Mastering My Mistakes with Dana Cowin of Food & Wine

by Grace Bonney

In an online world where all aspects of lifestyle culture can seem to be about achieving perfection, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see someone who is respected and established admit that they still have a few things to learn. Dana Cowin, the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, set out to write her first cookbook with that very theme in mind: mastering the mistakes she still made while cooking at home. Throughout the course of Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen, Dana learns to cook a wide range of recipes, from snacks and breakfast dishes to decadent desserts, and gets tips from some of the country’s top chefs along the way. And while I generally get excited about cookbooks this time of year (I seem to gravitate toward the kitchen when the weather gets colder), I’m especially excited about this one because I got to see parts of it come together in my own home.

Chapter 9 Desserts A131014 FW Making My Mistakes 2013
My wife Julia worked with Dana on this cookbook, helping to develop and test all sorts of delicious recipes. And while there were many that stood out to me, there was one that I still can’t stop thinking about: Pear + Brown Sugar Upside-Down Cake. Julia saved me a tiny sliver when she tested the recipe and I immediately requested (politely) that she make us another cake to have at home. So I was thrilled when Dana agreed to not only chat with me for an interview, but to share that recipe here today (both after the jump). Dana also kindly offered to give two lucky D*S readers a free copy of her book! All you need to do to enter the contest is share the story of YOUR biggest cooking mistake and how you learned to overcome it. Leave your story in the comment section below and we’ll pick two winners next week to receive a copy of Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen. I’m so excited to hear everyone’s stories (I’ll leave mine below, too). Thanks so much to Dana and everyone at Ecco for sharing this with us today! xo, grace

All photographs by John Kernick, styling by Susie Theodorou

Click through for Dana’s interview and her delicious Pear Cake recipe after the jump!

Design*Sponge: It’s so refreshing to see the editor of a major food publication admit that they struggle with recipes. What gave you the courage to focus on that issue for your cookbook?

Dana Cowin: I finally had enough confidence that sharing the truth wouldn’t make the readers lose faith in me, or the chefs think less of me. In fact, the response has been overwhelmingly warm and encouraging. Readers have told me they’ve benefitted from my mess-ups. And the chefs have recounted some of their epic mistakes in the kitchen and what they learned from them.

D*S: Did you grow up cooking at home? Do you cook now with your children? If so, what are their favorite things to make?

Dana Cowin: The only things I made at home growing up were popcorn and white rice. I perfected them and continue to make both for my family. My kids and I cook together all the time. My 14-year-old daughter challenges me to TV-style cook-offs. Our most recent one was pasta with tomatoes and eggplant. I made a rustic sauce, she made lasagna. She won for ingenuity (she pre-cooked the noodles in tomato broth). I’m guessing there are more cook-offs in my future. My son and I make gigantic batches of searingly hot salsa.

D*S: I felt so lucky to try a tiny bite here and there of some of these recipes while they were in development and the pear cake we’re running here today was my favorite. Did you end up having a favorite recipe among the list? If not, which 3 recipes from the book would you pair together for a perfect meal?

Dana Cowin: I definitely came away from the testing process with favorite recipes. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are the dishes that are hard to screw up, good for a crowd, easy to make ahead, not too expensive, great for kids and adults (as long as they aren’t vegetarians). They are: Korean Meatloaf, Baked Ziti Arrabbiata, and Chili of Forgiveness.

D*S: I love the wide range of chefs you consulted for expert tips, and how refreshingly simple some of their suggestions were (I love Josey Baker’s idea to put butter under peanut butter – delicious!). Were there any tips or suggestions from chefs that surprised you?

Dana Cowin: I loved working with the chefs and finding out their secrets, particularly when they were super simple. For example, the excellent baker Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery in Boston suggests putting crepe batter in the blender to ensure that there aren’t any lumps. And Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges in NYC insisted that home cooks should boil beets instead of roasting them. I’d always been told that you need to roast beets to intensify the flavor, but Jean-Georges explained it was faster to cook and easier to test for done-ness if you boil them. Radical!

D*S: So much of the food world these days, online and off, seems to be focused on perfection and finding not just the perfect recipe but the perfect photograph of that perfect recipe. How has embracing imperfection in the kitchen changed the way you look at food and cooking in general?

Dana Cowin: I’m sure I’m embracing imperfection. I’d like to be a whole lot more perfect myself. I’m hoping, though, to encourage people who think they are incompetent in the kitchen to give it another shot, to realize they can do better and it will be fun. I’m trying to erase the embarrassment that sometimes comes with kitchen mistakes and embrace the power of practice and learning.

