the cake that was gray

frosting coconut cake

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.)

the cake that was gray

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.

the kind of cake you don't eat

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.


  1. says

    Isn’t that how you learn, by failure? And particularly in the kitchen? I heard a saying recently: “the sooner you fail, the sooner you learn.” Not sure if I embrace that wholeheartedly, but I still see kitchen disasters as learning experiences. And cheaper than a cooking class!
    Still, sorry to have contributed to your learning experience!

  2. Jennifer says

    “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?”

    That thought really resonated with me. I am definitely that way, and it helps to put it into words. Thanks! And sorry about your cake!

  3. says

    Love that thought! I’m the same way. I think most people start believing themselves bad cooks as a result of failures though – don’t you? I have so many people tell me “oh, I can’t bake muffins!” or cakes.. or cookies.. or I can’t cook! probably just because of a failure or two.. then they begin to believe it, and then of course they can’t cook! And when they do pull it off, they credit the recipe or think it was a fluke..

  4. says

    i think also because it’s an experiment without detrimental results. having a sinkful of dishes and having spent two hours in a place you love anyway, you aren’t hurt… no one is hurt from this supposed failure. and that’s why it’s easier to swallow. :) kitchen and cooking experiments as a whole are hilariously fun and no matter the results, the story afterwards is worth it, just like this story. i hope you made your brother come over to help with the dishes, because afterall, he was the one who introduced you to the recipe. :)

  5. says

    Funny — I totally take failures in the kitchen seriously. I’ve started to force myself to talk about them so that they don’t have so much power over me :) Silly, really.

    I’m thinking about that grey frosting… and I wonder if it has an application somewhere. That would make it a totally worthwhile.

  6. Vicki P says

    Iam the same way about being more comfortable with making mistakes in the kitchen but not anywhere else in life. I think it is b/c no one will judge you or point out your cooking mistake unless you are cooking for someone else and even then people are usually grateful they didn’t have to cook they (hopefully) won’t be too harsh. It’s not like you’d lose your job or a friend over a gray cake.

  7. says

    You have to make mistakes in order to learn. It’s not a detriment against you but just a reality and learning experience. don’t judge yourself too harshly just based on this. You tried something and it didn’t work out, so next time will be better. The color is quite surprising.

  8. says

    I love your site! I’ll look forward to trying some of these recipes in the near future :) It was wonderful to meet you and your parents this weekend. Thanks again for hosting Scott’s grandparents, it was a joy to them.

  9. Monique N says

    Grey frosting – hmmm. For a silver anniversary (25 years) cake?!

    Enjoyed meeting you and your parents and darling Bailey on Sunday. Thank you all for the tasty dinner and engaging conversation.

    Do you have any favorite recipes that are light & healthy for someone watching cholesterol levels?

  10. says

    For me it’s the opposite….I’m able to acknowledge my life’s mistakes, learn from them and move on but in the kitchen? They can keep me frozen in fear that I’ll mess up again.

    Bummer about the cake though I didn’t think the color looked like decaying flesh. :{

  11. says

    Loved reading all the comments on this. Seems like there are lots of differing perspectives on failure—what qualifies as one, how to avoid one, what justifies one. But I think the biggest thing I’m learning is that, a lot of times, what we were so afraid of failing in, if we do go ahead and fail in, turns out to be not so bad.

  12. Pat W says

    Thank you for the story of the gray cake and the things you learned from it. Marty and I enjoyed meeting you and staying with your folks. We had a great time and look forward to seeing all of you again one day!! Thank you for all your work Sunday afternoon and evening to make our family feel special.

    Your blog is great, the recipes helpful and your insights encouraging to all of us who sometimes are afraid to try new things.


  13. Pamela says

    I love that you came to this realization that failure in the kitchen doesn’t turn you into “the girl who burns cookies”. It makes me feel better about being awkward in situations, or not excelling as much as I thought I should in a certain career path – it’s just something that happens, and we move on. I guess it’s just easier to toss a tray of cookies and try again than to toss a career and start over…but it’s not unheard of, and it can be done!

    Thanks for the inspiration =)

    • says

      Hi Pamela, I have to tell you, I’m so glad you commented on this post just now because you got me to read through it again (and it’s been a few years!). I still need reminders that one kitchen failure (or other failure) doesn’t define me, and the memory of telling an interviewer I’d be a swan KILLS ME STILL. Thanks so much for stopping by and for being so encouraging.


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