One of my oldest friends, Lily, who I have known since the tender old age of six, celebrates her birthday a week before mine. Unfortunately, this year, our schedules clashed repeatedly. We hadn’t seen each other for about six months (!!), and finally got together last week, hoping to eat some birthday cake. She is the kind of friend who I can ring up and blurt out “Hey how are you we haven’t seen each other in forever and I have this crazy cake in my imagination so we have to make it as our birthday cake Lily we have to make it!”
So we did! Or at least, we tried. Her relatives showed up and covered every level surface in the house with food (it was awesome, but we had nowhere to work!), a gaggle of young kids ran screaming around us, friendly pet dogs hovered nearby (expecting treats), people were yelling in various Asian languages (we project very well, okay?), we rummaged about to find baking equipment, and eventually, the kids started asking a hundred questions because they thought we were hosting a cooking show.
While some people might think of this as chaos, I always think it’s hilarious because my family is split up around the city and it’s nice to be around a big group sometimes, especially because Lily’s parents are so nice to me. Eventually, most of the kids and all of the adults went home, and the cake was popped into the oven. We thought we could finally relax, and then tragedy struck. Lily’s poor mum was washing dishes and cut her hand on a wine glass. I didn’t see it happen, but saw the resulting gash and it was pretty severe.
Everything went back to fast-forward in a matter of seconds and the kitchen was full of activity. People were yelling, two girls were threatening to throw up and/or pass out because they were squeamish (yet they kept looking), the dogs were running around because they could feel the panic, one kid was tugging on my arm to ask about where to recycle an egg carton that I handed to her, and I struggled a bit with a language barrier while trying to help stop the bleeding, keep the wound elevated, get another adult to grab the car keys, and leave instructions with someone to check the cake after we left to go to the hospital.
We waited for four hours in the hospital without reply from the cake watcher, while more important matters took place. I decided to lower my hopes and assume that the dessert was a loss, so that if it was anything better than garbage, there was something to be excited about that we could all eat the next day!
After arriving back (at 1 AM!), I hunted for the cake, eventually finding it in the (switched off) oven. It was hard, dry, and heavy, meaning that I probably measured or whipped incorrectly, and the oven didn’t help any, so I set to work trimming off the top, bottom, and sides, cubing the interior and setting it aside for a food experiment in the morning.
So we woke up bright and early, and noticed half the cake cubes were gone!
“You have to be kidding me!“ I thought sleepily. “This is the cake that wouldn’t die!”
Either the dogs learned how to hop on the table and gingerly pull off then replace saran wrap on a bowl, or someone must have thought the cake was up for grabs, which is all right, because their family has been feeding me for over a decade.
I searched for ingredients to play with, settling on a few eggs, a mango, and some glazed donuts that both Lily and I scoffed at. I whisked the eggs with a flavoured syrup that we planned to soak the cake with, cubed the mango and cut the donuts into large chunks, then soaked them and the cake in the eggs, stuffed everything into a buttered loaf pan and sprinkled sugar on top, covered the pan with foil first to let the food steam through and soften in the oven, then hit BROIL to crunchify the top.
The (uninterrupted) moment of truth came. After lengthy delays, we finally got to eat our “birthday cake” and the poor brick of flour tasted as good as it deserved to. It was moist, spongy, sweet, crunchy on the top, and beautiful! A different result than what we hoped for in the first place, but a worthy and satisfying breakfast contender.
The reason why I picked this story (other than trying to bring you a laugh) is because things go wrong in kitchens all the time. Surely you already know that. Food burns, last-minute changes get made, people injure themselves regularly, and yes, cakes can turn hard enough to smash windows in a hockey riot.
With that in mind, it’s important to be able to stay on your toes, prioritize, and most importantly, improvise, which someone only becomes good at with practice. You know how that English phrase goes? Keep calm and carry on!
It’s hard to do when under the gun, but any time s*** hits the fan, in and out of the culinary world, I try to assess the situation and think about a few key things:
- First of all, is anybody hurt?
- What can be fixed and how much time do I/we have?
- What tools or skills do I have that can help improve what’s happening?
Then get moving and take care of business. Unless it’s a hostage situation where I could literally be under a gun and the best option is not to move.
Another way to keep your spirits up when things become difficult is to think about ways in which it could be worse because it might make you laugh and not feel so bad.
- Lily’s mom’s finger could have been hurt a lot more (not laughable!)
- We could have sat even longer in the ER waiting room if an entire frat house had a handstand-on-a-keg contest gone awry (it was a Friday night, after all)
- Someone in the hospital could have sneezed on me (I would freak out)
- The cake could have been blackened in the oven and filled the house with smoke, meaning that we’d come back to a waiting group of firefighters
- The dogs could have eaten the whole bowl of cake, knocking a ton of stuff off the table and breaking dishes everywhere, requiring us to go to the animal hospital without having eaten breakfast
- I could have made the bread pudding and forgotten it in the oven (unlikely!)
Clearly, what happened that night wasn’t ideal, but at least none of the above possible instances were piled on top. These are some good problem-solving exercises that have helped me out of a few jams, and hopefully they can do the same for you, too.
As impractical as it may sound to some, preparing for and rehearsing worst-case/unexpected scenarios (and what to do) mentally will do a lot to tip scales in your favour when trying to troubleshoot and adapt. I’ve done it at Changes and for volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross and VPD, and it definitely works. You will be surprised when something comes up, and begin to recognize what your strong points are. If all of this craziness had happened 2 years ago, I probably would have been about to faint and hit the floor along with the other girls.
My brother Tarek, who is actually very good at theater improv and working in kitchens, has a saying that I think of when starting to feel tense. It goes, “If you didn’t wreck a car or raise the dead, everything is going to be fine.” He’s a smart one.