D*S: I can’t imagine you have much free time in your schedule, but when you do, what’s your go-to snack or meal to make?

Dana Cowin: My go-to snack is a piece of aged Gouda and dried California apricots. And my fast meal is the chicken soup with shredded Parm, lemon and eggs from my book. It’s fast, pretty healthy and soothing. It’s actually the one recipe in the book that I learned from my husband.

D*S: Last but not least, what meal or food reminds you most of home?

Dana Cowin: Home is such a fascinating concept. When you ask that, I immediately flash to my childhood memories of eating fried chicken and apple pie at home with my family. But home is also the place or the feeling I’ve created with my husband and kids, in which case it would have to be soup. Chicken soup that’s different every time! We make it almost every weekend.

Chapter 9 Desserts A131014 FW Making My Mistakes 2013
Pear + Brown Sugar Upside-Down Cake (Excerpt from MASTERING MY MISTAKES IN THE KITCHEN by Dana Cowin)

Making caramel—heating water and sugar until you have a golden amber syrup—is a fundamental element of many desserts that I love, none of which I’m predisposed to replicate. I have made mistakes over and over again when I have tried to tackle caramel: I’ve overcooked it, I’ve undercooked it and I’ve ended up with gritty crystallized cooked sugar. Grace Parisi, Food & Wine’s longtime recipe goddess, solved the problem with a brilliant shortcut in her recipe for an upside-down apple cake. She got the flavor without actually making caramel by laying the fruit on top of a brown sugar and butter mixture; then she poured over the simple batter. I’ve adapted her method here with pears instead of apples. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to work around it.

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes + cooling
Makes 8 to 10 servings

1⁄2 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the pan

4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1⁄2 cup packed dark brown sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
2 ripe but firm pears, such as Bosc or Bartlett, peeled, cored and cut into thin wedges (about 1⁄3 inch thick)

2 large eggs
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1⁄3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
12 tablespoons (11⁄2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
11⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon whole milk
1⁄4 teaspoon almond extract

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with the 1⁄2 tablespoon butter and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper.

2. For the pears, using a rubber spatula, mash the butter with the dark brown sugar and salt in a large bowl until combined. Using your fingers, spread the mixture evenly in the prepared cake pan. Arrange the pear wedges in the pan in concentric circles (filling in any gaps as necessary with smaller pear wedges).

3. For the cake, whisk together the eggs, brown sugar, milk and extracts in the bowl you used for the butter mixture; whisk in the melted butter. Whisk the flour with the baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl, then whisk into the wet ingredients until the batter is just smooth. Scrape the batter over the pears and spread it in an even layer, without disturbing the pears.

4. Bake the cake until it is golden and springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool on a rack for 30 minutes.

5. Run a dinner knife around the inside of the pan to loosen the cake. Place a serving plate over the pan, carefully invert the cake onto the plate and remove the pan. Peel off the parchment paper. Let the cake cool completely.

6. For the glaze, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, milk and almond extract in a small bowl.

7. Drizzle the glaze over the cooled cake. Cut into wedges and serve.

Crème fraîche.

The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

From Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin. Copyright 2014 Dana Cowin. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Suggested For You


  • Why do you use baking powder and baking soda? What is the difference between kosher salt and ordinary salt apart from the religious background?

  • My biggest cooking mistake is usually timing! After many, many meals where dinner didn’t end up getting on the table until late in the evening, when “hanger” reared its head, I learned to keep it simple on weeknights. Just make simple, go-to meals that I’ve made before, nothing fancy. Get dinner on the table and into bellies. Lesson learned.

  • my biggest mistake early on was crowding my pan. I made so many meals with steamed rather than caramelized components! now, I always pick a big pan and make sure everything has space to cook–much tastier!

  • This book sounds wonderful! One unfortunate cooking mistake I made was when I was hosting one of my very first dinner parties in my tiny Brooklyn apartment. I had been gifted my mom’s amazing avocado green fondue pot from the 70’s and was ready to take it for a spin. After a glass or four of wine, I realized I didn’t have any cornstarch that the recipe called for, but I felt confident that baking powder was a totally legit substitute since they looked exactly the same. I was wrong. Upon adding said baking powder, the whole cheesy mass burbled and bubbled and sputtered and splattered. We all ate it anyway despite its definite metallic taste, but it was some time before I hosted a party again.

