Failure is totally an option
March 10th, 2011
03:00 PM ET
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If photos and posts throughout the food blogosphere are to be taken at face value, every single household in the Western hemisphere is chowing down on porn-perfect Fluffy Ricotta Pancakes (made of course with leftover homemade lemon curd you had languishing in the fridge #duh #winning), Meyer Lemon Pizza with Goat Cheese and Bacon and Quadruple Chocolate Pistachio Cupcakes on the regular.

That's lovely for you. Can I come over? I'll even bring bourbon, 'cause I know even I won't screw that up.

I do muck things up in the kitchen pretty often. I'm an intuitive, fearless, and competent cook, but if you are looking to eat with your eyes, those peepers are gonna get peckish. The food I make tastes good (usually), but despite the glob of cash I piped into getting a visual arts MFA, pretty isn't generally on the menu.

I'm okay with that. My husband and I get home from work so late, we're both clawing the walls from hunger, and he likes his food screaming hot. Assembling a glamour plate and lighting it for maximum "ooooh!" allows precious seconds and degrees to dwindle. I'll take my tongue's delight over my eyes' any day - or at least late on a weeknight.

Weekends are a different animal. During the work week, my husband and I rotate through a few beloved, foolproof dishes, in addition to the inevitable taco, Chinese and Italian takeout. I'll spatchcock a chicken and roast it slathered with a paste of olive oil, salt, garlic, herbs, and half a lemon, rind and all, grill whatever looks good (and sustainably caught) from the fishmonger, and cycle through vast meadows and hoop houses of salads. He'll pan roast a couple of pork chops or saute some vegetable to toss atop pasta. Quick, cinchy, flavorful, gets us fed - but nothing to blog about, really.

Come Saturday, I've got time to get in trouble. Out tumble the dozens upon dozens of cookbooks, the pressure canner, the boning knife, the pig parts, the molds, the mandoline. The highs are spectacular - sumptuous pork rillettes, potted tongue, smoked cherries that rendered a loquacious chef pal wordless. The lows have been comical - a gristly calf's foot jelly from a recipe by Zero Mostel, an accidental substitution of cider vinegar for cider (two cups did kinda seem like a lot) in a root vegetable roast, and we probably oughtn't speak of the cola and walnut salad (for legal reasons).

The former make for rapturous bloggery, the latter for hilarity. So how about the stuff that's just fine, even after intensive preparation? It's kinda tasty, but not mind-blowing. It's a tad overdone. The mussels were gritty. The bread sorta rose, but was hardly cause for celebration. Not every meal is zOMG! or an #epicfail, and that's okay. As blogger and CNN colleague Rebecca Orchant puts it, "This is how we learn."

In a recent post, she laid bare the self recrimination she felt upon having made shoe leather of a sumptuous Mangalitsa pork chop. She'd fetishistically sourced every component of the meal, and it wasn't grand, but she didn't burn the house down and no one went hungry. It'll be better next time because of that - lesson learned because she'll let it be.

My grandmother, on the other hand, wouldn't accept failure. Not that everything had to be Betty Crocker picture perfect - rather that she simply wouldn't accept criticism. Her Italian immigrant parents has both died of influenza, and a German housekeeper taught her kitchen stolidity. She had a deal with my grandfather - also first-generation Italian, and ashamed of it. She'd cook foods she knew he liked and he was never to criticize what she served him - especially in front of the children. There's that old expression, "The proof is in the pudding." As I recall, my mother's pudding was from a box and had a nasty skin on top.

I take my lumps when they're coming to me - especially in something I've cooked and served to someone. Perhaps it's learned masochism from the aformentioned arts education, but I almost compulsively seek critique on my food. It's nothing I'd ever inflict if someone else is kind enough to cook for me, but when I've manned the burners, it's all, "It really could use just one of the star anise, right?" "Do you think I should have let that rest for five more minutes?" "Too much salt, right? RIGHT?!?" I am still able to find a great measure of enjoyment, and part of that comes from knowing how much better it'll taste the next time.

Homemade Bucatini with Tasso Carbonara

That's the unlovely mess pictured above. It tastes better than it looks, I promise, but I managed to overcook the pasta because I hadn't made hollow noodles before, and I skimped on the yolk and cream content of the sauce, because I'd like to live to see my 40th birthday. Still - it was pretty good. Tell me how to make it even better.

