Learning To Cook (Reluctantly): So, Everything Is Awful

Dude, and I was wearing an apron, and everything.

Oh my God cooking is awful. It is awful. And, oh, I was so smug. The worst part of this story is that, as I was preparing this nightmare Tribble concoction that has taken over my oven, I kept thinking of the member of our man panel who broke up with his girlfriend because she couldn’t make a proper pie. I actually thought to myself, “you know, his ex-girlfriend was kind of dumb.” And she was. That is a true thing. But not because of that, okay? Not because of that. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. I had a Memorial Party to go to. We decided I would not make pie. You did not come up with effective enough suggestions, so I was pretty much on my own on this one.

I hate you.

That aside, my refrigerator and cabinets – amazingly – are now stocked with most of the things you need to make brownies (eggs, flour, sugar, salt, inexplicable leftover cocoa). And the yams mean that I still have a massive bag of marshmallows. So I figured – marshmallow brownies, a childhood favorite! I did not experience them as a child. But I do see brownies with marshmallow tops in the bodega sometimes, and they look like they’d be really delicious, but they are right on top of granola bars, so I usually feel guilty and buy a granola bar. Not this time! Not this time, though.

We digress.

In any case, I began looking up recipes. There are a great deal of them! Here is one.

This seems straightforward, right?

1 cup margarine (2 sticks)
2 cups sugar
1/3 cup cocoa
4 eggs
1 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
1 (10 oz) package of miniature marshmallows
Soften margarine and blend in sugar and cocoa.  Beat together and add 4 eggs, one at a time, mixing after each one.  Add flour, salt and vanilla and mix well.
Spread on large greased *********cookie sheet*********.  Bake 22-25 minutes at 350.  Remove from oven and cover entire top with 1 package of miniature marshmallows.  Return to oven for 3 minutes, until marshmallows are soft and puffy.  Cool and frost with chocolate frosting.

You know what I liked about this recipe? The way it said “cookie sheet.”

Read that part a thousand times. Read the part where it says cookie sheet. It’s there? We’re all seeing that with our eyeballs and our brains?


I don’t think they actually meant a cookie sheet, because everything is about to get awful.

Share This Post:
    • KeLynn

      AHHHH I hate when I question a recipe step. Because…I’m not exactly a great cook, so I think to myself “Oh KeLynn, don’t think you’re smarter than a goddamn recipe writer. You know nothing. Follow everything to the letter and let the actual good cooks make the choices.” And then it turns out that oh, there actually was a typo and actually you weren’t supposed to use a cookie sheet at all and now you have brownie all over your oven.

    • Lindsey

      Here is a great tip: always look at more than one recipe for something. And if there is something odd about a recipe (like, say, all of them say “use a 9-inch pan” and one says “cookie sheet”) then DO NOT follow the odd-recipe-out.

      I know cooking is hard (I’m working on learning too!), but it really does require you to use common sense. Think about brownies. Think about the thickness of brownies. They are usually a few inches thick! How tall is a cookie sheet? Like, maybe 3/4 of an inch? How do you think that would work? Probably not well. Things get taller as you bake, so make sure there is extra room. Sometimes, with things like muffins, you need them to rise out of the container and overflow, but brownies are not muffins. And even with muffins, the cups should only be 1/2 to 3/4 full (same with bread). Just like how cookies spread out! Everything expands, so it will either go up or out. Make sure your container will, you know…contain it when it expands.

      • Jennifer Wright

        Ugh, I know! I realize this. But I figured 1) recipes know what they’re on about, and this was clearly one that was going to produce some cookie like brownies? Which make sense because the marshmallows went on later and would add height and 2) there is no 2.

    • Marissa

      My favorite line: “Who do you pretend you are when watching Game of Thrones? I pretend I’m Joffrey!” Haha!

      Just a warning…autocleaning might make your apartment smell like burnt brownie lard. It’s still worth it though.

    • Maria

      Get a silicone muffin pan. Bake anything in it. Problem solved.

      Forget about cakes. If the recipe is too big for the pan, bake in two batches, it’s really quick anyhow. No greasing, no mess to clean up, really easy.

    • Lauren

      Whenever I ask if I can bring something to a party, everyone always tells me to bring booze. No one ever asks me to make anything. They know I will come to the party with something I bought from a bakery because of something ridiculous that happened while I was trying to cook. They instead prefer to hear tales of liquor store heroism.

      All I know about the auto clean setting on an oven is that it smells AWFUL. So you should open your windows or maybe just leave for a while.

    • Tania

      This simultaneously makes me feel smug about my ability to cook and guilty about feeling smug.