  • Forgetfulness is my biggest cooking hurdle to overcome. I am trying hard to break myself of the belief that once I’ve read a recipe, I have the ingredients memorized and can then hit the store and be sure that I’ve gotten every one, no exceptions. I used to constantly find myself ready to cook, with all my ingredients laid out and a definite time-frame and dinner plan, only to discover that I’ve managed to forget one of the main ingredients.
    I still struggle with this, but I’ve found that weekly meal planning and grocery list making on the weekend has helped to mitigate this. I’m not perfect, but getting better!

  • Using baking powder instead of baking soda in my buttermilk pancakes. You only make that mistake once as flat flat flat pancakes taste and look terrible.

  • My biggest mistake is timing the dishes right, especially sides. I get so obsessed with getting the main dish right that I forget about the sides and they tend to be cold when the main dish is ready. I have been using timers as reminders and so far it’s been a great positive change.

  • This cake sounds delicious – can’t wait to try it! My biggest mistake in the kitchen was putting a just-pulled-from-oven pyrex (with a berry coffe cake) directly on top of the stove top to cool. Luckily I wasn’t in the kitchen when about 5 minutes later it exploded and there were shards of glass (and coffee cake) all over the kitchen. Now I always properly cool things away from the oven/stove and on a wire rack!!

  • being a newlywed, that loves to cook, but frequently makes mistakes, i have made lots this past few years… undercooking meat (a big oops!), burning sauces, not getting everything *all together in time*. it’s been fun, but an adventure! and one that you can always learn and relearn from your mistakes. thanks for the give away!

  • I’m still a relatively novice cook, but my most mbarrassing food mistakes come from temperature issues. I was making blueberry pancakes from scratch one morning for my family and I was just so excited. Pancakes are relatively easy, but this was my first go at them. I just knew they were going to be delicious because I cooked them to a perfect golden brown color. Unfortunately, I cooked them on too high a temperature so the outsides were perfect, but the inside was completely undercooked. No harm done, but seeing the look of my family bite into undercooked pancakes is not something I want to relive!

  • My most common mistake was/is burning food on the stove in the quest of seared/carmelized/crispy goodness. I never used to account for the pan continuing to cook after the heat is turned off, so everything came out just a bit darker than ideal. I thought I had mastered it after a decade of cooking, but just the other night my sauteed onions became burnt, crispy onion dots by accident.

  • I live alone and two years ago, I was adjusting to cooking for one, I made a kitchen strata recipe. When I pulled it out of the oven I realized “OMG I am going to have to eat the entire 9*13 pan.” I had to eat it for lunch and dinner for 5 days. By the end of the week I was gagging and I had to throw the remainder away. Lesson learned: 1) don’t make a 9*13 pan unless you have someone to share it with and 2) if you live by yourself, you need 3-5 meals a week (not just one) and make dishes that can be frozen!! I still can’t eat kitchen strata…

  • That cake looks so delicious! I’m a HUGE fan of Food and Wine and never have a problem when I stick to the recipe. It’s that time I veered off on my own and used the wrong percent dark chocolate for a flourless chocolate cake that reinforced the need for me to stick to the recipe religiously. I brought the cake for dessert at a friend’s house. It was so miserably bitter that no one could finish it. As much as I have loved it in the past, I think that cake has bad juju for me now. The friends got divorced and I haven’t tried to make it again!

  • When I was about 14, I decided to help my working mom and make spaghetti sauce for my family. I often watched her put in a small amount of sugar into the tomatoes, so I figured, “a little sugar, good–a lot of sugar, better”. did I mention that this was a Bolognese sauce and I had added meat?
    My poor dad tried a little bit and then took us all to McDonald’s.

  • Hi Vera! What Maura said is a good indication of the difference between baking powder and baking soda. They’re both leavening agents that react to acid to help form carbon dioxide, the gas that helps baked goods rise. Baking soda needs something acidic (buttermilk or yogurt for example) to kick into gear and once it is in effect, it works really well and doesn’t leave an off-taste flavor the way baking powder sometimes can. It expires quickly though, so it’s important to make sure it’s within its sell-by-date. Baking powder is essentially just baking soda with acid already mixed into it so it’s guaranteed to work, but using too much of can leave a bit of a metallic taste. That’s why, in my opinion, it can be good to use a little of both instead of lots of one in recipes. A double hit of leavening to guarantee your cake rises! I use kosher salt in recipes since for a few reasons, none religious! It is coarser than table salt so it is easier to give an accurate measurement for it since it doesn’t clump the way table salt can (moisture in table salt can really skew your measurement). Kosher salt also has a really clean flavor. Lastly, you can really use it everything so you don’t need more than one type of salt in your pantry. Oh, and it’s really affordable! Hope that all helps.

