The menu for a Sunday afternoon gathering with some girlfriends was simple enough:

Butternut Squash Soup

Green Salad

Lobster Salad Sandwiches

Grape Focaccia

Hazelnut Cake

Stress free, right? Well, there are some days in the kitchen where you just can’t find your groove. Two spectacular failures come to mind: when I had to make a devil’s food cake three times because the first time I forgot the leavening agents and the second the sugar. And when I had to make angel food cake three times because I wasn’t whipping those finicky egg whites properly. Or I was on my period. Or something. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen and yesterday I must have been preoccupied with less mundane matters than my menu.

The first stumbling block presented itself at Wholefoods, where I couldn’t find lobster meat. What do you mean no lobster meat? I asked the fishmonger. You have $20 a pound bass but no lobster? I see how they are trying hard not to be perceived as too high market. I swiftly changed my plans and opted for salmon. Not too terrible.

At home, while sauteing perfectly cubed butternut squash (why did I bother with perfect cubes when the soup was going to be pureed? First ridiculous idea), I remembered the canned chipotles I opened a while ago and that seemed to reproduce themselves because they are still there, no matter how often I use them. So in they go with the chicken stock, with so little restraint that when I went to taste the soup I had to reach for water. Immediately. On the second spoon I am trying to convince myself it’s edible but, unless my friends’ mouths were upholstered with asbestos, there was no way they could get past the first spoonful.

The fiery soup

I let the soup sit overnight, tasted it again in the morning, cold and, despite liking my soups with no cream, I broke down and tempered it with some bland veggie stock and a healthy dose of cream. Still spicy, but now I could taste the squash behind the smokiness of the chipotle.

Because we were among friends and I felt some experimenting couldn’t hurt anybody, I picked a 16th century French recipe for hazelnut cake. I figured it could make for a good story when everybody would ooh and aah in between bites. The recipe was completely untested but I pride myself in being able to read a recipe and figure out at first glance if it is going to work. What was all that training for after all? While making it (essentially a genoise with hazelnuts) I had a sneaky suspicion the batter wasn’t enough to rise to cake proportion. A suspicion fully confirmed by the pancake sorry-looking thing that emerged from the oven.

There was technically nothing wrong with it and it tasted fine – it was just….sad.

Previously a cakeI had no time to start over and that is when the chef’s training came in handy. I cut the cake with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, whipped up a Prosecco sabayon (no Marsala to be found in this particular household) into which I folded the whipped cream left over from the soup and some dark chocolate chips. I spooned it in pretty bowls and stuck a hazelnut cake dressed as a cookie in it. I would have defied anybody to challenge it wasn’t born that way.

The grape focaccia cooperated – I still have my way with a dough – and the salad, well I couldn’t screw that up. All is well that ends well but next time I am staying clear of any French patisserie pre-Marie Antoinette.

Trouble free grape focaccia









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