I've been baking at King Arthur Flour for nearly 30 years, and over that time I've seen our test kitchen morph from a single oven and about 8 square feet of counter space to multiples of everything, from ovens to mixers to bakers.
We've gone from those big, boxy Apple Macintosh computers (I mean, they made iMacs look sleekly modern) to whisper-thin, practically pocket-able laptops. Biggest of all, we've jumped the gulf from no internet (that's right, young'uns, there was no web in 1990) to — well, to our current love affair with all things virtual.
But during all those years, one thing has remained constant: we King Arthur Flour bakers make mistakes — just like most of you do. The difference is, we call them test results: "Oh, we meant for that cake to sink 3" in the middle so we could assess the hydration of the batter." Uh-huh.
And every time the cakes collapse, the biscuits burn, and the popovers poop out, we say — well, never mind what we say. It's probably similar to what you say.
Still, there's always a bright side when baking goes wrong. Soggy pies and crumbled cookies ultimately provoke good-natured ribbing and, in the end, chagrin-inspired smiles.
So in the spirit of sharing the pure joy of baking, I present our 12th annual April Fools' extravaganza of baking fails. Proving our test kitchen mantra once again: "We make the mistakes so you don't have to."
Let's start with ganache that goes smash.
Slippery bowl + inattention = WOW: ganache not only on the floor, but into the cutlery drawer, down the side of the cabinet, and splattered all over my clothes and shoes. It's amazing the messy reach of just 1/3 cup of warm ganache!
And then there's the egg that didn't quite hit the frying pan. Fellow King Arthur employee-owner Jonathan says, in his typical dry fashion, "This was certainly an unplanned situation."
Burned into memory
Have you ever put something into the oven and then, in the midst of your usual multitasking, smelled the oh-so-familiar acrid aroma of burning food? Of course you have. And of course we have, too.
Natasha, events and marketing coordinator at our flagship campus in Vermont, writes, "This is a pizza grill fail photo. It’s not the clearest, we were laughing too hard. We were making pizza for a girls' night, and an impromptu dance party caused us to severely burn it. The outside wasn’t as burnt, and still tasted pretty good – ha!"
This wood-fired pizza, on the other hand, was good from the inside out: out about halfway, at any rate, at which point it quickly turned to charcoal.
"Make sure the filling in your fruit pie is bubbling for at least 5 minutes before taking it out of the oven" — which is why you use parchment. In fact, I was able to peel the burned sugar mess off the parchment and use the paper again.
Does make me wonder, though, if there was any juice at all left in that apple pie.
Speaking of pie, we all love those baked pastry scraps, right? Sprinkle with cinnamon, put in the oven for 10 minutes. Or, in this case, an hour. And no, I promise, those aren't toasted worms!
These cinnamon rolls didn't rise. I decided to bake them anyway. I'm sure my subconscious was telling me, "They're no good, forget about 'em" — because I did. For about 2 hours.
My fellow blogger and recipe maven Kye is one of the most careful bakers I know. But sometimes even she falls prey to that deadly combination: multitasking, memory loss, and maple meringues.
What goes up ... sometimes comes down. Or occasionally never goes up at all. Ah, the vagaries of rising!
You carefully pull popovers out of the oven, admiring their absolutely perfect pop. One problem: they're clinging like barnacles to the pan. A gentle tug with your fingertips yields cement-like resistance. Sweeping a thin knife around the edge of each one is likewise ineffective.
So what do you do? Grip and rip! What the heck, they still taste good.
Here's some salt-rising bread that didn't get the memo. "Salt-rising" — what part of rising don't you understand? Says Laurie, a shift leader on our customer support team, "It smelled like a stinky locker room, too!"
This yeast loaf obediently did its thing in the oven, rising to great heights. And then, once it was turned out of its pan, it quietly settled into a more "comfortable" position. But all wasn't lost: the crows out in the yard loved it.
Oh, that rambunctious sourdough starter!
Martina, a member of our Bakers' Hotline team, says, "This is a photo of my from scratch sourdough starter that had a mind of its own on day 4. I had started the feeding and after just 2 hours it was nearing the top of the jar which normally holds this amount of starter no problem. I was concerned about the 6-8 hours more it had to go while I was gone for the afternoon so I placed it in the bowl.
"I was thankful that I did because the starter as you can see continued to grow and overflow the jar. After a cleaning and another feeding the starter stayed in the jar for every feeding!"
Jef, a business analyst on our flour sales team, says, "This flatbread was supposed to be a sourdough boule, but I accidentally mixed it with 100% hydration. I decided to just go with it to see what would happen. Flatbread happened. I ended up hollowing it out and making a sandwich."
Love it, Jef — looks like you've discovered a new formula for "hearty pita."
And then there was that chiffon cake that... well, what do you think was the issue here? It rose waaay up ... and then fell totally flat. Egg whites can only take you so far; I'm guessing someone neglected to add the flour. Key ingredient, that!