  • My biggest cooking mistake was, as a child, while making a cake from a box mix. I misread the recipe calling for 1 1/4 cups of water as 11/4 cups. I think my mother rescued it by adding some flour and making the cake into bars…

  • Ok folks- when I graduated art school, I, like many of my compatriots, turned to the restaurant biz for paid work. I got a job as a line cook for a well-known restaurant in New Hope, PA. I was in charge of making the luncheon soup for the day. This particular morning, I decided on a cauliflower soup. I went into the walk-in firdge to ladle out the correct proportion of chicken stock and proceeded to make the soup.
    It went over well- no complaints, no one got sick. Which was astounding considering that the bucket of what I thought was chicken stock, was actually brine for feta cheese.
    I quit soon after and decided to keep my cooking skills to myself and a small circle of friends…..

  • My wackiest kitchen mistake was overfilling a cupcake tin and watching them all bubble up and overflow into the oven. My most common one is timing. I’m much better at cooking and baking than I used to be, but I can never coordinate everything in a meal to be finished cooking at the same time.

  • My biggest mistake growing up was believing the cookie yield on the bag of Tollhouse Chocolate Chips. Our mom would give us grief if we didn’t get close (seriously???? Teeny, tiny cookies!!!!) My sister and I started doubling the cookie batter and use one bag of chips, without telling her. She never complained again and didn’t realize we did that until we told her sometime during our college years :)

  • I have a bad habit of losing track of what I have on hand in the fridge. I should really plan my meals around that more. I just get excited about a new recipe I want to try, and I’m home with fresh ingredients before realizing I should probably have chosen something that would use up my wilting greens.

  • After trying to repeat my Mums recipes, and repeatedly failing, I finally learnt that dry spices in the spice box also have a use-by date!

  • I didn’t have a cake pan except spring form and I was making a pineapple upside down cake. Once I arranged the pineapple in the pan and poured the liquid I kept a close eye that the liquid wasn’t leaking! I though I had found success until I lifted the cake which was ready for the oven and it was a sticky mess concealed under the ridge of the springform pan. My amazing friend Michelle helped me scoop the liquid into a pan, clean the bottom and drain the rest of the juice. So we baked the cake as it was in the pan. And simmered the juice that had run off until it was ready to pour on top for a carmelized glaze! There were zero complaints at the table that night and the cake looked extra beautiful!

  • My biggest cooking mistake was my first and only attempt at making Macaroni and Cheese from scratch. The melted butter/flour/and warm milk mixture started smelling like a pie crust and never did taste right, no matter how much cheese I added. I have great plans to try this again, but haven’t yet found a solution

  • Many years ago, as a newly wed I decided to “invent ” a dish for dinner with new friends. I bought a “veal pocket” and stuffed it with rice, dates and probably some other yummies. When I proudly present this creation to my husband to carve, he looked at me with amazement. “Carve what?” He asked. The word “pocket” should have been the giveaway …there was possibly one portion there. I’m not sure what happened then, but the next time these friends caame for dinner there was a huge bowl of boeuf bourguinon and we are still friends after all the years.

  • While living in Mammoth Lakes, CA my boyfriend and I decided to make cookies for everyone for Christmas. We picked out violin and dove cookie cutters at the local hardware store, cranked the wood stove in our tiny cabin and set to work. After painstakingly rolling out 4 cookie sheets worth, we popped them in the oven. They smelled lovely! When cooled enough, we each tried one. We almost broke our teeth! They were hard as rocks. They didn’t even break when you dropped them on the floor. 80+ nasty cookies! We went back to the hardware store for a can of gold spray paint. Everyone got “ornaments” for Christmas that year… I still have one of each design I hang on my tree. NOTHING has eaten them in 23 years. Kinda gross, kinda cool. Who knew altitude mattered when baking?

  • I’ve had many small blunders and failed experiments, but by far my scariest cooking mistake was a fire. I was preheating oil in a wok and went to open a window, when I heard WHOOSH! I quickly put out the fire and though it did not spread my heart pounded for hours and there was a thick layer of soot to clean from the hood, stove, and even the CFL bulb. As a result, I learned about the smoke points of various oils (and always use a high smoke point oil in the wok) and never, ever leave a wok unattended. I will turn off the burner and place the wok in an unheated oven if I must leave the kitchen.

  • My biggest cooking issue is that I cannot melt chocolate to save my life. Not in a microwave. Not in a double boiler. Not at all. I ruined four bags of expensive white chocolate chips once trying to cover oreo cream cheese balls for holiday gifts. I decided right then to leave such things to the pros until I find someone who can teach me first hand. The holiday incident was five years ago and I am still waiting.

