When Recipes Fail

This is Day 11 in a month-long series of posts I’m writing about my experience of owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook


There were the granola bars that refused to hold together. We served them in little dessert bowls and called them “deconstructed.”

There were the jonny cakes that just… refused. We scraped the pan into the trash and served the mushroom étouffée on top of leftover cornbread from the freezer.

But the worst of the fails to date was simply unfixable. We had to serve it the way it came out of the oven: a sad mess that we barely disguised with some strategically placed greens and a drizzle of a last-minute sauce.

The tian, my friends.

A French layered vegetable dish, like a ratatouille, in which vegetables are arranged, lasagna-like, in a casserole dish, then baked.

I’d never made it before, but I’d done similar things. Plus, I had a recipe. Untested, off the internet.

What could possibly go wrong?

The recipe for this tian included a layer of mashed white beans, tucked between strata of summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes. I cooked the beans, mashed them, seasoned them. Spread them over the slices of squash and tomatoes, then covered them with more squash and tomatoes.

When I was done layering everything, my tian was tall and gorgeous. I covered the pan with foil and put it into the oven.

The recipe called for a 30 minute bake, but my tian was extra large, so I knew that wouldn’t be long enough. I gave it 45 minutes, then took it from the oven and peeked under the foil.

I had vegetable soup.

My lovely tian was awash in juices from all those squashes and tomatoes. Worse, the mashed beans had migrated from their tidy layer, turning into a swamp of beige amid the soupy yellows and oranges.

I removed the foil. Put the pan back in the oven. Turned up the heat. If this dish didn’t come together, there was nothing else to serve. It simply had to set up.

It didn’t set up.

After 15 more minutes I pulled it from the oven, thinking maybe it needed to cool a bit, like a pudding. I set it on the stainless steel work table. Watched it, like the proverbial pot, as it did not set up. I put it in the refrigerator. It did not set up.

I put it back in the oven. Cranked the heat.

Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. I had customers in the dining room. They were ready. I gave the salad a toss. Swapped out the planned vinaigrette for a tahini dressing. Pulled the tian from the oven.

It had not exactly set up. It had, point of fact, settled down, like old tires at the bottom of a drained lake. It was, alas, no longer lovely. But what could I do? I put it onto plates, nestled the salad up close, drizzled the whole thing with the tahini dressing and sent it out into the world.

Not all days are stellar. Not all recipes work.

That’s why there’s tomorrow, so you get another shot.

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