a Sur La Table in Long Island to promote his first book. Because he was a relative nobody at the time, there were only about 10 people there, so it was easy to pepper him with questions from my praline-failure notebook. Every variable he quizzed me on, I’d tested. Every tip he gave me, I’d already attempted. He looked through my notes, with a look in his eye that told me he was either incredibly impressed or tremendously concerned, and said he, too, was stumped. He suggested I wait for a day that where the temperature was less than 65 degrees and the humidity was low. I asked him if that’s what it took to make pralines, why were they popular in Louisiana and Georgia. He told me I shouldn’t ask any more questions.
When that cool day finally came, I took the recipe he suggested and every piece of advice he had given me, and tried again. With Alton Brown whispering in my ear and my newfound sense of optimistic conviction, I made a batch of pralines that were exceptionally terrible.
At this point, I haven’t attempted pralines in 11 years. I suppose I should try making them again, but I shudder to think how my psyche will handle another defeat. No one would be able to save me, not even Alton Brown. —Allison Robicelli