  • Flat chocolate chip cookies. When I started baking cookies I often made mistakes measuring my ingredients which resulted in flat, burnt cookies. That was years ago and I kept trying and am now a pro. Paying attention while baking is key because everything is so specific!

  • So, so many cooking mistakes – it’s hard to choose just one :) My most recent was a little saucy (har har):

    My sweet sister found out she was allergic to gluten just before her 30th birthday, and had some recent hard times to boot, so I wanted badly to find a GF substitute for her birthday favorite – strawberry cupcakes. I am NOT a baker, so it took me about 8 hours to make the dang things, cursing and sweating the entire time. They were tasty, but decidedly lacking in “strawberry flave”, as my partner put it. This was a test batch, and I didn’t have any icing for them, so I had the brilliant idea to cut a slit in the top of the cupcakes and push a slice of strawberry inside. Delicious! And, unfortunately, extremely “suggestive” looking. I had basically made little vagina cupcakes. After this was pointed out to me (by the confused/horrified coworkers I was testing the recipe on), I “retired” (ate) the remaining ones and put a LOT of frosting on the second batch…

  • The cake sounds and looks amazing, and what a treat it must have been to spend time with Dana! A couple of kitchen blunders that come to mind are simple ones – accidentally leaving bakeware inside the oven (where I store them when not in use) after turning the oven on, and adding minced garlic too soon to the pan and burning it.

  • Overcooking a gastrique, creating a slightly burnt, balsamic hard candy (when it should have been a sauce) would be near the top of my list. But in the spirit of the book, I’ll claim my frying technique: When I first started frying foods, I’d frequently start with too low a temperature, or too little oil (so the temperature would drop too much when the food was added). The result was grease-saturated and unappetizing. Over time, I’ve learned to use enough oil, and make sure it’s hot enough before doing each batch. Yum!

  • I’m a pretty good cook, but I have the worst time with consistency when I boil potatoes for mashed potatoes. One time we were throwing a dinner party and I completely destroyed the potatoes. They were disintegrating they were so overboiled, and when I mashed them, they looked like gruel. We happened to have some instant mashed potatoes on the shelf, so I added a couple of packets to thicken them up. My guests complimented me on how creamy they were. I didn’t tell them the truth till years later.

  • My biggest mistake was when I experimented making a lemon infused mashed potato. I figured we were eating fish so why not add the lemon to the mash. Lets say the only thing missing with the mash was a splash of gin!

  • Patience in the kitchen tests me every time. I have gotten so ahead of myself that I leave out crucial ingredients or steps or I eagerly over stir for a flat or gloopy result. I find when I do practice patience in the kitchen, I have a lit more fun too — which is as much why I love to cook as making food and feeding others.

  • Oooh, this recipe looks delicious!

    A mistake I used to make a lot is improperly rolling out pie dough. Whether it was rolling it too thin, keeping it too thick, handling it too much and having to re-roll it to the point where it got tough… it has taken a while to even slightly master the art of it! I also sometimes still forget to roll it out wide enough to leave a nice border to make a crimped edge. Anyway, the pie dough recipe I use is a family one and it’s fantastic – it uses butter-flavored Crisco instead of butter and some apple cider vinegar. Best pie dough ever!

  • when I was 12 I attempted to make tomato soup using ketchup and carrots, carrots were rock hard, brothers laughed at me, practice and patience taught me some basic soupmaking skills

  • A big mistake (ah not the only one of course) was baking a cake and leaving out the leavening. So after spending time and money on the ingredients the cake was flop. I learned to read, and read, and check that I have all the baking ingredients all ready to go.

  • This probably isn’t my worst cooking mistake, but it is definitely my messiest. Our last place was a small apartment in the Bay Area, CA. I was making a quick, short cut chicken mole (and by quick I mean it took 2.5 hours instead of all day!) and poured the softened chiles, cooked veggies, raisins, nuts, and stock into my food processor to puree. I turned on the food processor and the contents came up out of the seam around the lid, leaving a counter high streak of bright red slop across me, the kitchen walls, cabinets, the refrigerator, kitchen window – I even found some in the living room – basically everything in a 10 ft radius! Thinking the food processor lid wasn’t seated properly, I adjusted it and tried again. Same result!! I finally figured out that the cinnamon stick I forgot to remove was embedded on the blade making the puree jump up out of the bowl. Even after scrubbing, I had to touch up our kitchen walls with paint because the chiles left a faint stain. It was an incredibly messy reminder to be thoughtful, calm, and patient when cooking!

  • Oh, I am definitely making that cake!

