Coffee with Mimi: Baking disasters may not be all my fault

Published 3:56 pm Friday, August 21, 2020


Community columnist

Our family traditionally treats holiday and special event dinners as a sort of potluck affair. Some persons are assigned a particular dish as it may be their specialty. Others are given a general category and may choose any dish within that category. 

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As we have a rather large family, it is not at all in question that we will have a bountiful feast.

However, trying out a new recipe may be quite risky. One year I was given the task of providing the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. I thought a plain old pumpkin pie was just not festive enough and embarked on a search for something more “special.” 

I have forgotten the source of the recipe I chose which is due as much to the unfortunate product of my efforts as to the passage of years.

What could possibly have gone wrong? I’m fairly certain the original creator was world famous giving credence and legitimacy to the recipe. I can follow directions; I am almost a fanatic about checking and double checking each and every step. I am a reasonably competent cook by most standards; but this pumpkin pie was awful. Not just OK, it was awful. It looked awful and tasted awful.

In such situations, my family has no mercy. They may forget in the short term, but at some point, maybe years later, someone will recall the episode and there will be no defense. 

You may think I would learn to stick to the tried and true, but every so often in my misguided youth, I would experiment again. There was the (collapsed) bread Cornucopia, the floating (sinking) apple centerpiece, and so forth.

I have learned my lesson. My poor husband is now a guinea pig. Most recently, it was a Swiss chard tart.

I had a bunch of Swiss chard. I had all the required ingredients which, due to the “rustic” nature of the recipe, were common kitchen staples. The source of the recipe was a world famous authority on all things domestic. What could possibly go wrong?

It would be considered risky to question any part of a recipe as devised by such a world renowned and venerated culinary personage, especially for such an outside of the norm ingredient as Swiss chard, at least in my repertoire. The expectation would be to prepare the dish as specified and then fiddle with the recipe later once the basic concept was mastered. 

I can hear the conversation at the dinner table now as the guests ooh and ahh over each delightful mouthful. “This is absolutely wonderful.” “You could even add an extra layer of cheese, or substitute spinach for the chard.” “Or, you could leave it just as it is.”

True to my habit, I followed the proscribed procedure to the letter, with one exception. You probably think a complete and abject failure of the tart would then be all my fault. But, here I will tell you, the absolutely only edible part of the entire dish was the crust.

Now, sometimes crust can be a tricky element to work with. Just ask Paul Hollywood (of Great British Baking Show fame). One smidgen of a mistake at any point in the mixing, rolling, filling, and baking process of crust making and using and you are done. The crust must be perfectly thin, perfectly flaky, perfectly baked and the whole structure must retain its shape without support under the weight of four inches of dense, multi-layered filling. If a recipe calls for a particular crust, you should use it.

Well, I didn’t. I happened to have a partial package of phyllo dough in the fridge. Phyllo dough, being what it is, tends to dry out if not frozen or hermetically sealed to shield it from any tiny little whiff of air. “Well, why not?” I thought. So, I did. I brushed each tissue thin sheet of dough with melted butter and layered it in the pan overlapping the sheets as I went.

Then I prepared the chard and cheese fillings precisely as instructed. I layered the filling and cheese mixtures into the waiting crust imagining how pretty it would look when baked and sliced and sure it would be a savory delight for dinner with a nice side salad. 

I folded the edges of the phyllo sheets over top of the filling and brushed with a light egg and cream wash.

To be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable with the whole crust switching decision, but into the oven it went. The timer was set for the lower end of the suggested baking time. I took a peak. It was gorgeous. Any baker would have been proud to present it at a dinner table. 

There was a lovely shine to the flaky layers of perfectly baked dough on the top. The first slice revealed lovely layers of chard and melted cheeses and the bottom of the crust was just as it should be. The slice stood tall and neat on the plate.

It was absolutely awful. I refuse to take responsibility for the disaster. My substitute crust was perfect.