Over lunch on Mother’s Day, my brother happened to mention a coconut cake recipe he’d seen online, and I responded exactly as you’d expect: by whipping out my cell phone—newly with Internet, which, by the way, in itself is a huge change for me, and you know how I do with change, so congratulate me on that—and trying to find it.
The cake was beautiful: a pristine, white, regal-looking thing, set atop a cake stand and topped with toasted, shredded coconut. It was the reason that, a few hours later, I beelined straight for the baking aisle’s coconut extract and grabbed this.
What I purchased—coconut flavor—wasn’t exactly extract, but it was the next closest thing, and the bottle said something about its being good for baking. So maybe that substitution explains the problem I wound up with later, when, making the frosting, I found butter + sugar + milk + coconut flavor = icing the color of gray. As in, the same shade as gravestones or, decaying flesh.
The cake tasted all right, albeit dry. It was the frosting that was the real problem—slightly grainy and never thick enough, changing textures while I covered the cake, from fluffy to very thin and not that far from soupy. It did taste like coconut, though, which I considered a small victory, but the color! The color! I didn’t have the heart to throw it away immediately, but I’ll let you guess where I’m headed as soon as I finish this post, barring, of course, any refrigerator miracle overnight. (Fingers crossed.)
Anyway, it got me thinking. In the kitchen, I know what failure feels like. I have done it—done it to death, you could say, embracing it with cupcakes and artichokes and an awful soup I still haven’t had the heart to tell you about—and I’ve always lived to see the next mornings.
So I go into cooking understanding that and knowing other people make mistakes, too—novice cooks and experienced chefs—because of any number of reasons, like, small details affect results or improvisations don’t turn out as planned or you reach for the flour when you meant to grab sugar. It’s no big deal. It happens.
In the rest of life, though, failure is scary. The thing to avoid. I have done it, of course—French papers in college; painful first dates; awful job interviews where, when asked what animal I’d be, I respond with swan, mumbling something about how they’re, you know, pretty? And I know other people fail, too, despite talent or skill or charisma.
But for some reason, in the kitchen, the failures don’t stick to me like they do everywhere else. If I burn cookies, and I have, I don’t see myself as The Girl Who Burns Cookies. Yet if I blurt out something awkward in front of someone new, I let that define me for a while. Why?
Why is it that failing with food is so much easier than failing with life? I wasted approximately two hours, a sink’s worth of dishes and a list of ingredients making this coconut cake, where disaster seems the most apt descriptor. And I’m not worried about it.
I think it’s because I know this: sometimes, I am a kitchen failure. But other times, I am not.
And maybe by accepting this, I learn the courage to step out, try something new, make a mistake and, embrace it.