    My worst, and most embarrassing mistake was using my knowledge of the color wheel to “brown” beef stroganoff. It was my turn to fix dinner for the residents of the scholarship house where I lived, and the stroganoff (a cheap hamburger mess in a skillet) looked kind of pasty instead of the warm brown I expected it to be – I found some food coloring in the cupboard, and dumped a mixture of dyes into the skillet that I theorized would create a rich, brown colored gravy. No one said a word, but it was a most unappetizing gray-green slop ever served at that table.

  • I forgot to add that I eventually discovered Kitchen Bouquet, a browning and flavoring short-cut. Many years passed before I tossed the Bouquet, and learned how to properly brown beef, caramelize onions and deglaze the browned bits with red wine.

  • Terrific cookbook idea!

    My greatest cooking challenge is going too fast. Often I get so excited to tackle a new recipe that suddenly it feels like a race to the finish! I’m rushing along until I realize I’ve forgotten to pick up an ingredient at the store, misread “teaspoon” for “tablespoon,” or glossed over the portion of the recipe where the dish has to chill overnight–and I expected to have it for dinner. To tackle this challenge I always make a handwritten grocery list, read the recipe from beginning to end OUTSIDE of the kitchen before getting started, and put on some down tempo music in the background to remind myself to take my time.

  • There have been many near disasters, but somehow I’ve snuck by and my friends think I’m a great cook, which I’ll take:) I grew up in a meat and potatoes family and have since “strayed” to being vegetarian most days because it’s easier. A few years back I gave veggie burgers a go from my favorite cookbook and ended up with something that’s texture and color resembled a cow pie. My brother kindly ate his whole burger, but I could only eat half before throwing it all out. I have since had several delicious ones made by others, so I know there’s hope and I’ll eventually get around to trying it again!

  • My first cake at 10 years old: I followed the recipe carefully but did not realize that I should use ground allspice instead of whole. Quite a surprise for my family. They were supportive and sweet and ate the cake anyway, so I guess I learned that most people are just happy if you cook for them and, like anything, you get better with practice.

  • The biggest mistake I probably made was the assumption that I could make a baked garlic head in the micro. I mean, why not? It cooks just about everything else, right? So I cut the top off, placed it in a glass custard cup, added a splash of olive oil and popped it in the microwave. The smoke and then the fire it started was the first clue there is no shortcut when oil is involved. I even managed to burn up the element in this built in micro, but fortunately it was replaceable. Lesson learned!

  • It was my boyfriend’s first birthday since we had been dating, and I wanted to surprise him with his favorite: cheesecake. Although, I had never made it before and knew that these cakes are notoriously easy to mess up, I decided to go for it. I bought a springform pan and followed the steps to my grandmother’s recipe exactly. The cake looked beautiful when I pulled it out of the oven! No cracks or anything. However, an hour later I removed the sides to the pan and found that the cake was about a quarter of an inch tall–it was a pancake! There was no time to make another or go buy a cake, so I put a candle in it and hoped for the best. My boyfriend laughed quite a bit when he saw the pitiful thing, kissed my cheek, and told me how much he loved it. Luckily it still tasted great!

    I later found out that I had taken it out of the oven too quickly, which made it completely deflate. I haven’t tried to make another since, but maybe this holiday season will be the time to redeem myself.

  • When my husband and I were younger, we entertained A LOT. I made new recipes for company (without having tried them first). Many times this worked out. I recall one colossal failure–apricots cooked with garlic over pasta. It was so horrible I’m sure everyone wanted to take their plate to the garbage and dump it in there! I’ve learned to try recipes out on the family first these days. That pear cake looks delicious–I may break my rule, and serve that without a test run! :-)

  • What a great idea for a cookbook!

    The most embarrassing cooking mistake I’ve probably made happened at my first Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws. My father-in-law is known far and wide for his excellent fruit pies–apple, peach, cherry, blueberry, apricot, you name it. He doesn’t use recipes and has a tried and true crust method that involves only shortening, which I find a little, well, freaky. I volunteered to bring a chocolate chess pie to serve alongside his pumpkin pie, thinking the table needed a little infusion of southern cooking. I’d made this pie many times, but I had always used a store-bought crust. This time, I decided to make an all-butter pie crust from scratch. It was so beautiful and smelled so good in the oven! I brought it to dinner, proud and pleased. Well, it was so tough and chewy that everyone had to scrape the pie filling out of the crust and eat it that way. No one said anything, but I was horrified! I’ve since learned to make a half butter, half shortening crust–much more forgiving! I tip my hat to my pie-making father-in-law.

