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First off: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m glad you’re here. Today I want to talk about kitchen disasters.

Don’t get me wrong. I take pride in my skill in cooking. This skill was won only at a great cost in effort, and the fact that I ended up a good cook is the best evidence there is that cooking is in fact a skill and not some inborn talent. Like most folks who’ve had to learn to cook by attending the School of Hard Knocks, though, I’ve had my share of disasters.

Thankfully, my disaster didn't involve scraping glass shards up off the oven floor. (Credit: David Lounsbury, CC license.) I don't know exactly why this container shattered, but just as a PSA, don't put cold pyrex into a hot oven--let it rest a bit first, or else put it into the cold oven right when you turn it on.
Thankfully, my disaster didn’t involve scraping glass shards up off the oven floor. (Credit: David Lounsbury, CC license.) I don’t know exactly why this container shattered (it sounds like it just had some structural flaw or something), but just as a PSA, don’t put cold pyrex into a hot oven–let it rest a bit first, or else put it into the cold oven right when you turn it on.

I’ve set boiling pasta on fire. I’ve turned Cream of Wheat into a solid. I’ve discovered exactly why many toasters have a “pastry” setting. I almost set one house on fire by forgetting to turn off the heat under a skillet that had a plastic-handled knife resting on its edge. I’ve fermented bread dough into beer. I’ve had to learn the hard way why, if cooking something for 20 minutes on low is good, cooking the same thing for 10 minutes on high is not. But those mistakes taunt me from the far reaches of my checkered past. It’s been a damned long time before I had to confront a genuine catastrophe in my kitchen.

So the idea that I could have made such a rookie mistake as I made earlier still kind of sticks in my craw.

I have this one really delicious recipe for cornmeal-apple cake. I’d been hunting for it all week and finally found it hidden away on an old laptop. It’s a nice simple apple cake and is apparently some kind of Italian classic, but I like it for Thanksgiving because, well, it has apples in it, and also because it isn’t knock-you-off-your-ass sweet and has a nice texture for reheating later. I’ve made it several times and it’s always well-received.

This cake recipe requires a 9″ springform pan. Springform pans are traditionally used for cheesecake and their invention is commonly attributed to a company called Kaiser. They have detachable bottoms and sides, so when the cake is finished baking the baker can remove the pan from around the cake without dumping it out or damaging the cake otherwise. It’s an ingenious idea, though obviously there are some structural problems endemic to the pan type.

I broke my 9″ springform pan some time ago and haven’t ever gotten around to replacing it. But I did have a few very small springform pans laying around–they’re meant to make individual- or two-person-sized cheesecakes and they’re about 5″ across. See, that’s my thought process. Instead of thinking “Fine, I’ll just use a regular cake pan with a liner,” I thought “Fine, I’ll just divide up the batter among these three much smaller pans.”

(That sound you just heard was all the bakers in the audience cringing so hard their spines ricocheted into upper orbit.)

So that’s what I did. At least I was smart enough to put the filled springform pans onto a baking sheet just in case. I did think they were slightly overfilled, but I thought I’d end up with muffin tops at worst. I put them into the oven.

A few minutes later, after I had rescued a kitten from the flour bag he was trying to crawl into (WTF BUMBLE, NOOOOO), I checked on the cakes.

They had exploded.

I saw a mountain of golden-brown cake where those three cake pans had been. Cake Mountain had engulfed all of them. There was cake everywhere. The only saving grace was that I’d put the racks on the bottom shelves of the oven, so at least I wouldn’t be cleaning cake out of the oven itself. All of the cake was restricted to the baking sheet.

When I was excavating the cake pans, though, a strange thing happened.

I noticed that the cake I was carving away from the pans tasted delicious.

I stopped and thought a second, and then got out a large bowl and began to put the scraps of cake into the bowl.

We had the nice round apple cakes anyway, and now there’s a big bowl full of cake scraps ready to use later.

Because when life hands you exploded apple cake, sometimes you can use it to make trifle.

I reflected afterward that resilience is important–as is flexibility. Cake Mountain is going to go down in my personal history as a kitchen disaster of mine, but I’ll also remember with satisfaction that I could at least salvage that disaster with whipped cream. Not all such disasters can be salvaged–like in that photo above–but it’s really nice when it works out that way.

I’m thankful today that the rest of my Thanksgiving was great. We got snow, but not too much, and it’s nice to be home and cozy with my loved ones. The kittens lost their little minds over the turkey scraps they got (seriously: they turned into a liquid afterward, they were so drowsy and full and purring), and my vegetarian husband did full justice to a baked acorn squash with wild rice stuffing. We had dinner yesterday–to accommodate Mr. Captain’s quirky work schedule–so today was spent sleeping in and just relaxing and enjoying the company of family and kitties.

Just as Laura Ingalls once thought about Christmas, it does seem like the holidays get better every year around here. Wherever you are, I hope your day–however it was spent–was similarly restful and enjoyable. And if it wasn’t, then I hope the coming days are far better for you.

See you Tuesday.

And, uh, if I’ve put you in mind of a similar disaster you’ve had, then feel free to talk about it below – it’ll make me feel a little less stung by mine!

This is the recipe. Use a proper 9″ pan or at least way more smaller pans than I did. Don’t fill them by more than about halfway.

Cornmeal-Apple Cake

1/4 cup butter
3 cups peeled apples, cored, slice, about 3
1/2 cup raisins, optional
2 tb sugar
1 tsp cinnmon
3/4 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
4 eggs
1/3 cup dairy sour cream
1 tb milk
powdered sugar, optional

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease the bottom and sides of 9″ springform pan; set aside.
2. In large skillet, melt 1/4 cup butter. Add sliced apples and raisins (if using). Cook 8 minutes or until apples are tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Stir together 2 tb sugar and cinnamon; stir into apples. If you want you can set aside a few slices of cooked apple to use as a garnish.
3. In medium bowl stir together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In large mixing bowl, beat 3/4 cup butter for 30 seconds on med-high. Add 1 cup sugar and vanilla and combine. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add sour cream and milk; beat until combined. Fold in cornmeal mixture.
4. Pour 2/3 of the mixture into the prepared pan. Add the apple mixture, arranging neatly on top, and pour the rest over the apples.
5. Bake 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack for 20 minutes. Remove sides of pan and cool another 20 minutes.
6. Cut warm cake into wedges. Put each wedge on a small plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar and reserved apple slices, if using.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...