I like to say we learn most from mistakes. After all, rehearsing our mastery doesn’t stretch us, nor does it trigger the need to develop skill at pivoting. Taking a wrong turn is such a powerful creative force: Ooops! Time to improvise! As much as I like to be right, I must admit that being wrong has been far more instructive.
Like many of my political ilk, I’ve been enjoying Mitt Romney’s international gaffe tour. A friend and I recently watched the last four installments of “The Daily Show,” which treated them with appropriately microscopic ridicule. This compilation touches on several of the candidate’s touristic missteps; here’s the Al Jezeera version. The enjoyment in watching another’s misfortune—the Germans have that great word for it, Schadenfreude—is amplified if you want that person to be exposed as less than worthy, and everyone I know wants Romney to lose.
Not all mistakes are accidents, and not all accidents are mistakes. I’ve heard speculation that Romney’s insensitivity to international opinion plays well with voters who feel the rest of the world is out of step with American exceptionalism—in fact, that it is staged for that purpose.
I’m dubious, though. Romney seems incredibly relaxed while jamming his foot into his mouth on camera. When asked to comment on the state of Olympic preparations, Rommney answered with a man-to-man air, confidently displaying the professional judgment he’d earned as President and CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics. There was no sign—neither shadow nor microexpression—to suggest that his confidence had been disrupted by considering how his answer might be received by the host nation’s residents, no apparent evidence of calculation. If Romney weren’t so evasive in other ways (refusal to release tax returns being only one of many incidents of demurral, dissembling, and withholding of information), his evident confidence in his own judgment might be a positive factor. But in context, it suggests someone who isn’t troubled overmuch by mistakes, nor much inclined to learn from them.
That’s a quality Romney has in common with some other members of American royalty: being the zillionaire child of a corporate CEO-cum-elected official tends to insulate you from the consquences of your actions (George W. Bush, anyone?). Mistakes have a way of disappearing without your having to correct or atone for them.
In the world I came up in, you tried to fix your mistakes, because treating them cavalierly could be costly: if the cake you were baking cracked, my grandmother used to say, just patch it up, it will still taste the same. In the kitchen especially, there were all sorts of tricks to remove the evidence of error. If the soup was too salty, add a potato—it would absorb the excess salt and could always be fished out and eaten some other way. I’ve got dozens of them, so call me if you run into a culinary roadblock.
The kitchen is the best place to learn about accidents, as they loom remarkably large in the story of food. How do you suppose our forbears discovered beer, raised bread, butter? Speculation favors three accidents that were the opposite of mistakes: a starchy liquid that when left out bubbled and turned sweet; flatbread dough left sitting attracted wild yeast and rose when baked; and a milk-filled goatskin, rocked in transit, churned up the first butter.
We have to keep up our energy for the Surreal Season. So let me share two happy accidents, mistakes that turned into something delicious, and with them the hope that something good (i.e., defeat for the right) will come from Mitt Romney’s mistakes.
This recipe contains two variations on Maida Heatter’s excellent All-American Brownies. One is on purpose: a little cocoa substituted for some of the flour. The other was an accident caused by an inconvenient phone call: butter that is slightly browned rather than merely melted, giving the brownies a nutty, caramelized undertone. I usually make a big batch for a party: triple the recipe, make it in a large roasting pan, and trim the hard edges before you cut the cake into bars. I think the brownies taste better cold, which makes them firm and chewy. I even like them frozen.
1/4 pound (one stick) sweet butter, in pieces (plus a little more for greasing the pan)
2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1 scant cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/2 cup minus one heaping tablespoon sifted white flour
1 generous tablespoon cocoa powder
tiny pinch of salt
2/3 cup nuts (I like walnuts) in pea-sized pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch square pan with waxed paper or foil and butter it well. Place the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat, and stir until it just starts to caramelize—slightly brown, not burnt. Remove from heat and stir in the chocolate until just melted and smooth. Let cool for a couple of minutes, then add sugar and vanilla, stirring until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring until smooth after each addition. Add the flour, cocoa and salt, sifted together, stirring until smooth. Then stir in the nuts and turn into the prepared pan. Make the center a little lower then the sides, and when it bakes, the cake will be flat on top.
Bake for approximately 25 minutes, until a toothpick emerges barely clean from the center of the cake. It should still be slightly moist, not springy, in the center. Chill in the pan until the sides shrink and the cake feels firm, then invert the cake onto a board or platter and peel off the waxed paper or foil. Cut into twelve rectangles. Wrap them individually and keep them frozen if you are not going to eat them right away.
Note: The flour is a minor ingredient here. You can substitute gluten-free flour without losing quality. I’ve made them for Passover with matzo cake meal, and they’re just as good (but use a tiny bit less meal than flour, as it’s very absorbent).
All summer long, I practically live on fruit. I’m pretty good at picking flavorful specimens, but once in a while I miss. This week, it was a box of apricots with good color, texture, and scent, but more or less no flavor no matter how long I let them ripen. This treatment made them delicious. It will also work with underwhelming peaches or plums.
Fresh apricot halves
the juice and grated peel of a lemon
optional: ground cinnamon, ginger, or nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Melt a lump of butter in a baking dish just large enough to hold all the apricot halves. One by one, briefly run the cut sides through the butter, then arrange them in the pan, cut side up. Sprinkle sugar in each cavity: if the fruit is sour, use more; if it’s sweet but insipid, just a little. Sprinkle with lemon peel and juice. Place a few chopped nuts in each cavity. Roast until the apricots throw off a lot of juice, and baste them with the juice. Continue roasting until the juice has reduced to a thick syrup and the dish is getting brown around the edges. Serve hot, warm, or chilled, with something creamy if you wish (ice cream, creme fraiche, lightly sweetened sour cream or whipped cream). I had some leftovers for breakfast with Greek yogurt.
Depending on your mood and the fruit, you can try variations: mix a little almond extract or flavored liqueur into the lemon juice; use walnuts, filberts, almonds, or pistachios; add a few dried currants, cherries, or cranberries to the cavities.
It’s impossible to say how long this will take, because timing varies with the size, ripeness, and variety of fruit. But the halves won’t be swimming in juice for at least 20 minutes, and it is likely to take at least 10 minutes more for the juices to thicken. Just keep checking, and don’t be surprised if it takes longer than these estimates.
I just discovered the British group Nostalgia 77, and love this song, “Sleepwalker,” sung by Josa Peit. I don’t think she had Mitt Romney in mind, but you never know.
You’re not always born on the good foot
Can’t always open the right door
You walk with your eyes closed
You’re gonna hit the wall
Or fall into a hole
When you’re in that hole
Open your eyes
I actually had a cake that was (deliberately) made with browned butter a couple of months ago. And it was superb. It sounds like you reinvented a winner.