  • I was in 7th grade, and we were making a Christmas potluck dinner for the teachers. My group was put in charge of the anise cookies. Easy, right? Well, we mixed up the batter, and realized at the last minute, we hadn’t put the anise in, when the recipe had said to. So we left it out, thinking that if we had missed a step, we might ruin the whole thing by adding it in NOW. I felt so guilty about it that night, that I confessed to the home ec teacher the next morning, and she laughed and said, “You could have added it in! Recipes are just blueprints, but you can adjust them without ruining anything, most of the time!” Needless to say, when I was stumped the next time, I just asked. Now I have Google and myriads of YouTube videos…and wonderful cookbooks, of course!

  • Memorable cooking mistake moment was having friends over and putting on the coffee to go with dessert… only to discover that I had forgotten to put the coffee in. Needless to say, it was an easy fix, but still something that they tease me about to this day.

  • I am an expert at making bechamel glop….One of these days I am going to learn and remember to actually measure. Or not. I’m getting kind of fond of pudding thick sauce.

  • I actually have 2 mistakes. Is that cheating? One time we made monkey bread for a family holiday breakfast and accidentally grabbed cumin instead of cinnamon. Yikes. The other being our first attempt at a curry dish. Listen friends, if you’re new to cooking Asian foods and the recipe calls for fish sauce….be very careful about using the directed amount. That turns south very quickly, and you won’t want to eat the meal or be anywhere near your kitchen for a week.

  • At the tender age of 14, my first “boyfriend” and I set fire to our oven. We were making chocolate chip cookies and either way underestimated the flour content or forgot to add it altogether. The cookie dough seemed runny but tasted delicious, so we formed the dough into little balls and put on baking sheet. Unfortunately, this baking sheet did not have sides. 5 minutes later we smelled burning. I ran into the kitchen and looked through the glass pane – the dough balls had merged into 1 giant pancake cookie which was spilling over the sides of the sheet and falling to the floor of the oven, where it was then catching on fire! Neither of us knew how to put out an oven fire so we just threw a couple glasses of water at the fire, turned the oven off, and closed the door.

    The cookie dough was still delicious!

    PS – I made the Pear Upside Down Cake last night and it was AMAZING! Photo on Instagram, #designsponge

  • Can I just say that the recipes showcased here are always SO good? I can’t wait to try this cake!

    I have gotten pretty good at cooking through experimentation over the years, but I still make mistakes! My most recent blunder was trying to wing it and make fresh tomato sauce in my crock pot. I’d find it before, but I hardly ever use real recipes, so I accidentally added beef stock when I should have used none. It came out as tomato soup instead — terrible tomato soup. I tried to purée it and eat it, but it was just too awful. Not to be deterred, I dumped half of it out a couple days later after some thought, added beans, a chili pepper, more chopped tomatoes, onions, and spices and transformed it into chili! It was delicious, and I had my sister over to eat with me. She kept raving about it, and even commenting on how pretty the color was. It was a good lesson on thinking outside of the box and repurposing what you have!

  • My biggest cooking disaster was when I tried to make refried beans. The recipe said to mash the beans (not canned beans, real beans). But it didn’t say to cook them first so I was confused. So I put them in my Cuisinart and tried to grind them up. They were sort of chunky, but oh well! I added the other ingredients and it tasted ok to me. I had a friend over for dinner to share my Mexican feast, along with my husband. Both my husband and my friend ate a lot of those beans and declared them delicious. The next morning, my friend called and asked if either of us felt sick as she had been throwing up for awhile. My husband wasn’t feeling too well either. I was a little shaky but not bad as I hadn’t eaten as much. We were to go up to Tahoe that day, so almost there we had to pull over and got out of the car. Tom proceeded to get pretty sick. So I said to him, “Maybe I should have cooked those beans.” “What!” he shouted, “you didn’t cook those beans?! You could have killed us!” Bottom line, I learned you have to cook raw beans and we’re still married.

  • Mistakes are made for a reason, I’d like to believe.
    But I think my biggest mistake was the first official catering project with my sister.
    We made a miscalculation and instead of soup for 35 persons, we made enough to serve the country.
    While we were unloading and unpacking at the location something went wrong and soup was spilled over the sidewalk near the entrance of the venue (of course it did not look like spilled food, but like someone puked all over the sidewalk).
    Luckily we made the soup in advance (and enough to serve the country, so there was still enough to serve to the guests) and froze the soup, so all the frozen soup was not spilled.
    Unfortunately the stove on location did not work that well as told and the soup defrosted very slowly…
    And this was only the soup.

