From denial to acceptance: Adam Liaw on the five stages of a kitchen disaster

Adam Liaw
Is the cake really supposed to be that colour? Maybe it's just caramelised, right?
Is the cake really supposed to be that colour? Maybe it's just caramelised, right? Photo: Supplied

QUARANTINE COOKING

We've all been there. You've picked a recipe, rolled up your sleeves and told the family to prepare to have their socks knocked off.

You've done the shopping and tracked down all the right ingredients. You're the master of your kitchen and tonight you're going to show it who's boss.

You take a deep breath and dive in. But soon things aren't quite going according to plan …

Closeup view of burned gingerbread cookies Cooking disaster, burnt cookies
iStock

They're not burnt, they're just caramelised ... right? Photo: iStock

Denial

Is it really supposed to be that colour? Maybe it's just caramelised.

You only turned away for a second so you're sure it can't be burnt, so it probably just means more flavour. This is what it's all about. You're expanding your culinary horizons and experiencing new things. When you get out of your comfort zone you've got to expect things to be a little different.

Stop doubting yourself. It's going to be OK. In fact, it's going to be better than OK. It's going to be AMAZING!

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If you're not happy with your food, send it back ... but be polite.

Your enemy is this bloody recipe and the fool who wrote it. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Anger

It's not OK. And it's pretty much the opposite of amazing.

Which idiot wrote this recipe anyway? Sure, it's been tested multiple times by multiple people before making it to print, and there's literal photographic evidence right there in front of you that the recipe turned out when they did it, but it's still wrong.

And even if it wasn't the recipe it was the stupid stove. Actually, it was probably the bloody pan that you should've replaced ages ago. Now that you think about it the blame really lies with your partner who doesn't treat the pans properly, using a metal scourer even when you've told them a thousand times they shouldn't.

Your mind briefly skims over the many other disappointing personality traits your partner possesses that a less charitable person would consider entirely divorceable, but you don't really have time for that at the moment.

Your enemy is this bloody recipe and the fool who wrote it. Their smug face is staring at you from the front of the cookbook totally unrepentant for ruining your dinner and reputation. They'd better get ready for a sternly worded email because it's all their fault. After all, it's certainly not yours. You followed the recipe to the letter …  mostly.

You can probably just edit the email that's still in your drafts folder you never quite got around actually sending to Jamie Oliver. The one with the subject line "Fifteen Minutes, My Arse".

clos up  on Burned Gingerbread on wood table Bad cook, cooking disaster
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What would Poh do in this situation? Photo: iStock

Bargaining

But before you get to that, think this through. You can fix this. Wasn't there something about adding in a potato to absorb burnt flavours? Or was that for salt? It's a bit too salty anyway, the sauce is insipid and that burnt taste is still in there. It's all kind of a grey-pink colour and there's a gross sheen of oil on top as well.

What would Poh do in this situation? Stare into an oven probably, or try to make a cake in nine minutes. Neither of those are likely to get you where you need to go right now.

What about throwing in another tin of tomatoes or some garlic? You're not even sure what that would achieve but it can't really hurt, can it? It's too late to order delivery.

Depression

There it is. A too-salty, burnt-tasting, oil slick in a pot that stole a good whack of money out of your wallet and an hour and a half of your time, and now inexplicably there are bits of semi-raw garlic floating in it, too.

You're close to tears. The gap between the shining hero you thought you'd be and the failure of a cook who made whatever that is on your stove is wider than the Grand Canyon and twice as deep.

It's not even about the food anymore. It's about how you can't even do the most basic things when the instructions are right in front of you.

Cooking sucks and it's all too bloody hard. How is anyone expected to juggle work, family, friends, traffic jams, bushfires, deadly viruses and make fancy bloody stews on top of all that? You give up.

Marinated kipfler potato salad.

Keep an eagle eye on that sofrito. Photo: William Meppem

Acceptance

Your partner's saying that they don't mind it. It's different, but it's not terrible. It's nice of them to say, even though you know it's only 75 per cent of the truth.

With a bit of food in your belly you've had a change of perspective. You're no longer hangry and if you're fair on yourself, it honestly isn't terrible.

It wasn't exactly what you hoped it would be, but it's probably too much to expect to turn out a perfect dish the first time you make it.

Maybe you do have to keep an eagle eye on that sofrito to make sure it doesn't burn. Maybe reducing it a little more would give the sauce a better texture and stronger flavour.

One dish going wrong doesn't make you bad cook. If anything you're a better cook now than you were two hours ago. This is how you get better – trying, and failing, and trying again.

Your mind starts to run to all the different things you could do next time and cooking starts to feel just a little exciting again.

You know what they say about stews, anyway: they're always better the next day.