Back when I was just out of college I worked in a fancy restaurant as a cook. Pretty much, I walked in one day and convinced the executive chef that he should hire me because I loved cooking and food and people and that I was reliable and fun. An impressive resume indeed for a 20-year-old.
“Have you ever worked in a kitchen before?” he asked me.
“None other than the ones at home,
But isn’t that where everyone starts anyhow?” I said confidently with a smile and he hired me right then and there. Maybe it was the confidence, maybe it was the smile, maybe it was the youthful exuberance for a profession I just wanted to learn… who knows, but I worked there one summer in college and the year I graduated. I learned a ton, not the least of which was how important the art of improvisation is in cooking and in life.
Recently, my youngest wanted to make a cake and he wanted to do it by himself. He selected a Lemon Angel Food Cake from Joanna Gaines’ first cookbook and I felt a little worried because learning how to whip egg whites into shiny, stiff white peaks isn’t exactly for the baking beginner. But he wanted me to let him do it so I peered over his shoulder here and there and we made it through egg white peaks. I think the folding in the sifted flour may have been a bit rough though but I held my breath and my tongue and let him do his thing. Batter in the pan, cake in the oven, timer set.
When the cake came out and I flipped it upside down on a wine bottle (as you do with angel food cake) I think the stirring over folding made its real appearance when the cake suddenly fell out of the pan and onto the counter in heavy chunks.
“We have had a mishap honey, but there is a solution to this…it’s called improvisation.”
Once when I worked at the fancy restaurant something happened with our dessert vendor and so somehow I convinced the chef to let me make a bunch of desserts. I went to making what I knew… pound cakes, chunky cookies, and my grandmother’s fudgy brownies. Somewhere in there though I decided to make a cream cheese pumpkin roll which I’d never done before.
A huge sheet of cake doesn’t just roll without some special treatment (which I didn’t know at the time) and so when I rolled the cake with all that yummy cream cheesy goodness slathered over it, the whole thing cracked and broke and looked like one heck of a mess. I mean, it was so ugly that I couldn’t imagine any restaurant would or should ever serve it as it was. But it was absolutely delicious. I mean it was lick-the-plate-and-still-want-more kind of good.
I put it into a bowl with a dollop of whipped cream on top and a mint leaf and served some to the chef. “What is it?” He asked me. “It’s Cream Cheese Pumpkin Ugly Cake,” I told him as if that was even a real thing. He ate 2 bites and told me to put it on the specials menu for the night: we sold out before dinner was even over.
When that cake fell on the counter and my son started to cry I told him if we put all the ingredients into a clear cup instead of pretty on a plate we could just make layers and call it a parfait.
“Life demands that we learn how to improvise,” I told him. So we put chunks of cake and our raspberry sauce and whipped cream into cut glass-looking plastic tumblers and he was so pleased he took some to a family next door and then we drove some down the street to his teacher.
She sent me a picture of an empty cup about 10 minutes later. And thus Lemon Angel Food Cake and Raspberry Compote Parfaits were born.
Because sometimes even a hot ugly mess on the counter can turn into a stroke of genius in the end that is worth replicating on purpose in the future.
Written by Logan Wolfram