    Well have to honest: we managed to pull it off, people loved the soup although it was ready a tiny bit later than the rest of the buffet.
    We had a great night, learned a lot in one night, and never made the same mistakes again.We made many people enthusiastic about our food and are since that night asked more often to do catering jobs.
    Time for new mistakes! :)

  • After being a public school teacher and principal for 25 years I have decided to make my own mistakes in the kitchen! I always said I want to stand in the middle and give everyone a cookie, after all who isn’t at their best when eating cookies?

  • When I was about eight I got the bright idea of making a cake. It was from a came mix . I did not beat it properly. It turned out rubbery and with huge cells . My cakes and cooking are much better now but my brother still teases me over my blunder.

  • As a newly married and nervous cook, I decided on a Greek stefado recipe to serve my in-laws. Everyone raved about the stew, until my father-in-law’s expression changed abruptly. When he spat out the cheesecloth-covered bouquet garni I had forgotten to remove, I wanted to slide under the table! The incident has not been forgotten for 30+ years and lives on in the family cookbook. I don’t think I’ve made anything with bouquet garni since!

  • I’ve made two very dangerous cooking mistakes in my adult life (the childhood stories could fill a book). In college I made cream of poblano soup and instead of buying an immersion blender like the recipe said, I put the whole thing in the blender with the lid on tight. The blender exploded, flinging glass and green soup all over myself and the kitchen. And most recently, after successfully making apple cider doughnuts twice, I decided to make them for a party. Up until this point I had refused to get a candy thermometer to keep an eye on frying oil temps. As you might have already guessed, I got distracted by hosting, quickly burned most of the doughnuts and nearly set the house on fire. I own a thermometer now. Which has really helped my candy making too! Lesson learned.

  • The first time I was making my fiance (a professional cook) dinner I offered broccoli white bean soup with my mom’s famous cornbread. I had done everything by the recipe but the consistency wasn’t turning out right. It turns out, I forgot to cook the beans! I had always used canned and didn’t know that bagged needs to be cooked. We ended up ordering pizza and now I always make sure I use exactly what the recipe calls for!

  • My boyfriend and I had friends over on a really cold night. We were living in a tiny apartment with a questionable oven, but there were bananas over-ripening on the counter so I decided to try and bake banana bread anyway. I didn’t use a recipe- of course. The loaf baked in that little oven for almost 4 hours, but the cake tester never came out clean. I finally decided that we were hungry, and the top looked nice and brown, so it MUST be done, and after a few minutes of cooling I tipped the pan to release the bread. A huge mess of hot, runny banana guts landed on the counter with a splat, and everyone was watching (they still laugh at me about this). Lesson learned: you cannot totally wing it with baking. Spend the $5 to buy an oven thermometer and spend the 5 minutes to look up a recipe.

  • To Julia Turshen: Thank you for answering my questions, your answers are really helpful. I asked about the baking powder because in German baking recipes we usually use only baking powder. If there are problems with a strange taste we use “Weinstein-Backpulver” (sorry, don’t know the English expression). About the salt: in Germany it is not easy to get kosher salt . I think I will use coarse sea salt instead. Thank you!

  • Like Kate, a blender with piping hot cream of asparagus soup resulted in bright green splattered all over my kitchen, my clothes, and even burning my skin a bit. Lesson learned.

  • When I was young my mother made the most amazing food for us. She died when I was 11 and then our dinners were takeout nightmares because daddy worked and I had two older brothers who could not cook at all. For a lot of Sunday dinners my mother made these big fluffy melt in your mouth yeast rolls. I craved those rolls more than anything else. I used to try to watch my mom in the kitchen but I was always told to go play. I know she thought she had time to teach me when I was older. I tried so many times to make those rolls but didn’t know anything about proofing yeast. While watching an episode of Julia Child I finally understood why my rolls never would rise.
    After that triumph. This experience alone showed me I wanted to teach my girls to cook as soon as they showed any interest in learning. My 8 year old grandson is my second best student.

  • Dana Cowin came to Seattle, to the Hot Stove Society, and I had the treat of baking this cake for her and the “students” in the class. The cake is insanely easy. When I went to make it the next night at home (yes, the cake is THAT good) I had no pears on hand, so instead used thin slices of butternut squash. This cake can really accomodate anything(as long as its not to wet) and go from season to season. Mastering My Mistakes is truly a rockstar book

  • @Mary Anderson – I’m so pleased you’ve taken your experience and turned it into a wonderful learning opportunity for your children/grandkids! Learning to cook is such an incredibly useful skill, and can be super empowering for kids.

  • I tried making flan in my tiny college dorm room kitchen. It exploded all over the kitchen and congealed in the burner!