I ran 4 1/2 cups of 00 semolina flour and 5 eggs through my food processor until they formed a cohesive dough, then kneaded for five minutes until it was silky. Wrapped it, stuck it in the fridge for 30 minutes, then quartered and sent through the bucatini plate on my stand mixer.

Here's where I know I screwed up - I let the noodles get too long and mounded them on top of each other as I extruded them along the surface of a dinner plate I rotated beneath them. Next time I'll cut them shorter and not let them sit, so they don't have time to deflate.

I'll also pull them out of the salted, boiling water before the eight minute mark - maybe around six. And heck yes, I'm reserving the pasta water again. That stuff is starchy gold.


I diced around five ounces of Tasso ham that I'd brought back from New Orleans and cooked it in a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep skillet. That part went gangbusters, because well - it's Tasso, a deeply smoky, spiced ham that's a Caujn specialty. A diced shallot and two cloves of garlic (twice the recommended amount; I love garlic) followed the ham, but then I went off-book.

The recipe from which I was nominally working (it cited bacon rather than Tasso, but that's probably because they assumed you wouldn't just have a big ol' hunk of smoky pork hanging around) called for a cup of heavy cream. Sometimes, yes, but not that night. I subbed in 3/4 cup of 2% milk and 1/4 cup half-and-half, then stirred until it thickened a bit.

The noodles - the long, long noodles - then took a bath in the milky mixture, along with three tablespoons of the hot pasta water. I grated in some asiago, then skimped on the egg. Two yolks rather than four; I fully own my benevolent cowardice.

A smatter of salt, another flick of cheese - served. After having made my husband wait until nearly ten o'clock so I could noodle with fresh bucatini, I wasn't about to set up a schmancy shoot, so I snapped the crappy picture above and we tucked in.

It was good - really good, but I still know I could do better. I'll refine the pasta making. I won't half-step the fat. I'll set up the camera beforehand.

And feel free to come on over and eat with me. I may pepper you with questions, but at least the food will be at perfectly adequate.

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soundoff (34 Responses)
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  6. domenicacooks

    Just my 2 cents on where you went wrong with the pasta (you asked): You should not refrigerate the dough after kneading. It should be covered with a bowl, a towel or in plastic wrap and left on the countertop to relax for 30 minutes. I've never used an extruder like the one you describe but when I cut long noodles I toss them in a pile of semolina flour, or at least sprinkle them generously with it to prevent them from sticking. Another trick: put the pasta that you've cut in a semolina-dusted try in the freezer. This will keep it from deflating. I do this even if I'm cooking fresh pasta the same day. Then you can transfer it right from the freezer to the pot of boiling water. On the sauce: I've always made my carbonara with whole eggs rather than just yolks. Stir vigorously to prevent the eggs from curdling. Please, whatever you do, don't add flour to your carbonara sauce (sorry previous poster).

    March 22, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  7. Paul

    Please don't try so hard with the hashtags. We know you're leet – we read the column on teh interwebs, right? :-)

    That being said, dinner? Sure! When's good for you?

    March 11, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  8. Dianne

    Believe it or not, cream and butter are not the bugaboos that you've been led to believe. A small amount of each makes a dish much richer than any amount of low fat ingredients. The richness and mouth feel brought to the dish by using butter and cream make the dish outstanding.

    March 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  9. whiteblaze

    @ sam it is "i couldn't care less.....

    March 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  10. dragonwife

    I can fully relate to the time crunch on weekdays! My husband & I both work non-normal hours, opposite each other, so there's almost no time to make anything fancy on weekdays. I get home at 3:30, and he has to leave for work at 4:30, so for starters we eat super-early, and I have only about 1/2 hour at most to make dinner and still give him time to eat. But necessity is the mother of invention, and I can say I've come up with some pretty darn good improvisations over the years. I'm by no means a gourmet cook, and making my own pasta is beyond my limited time allotment, but with a well-stocked freezer and pantry I can manage food that everyone says is yummy. I figure, yeah, if I have time to make it look pretty, that's a bonus, but as long as it tastes good and can be made quickly, that's what counts.

    March 11, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • me

      @dragonwife – try a crock pot. While I don't have to deal with the same work schedule you do, I am gone 10-12 hours a day. I just toss everything into the crock pot, turn it on LOW, and have hubby turn it off when he gets home. Then when I'm home, dinner is ready, and all I have to do it plate it up.

