My 17-year-old daughter cooked for the family last night. Earlier in the day she'd given me a list of ingredients to pick up for the meal she planned, but either I misread her list or I messed up on a few of the items. Rather than have me run back to the store to get the right ingredients, she decided to be creative and try substituting the wrong things I had bought. She was making a vegetarian dish mainly of grilled vegetables, and in this case the substitutions worked brilliantly. We all enjoyed the meal and complimented her on her originality.
I start out with that story to lay the groundwork for the story of the week before, that followed more or less the same script, but with a difference, as you will see if you stick with me to the end. Here's how it goes: Daughter decides to create a culinary treat for the family, but this time it's brownies, something she's often made before to universal acclaim. So she's mixing things in a bowl and has come to the part where she's supposed to add the eggs to the mix, but when she opens the fridge, she sees we have no eggs. The time is late in the evening -- too late to pop next door and borrow some from the neighbors. No one feels like driving to a 24-hour grocery store, either. But it's okay, she says -- she'll just Google up a recipe for no-egg brownies. And sure enough, with a few simple clicks on the keyboard, she's got her recipe, which she follows carefully, step by step. The familiar, delicious aroma of brownies baking fills the house; our mouths are watering with anticipation. The timer dings and she takes the brownies out. The 20 minute cooling time seems to drag on forever. At last the time comes for her to cut the solid panful into 12 square pieces for us to eat. She takes out the Teflon knife, draws it across the surface and presses down...and can't make so much as a dent. It's hard as concrete. She switches to a sharp bread knife, but that's no better. She thinks maybe the middle might be softer than the edges and tries to pull up a piece from the center with her fingers, but can't break off so much as a crumb. The only things in danger of breaking are her nails.
At this point she has to concede that the no-egg brownies are a flop and there's nothing to do but throw them out. She takes a spatula and attempts to dig down under the brownies to pry the whole sheetful up and dump it as a unit, but it's as if the brownies are welded to the bottom of the pan. Nothing gives. I suggest we put the brownie pan in the sink, fill it with hot water, and after it's been softened that way, dump it all down the disposal. We try that, but after 5 minutes of running hot water over it, it's still a solid un-budge-able mass. By this time it's after 11pm and we're done wrestling with it. We leave it soaking in the sink overnight.
The next morning we come down to the kitchen to deal with it once and for all. Now it's just barely soft enough for me to work the spatula against one side and get enough leverage to lift up the undivided mass of brownie. After much applied force, it finally rises up and away from the bottom of the pan as a single heavy slab. We're all doubled over with laughter at this point. I'm telling my daughter the best thing to do is to send that recipe to a manufacturer of industrial supplies; they could use it to create a new, ultra-strong building block that comes with its own super-bonding mortar!
I started with the good-substitutions story so that it's clear that I don't blame my daughter for the brownie fiasco (she is generally an excellent cook, and that's not just my opinion, nor is it even an in-the-family opinion). Nor did I want anyone to come away with the idea that I think substitutions are always bad. I'll let my daughter have the final word on the meaning of this episode: You make the best of what you have. Sometimes it works (vegetarian mixed grill, yes!) and sometimes it doesn't (unless you're trying to create your own ship's anchor from a brownie recipe). One needs to be fearless in the attempt...and have another dessert waiting in the back of the fridge.
Update to Wedding Gifts, Parts 1 and 2: My cousin's wedding in Texas last Saturday was beautiful, fun, moving, everything a wedding should be. But my solution to the present conundrum -- to send them an Amazon gift certificate -- which seemed so versatile and well suited to the situation (that is, after every single item on their registry had been purchased) proved to be less than perfect: The email never arrived! Fortunately, I had enclosed a note with our card to let her know to watch out for something from Amazon coming to her inbox, so she did not have to wonder whether I had simply decided not to give a gift. Once it was clear that it had vanished into cyberspace, I was able to have Amazon resend it, and the second time the email came through without a hitch. And the newlyweds are, as predicted, happy to have it.
Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on May 28, 2010.