This is what happens when you make a filled Bundt cake but forget the baking powder. I don't know which was denser, me or the cake.
It's what's inside that counts
How do you know when your cake is done? What about quick bread? You stick a toothpick into the center, it comes out fairly clean and Bob's your uncle, right?
Um, not always.
"Things fall apart. The center cannot hold." Never more so than with underbaked banana bread.
Novel new approach: quick bread that automatically offloads its center so it's easier to test for doneness. Yup: no wet crumbs inside. Perfect!
Julie, a member of our marketing team, writes, "This was my brother’s (requested) birthday carrot cake. The cake tester came out clean, twice, but after the cake cooled, and I was frosting it the next day — I discovered the center was not baked at all, complete mush. So I scooped out the center ... Ta da! Crater cake or maybe a doughnut cake. It looked TERRIBLE! I know I added way too many extras (raisins, walnuts, pineapple, coconut) and not enough flour to support it, and it should have baked longer … Grrr, what a mess … But what was baked tasted great, according to my bro!"
Hey, so long as there's still enough left to stick a few candles in, right?
And in the end...
The cake you bake is equal to the mess you make. (My apologies to The Beatles.) Everything we bake in the test kitchen eventually makes its way to the employee kitchen where — success or failure — it disappears in record time.
I mean really, how can you ever go wrong with chocolate? I can only imagine the Friday afternoon feeding frenzy that left a perfectly good cake pan cake with whipped ganache looking like this.
There's the round peg in the square hole. And then there's the square pizza in the round pan. Why was this perfectly nice round pizza cut into squares? Only the perpetrator knows...
Bonus bungles: a dozen all-star disasters
Since this post marks a dozen years of shared kitchen faux-pas, it feels like a good time to go back through the best (worst?) from our pitfall-filled past.
So without further ado, here are my favorite fails.
2008-2009: How to (not) plan ahead
Sometimes the horn of plenty becomes the horn of too much.
2010: Sticky situations
Fellow blogger and Sift food editor Susan Reid tries to resurrect a baked pancake (left). But, like the busted brotform loaf on the right, sometimes redemption just isn't in the cards!
2011: Drip and rip
How crisp do you like your waffles? Just a little bit crisp? More tender than crisp? How about liquid? And as for these chocolate mini muffins: remember, beauty is only crust deep.
2012: That sinking feeling
You take the loaf out of the pan and set it on the cooling rack. Perfect! And then it starts to settle...
2013: Sometimes even parchment can't save you
I recall making this apple tart at our Baking School. I recall the hot pan slipping out of my hand. OF COURSE it landed upside down.
Did I mention how hot it can get in the test kitchen? There you are, iPhone in hand trying to take a picture and — wait! Stop!
And now you know why professional food photographers substitute shaving cream for whipped cream and mashed potatoes for ice cream.
2015: Bread gone wrong. Way wrong.
In 2015 we asked for reader submissions. Boy, did you come through! Starting at the upper left and traveling clockwise, here's what's happening:
Jenn: I guess it rose a little too much before going in the oven. LOL, at least I had the foresight to put it on a pan (I usually don’t)!
Katherine: We just knew we didn’t use enough flour, yet somehow we just tried to roll with it anyhow. This is supposed to be cinnamon swirl bread. Clearly, an epic fail!
Paula: I don’t even remember what happened, but it’s likely that I used the microwave as my “proof box” with hot water in the bowl… Lucy!
MJ: This is why we call it the test kitchen!
2016: Slow burn
These apple-cinnamon streusel muffins spent 3 hours in a 350°F oven. 'Nuf said.
2017: Slip sliding away
We all gazed, howling, as these chocolate cake layers ever so gradually slid sideways. It was like watching a slo-mo earthquake.
2018: 'Tis a mystery
This "creation" appeared on the counter in the test kitchen one day. No one ever 'fessed up to being the author of whatever recipe spawned it. My first thought is steamed pudding gone wrong, but that's probably the nicest thing you can say about its appearance.
I have to finish up with this cake from 2010, which I remember so well. Tender cake, warm ganache, peanut butter — what was I thinking? I skewered, I propped, I shored up and, in the end, gravity had its way.
I'm a casual cake baker, more "If it tastes good, who cares?" than "Oooohhh, isn't that BEAUTIFUL!" This cake is pure ugly duckling. But like the duckling who turns into a swan, Peanut Butter-Fudge Buckeye Cake, despite the enormous fail of this version, is about as delicious a cake as you could ever put on the dessert table.
Be sure to share your funniest baking fails in comments, below. I think my favorite story of all time is from the customer who wrote to tell about tossing pizza dough in the air and forgetting about the ceiling fan twirling overhead. I'll bet she's still finding bits of ossified dough around the kitchen!