      There are so many things you can do in the crock pot. I've made cakes, roasted meats, made pulled pork, stews, soups. casseroles....They are a life saver if you don't want pasta, eggs, or take out every night.

      March 11, 2011 at 11:01 am |
      • The Witty One@me

        I do the same! And it's cheap :) Good suggestion.

        March 11, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  11. Yum!

    As a mom of 7, rarely do any of my dishes qualify as "sexy", but I can promise they're functional, usually nutritious, and just about always delicious. In the 15 years I've been a mom I've only seriously flubbed 2 dishes, one involved so much salsa that not even the most sturdy of cast iron stomachs could handle it, and the other has gone down simply as "pumpkin and lentils? wtf were you thinking?"

    And with that, I'm off to nom on some homemade oatmeal and blueberry cookies – made with steel cut oats.

    March 11, 2011 at 1:27 am |
  12. T3chsupport

    On the sauce, (what I would have done anyway, not knowing what I'm doing!) with the ham simmering in some olive oil or vegetable oil (or if it's really fatty, just its own lard), put in a tablespoon or so of flour. I don't know the exact amount, I just eyeball it and go with a 1:1 ratio of a tablespoon of flour and one of whatever you're using as a fat (I use butter for just about everything). Don't let it brown, but make a bit of a paste with it as it simmers, and then start stirring in the milk, and then from there just do whatever to it while it thickens, it's a blank canvas. If you use heavy cream, you can use a pretty small amount of it, and as it thickens, stir in some sort of broth. It'll still keep getting thick if you do it in increments.

    March 10, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      Assuming that was a cream sauce you were after... I don't actually know anything about this dish other than 'noodles' and 'sauce'.

      March 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  13. Kate

    Too funny. This sounds like husband and I. We keep to a simple weekday menu but try new and more time consuming recipes on the weekend. My husband's grandma taught him many of her best recipes. My dad is first-generation Italian. My grandparents maintained a huge organic garden and my grandma as a fantastic cook. Every meal she made was superb.

    March 10, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  14. Stu-ster

    So yea that looks good. I'm hungrey now and still got 3 more hours of work......

    March 10, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  15. sue

    The saying isn't "the proof is in the pudding". It is "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". Just a pet peeve of mine.

    March 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • ObamaAlabamaSlamma

      Semantics. Logically one assumes that if the proof is in the pudding, then one must eat it to ascertain said proof. The only other option is to root around in pudding looking for physical proof. Just picture that.

      March 10, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
      • Sheriff Buford T. Justice

        I'm gonna BBQ your ass in Molasses!!!!!!!!!

        March 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • Truth

      You both must be a blast at parties...

      March 10, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
      • ObamaAlabamaSlamma

        Likewise. What's it like to be the guy at a party interrupting conversations with zingers like "HURR YOU GUYS ARE NERDS"?

        March 10, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
      • Truth

        Actually I have never had the experience. I am sure you are well acquainted though, so why not tell us all about it...

        March 10, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Sinister Sister

      Peeve shmeeve. Etymology nazi's are proof that some people have nothing better to post on a blog than tripe like you spew.

      March 10, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
      • sam

        for all intensive purposes i could care less

        March 11, 2011 at 2:52 am |
      • irony police

        "For all intents and purposes" – if you're going to be pedantic, at least get your own posts right.

        March 11, 2011 at 11:11 am |
      • facepalm


        March 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
      • Jerv@Irony police

        LMAO! Love your post.

        March 11, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  16. JBJingles@Donna

    You could add some spinach, that would make it healthy! :)

    March 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  17. Donna

    Um, I would STILL half-step the fat. That is a TON of saturated animal fat. Yuck.

    March 10, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  18. JBJingles@Kat

    Well, I for one think the picture looks pretty darn good, and I would eat that any day of the week! Thanks for sharing the recipe (sort of) and your experience of what can and does go wrong. Now you've made me want to make my own pasta...and I will be in trouble if I bring another piece of kitchen equipment home!!

    March 10, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Aw, see, my husband gave me the pasta attachment, so he can't so much complain.

      March 10, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • me

      I agree – That looks really yummy!

      March 11, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  19. Rebecca O.

    It is so amazing and hilarious that this post is about homemade pasta, because my kitchen flub just previous to those ill-fated pork chops was pappardelle that really never got further than the pasta sheeter.

    Thanks for the shout out! I'm glowing a bit and I don't think it's (just) the bacon fat.

    March 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
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