      But a nine inch pan really isn’t something you think you need until you need it. If my mother hadn’t bought me a bunch of kitchen stuff when I moved out, I wouldn’t have one, either. So realistically, in this case I have nothing to be smug about, unless I can be smug that my mother has more forethought than I do?

    • Emily

      I love this column. I wish it had been around when I was learning.

    • SB

      Hopefully your building super is decent, and you can talk over how to safely clean an oven and heating element with him or her. An absolute necessity is cutting the power to the oven, usually with a circuit breaker/fuse box.

      In my experience, using oven clean with a dirty heating element is asking for fire. And not the fun forth of July kind. More the “oh, god, the smell of carbonized batter smoke is making me question my will to live” kind.

      Counter-intuitively, making pies tends to be easier than making brownies. You can buy a pre-sized pie crust, the rising is usually very predictable, and they’re less temperature sensitive.

    • Chris Y

      I decided to bake an angel food cake from a mix. A mix! How can you screw that up?
      Well when you don’t have an actual angel food can pan and substitute a bundt pan. Bundt pans look the same right? Hole in the middle? Check. Good to go.
      Yes it seemed like there was alot more batter to pan ratio than there should have been but I am an optimist.
      That sucker flowed out of that pan like a cake avalanche . If you ever saw the I Love Lucy episode where she bakes bread well it wasn’t far off from that.
      It’s been a few years and people still talk about it .

    • Jennifer Dziura

      Is anyone else reminded of Rachel’s trifle from Friends?


    • Dorothy

      Dude that sucks! I think part of learning how to cook is learning how to spot a good recipe. The way I do this (because I’m still learning) is1) only use recipes from reputable cooks, like Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, Alton Brown, Michael Rhulman, Kenji Alt-Lopez, Thomas Keller (he has a few simple recipes), etc. Not Rachel Ray. 2) If it’s from some random blog, I don’t make it unless there are a ton of comments saying that the recipe worked and it was good. This of course works best for blogs and websites that get heavy traffic like Smitten Kitchen.

    • Amanda Chatel

      My favorite quote from Jennifer this weekend, which she said very seriously: “Amanda. They said a cookie sheet, but they meant something with sides.”

      Oh, it was lovely.

    • Renee

      This is a good cooking lesson: recipes will lead you astray! Sometimes it will not come out right, even following a recipe to the letter, and obviously, it is not your fault. Don’t give up on learning to cook! The good news is, as you get more experience, you learn to spot the recipe mistakes early on, and can adjust for them.

      Also, yes, get a 9in pan. You can make brownies, cakes, but also, so many casseroles! You can braise meats in them! Any kind of deep sided oven safe pan is a good idea, because it can really be multi-purpose. Get something corning ware, decorative and pretty, so you can serve it right out of the dish. Also, get one with a matching glass lid.

    • Eagle Eye

      Okay, I can’t believe that I forgot to mention this before but right now, go onto to Amazon and order Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.

      This book will teach you how to cook, how to mix flavors and how to spot crappy recipes, because all of his recipes are not only correct, but they are also alarmingly clear.

      You will thank me later!

    • MR

      Mars Attacks? Sexy apron though. :)

      • Jennifer Wright

        Mars Attacks is shockingly underrated.

      • MR

        Yeah. “Don’t run. We are your friends”. :)

      • Jenny

        Dat! Dat! Dat-dat!

    • kjon

      You should have made that pie on a stick. Ineffective? I hate you, too.

      On a serious note, I second the suggestion that you check out Ina Garten’s recipes (Barefoot Contessa on Food Network).

      To get your ‘smugness’ back on proper par, maybe try a fancy salad with homemade dressing like strawberries & spinach with a vinaigrette?

    • Sabrina

      Back when I was learning to bake, it said to spread butter on a paper towel on the bottom of the pan, so I put a butter soaked paper towel on the bottom of my 9″ brownie pan… needless to say everything caught on fire 10 minutes later… and I mean everything. My mother was not happy and I wasn’t allowed to bake home alone again for awhile.

    • Jenny

      We all have some baking/cooking….mishaps. Mine may have involved a fire….

      Autoclean — I warn you, do not use this setting if your oven doesn’t vent outside. Autoclean essentially burns everything off the oven by blasting as high heat as possible for an hour or so. If your oven vents inside, it will stink up your whole house.

    • Sarah

      One time, Ina Garten told me (or led me to believe whilst watching her show) to bake a frickin cake in a cookie sheet. I almost believed her. It turns out, what you need is a jelly roll pan. They are eerily similar to cookie sheets, but a little deeper.

      Also, while I’m still pretty horrible with cooking, Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s cookbooks have convinced me I can bake. Her dessert books are all vegan, but the ingredients are all really easy to find and not expensive or odd. And delicious! Plus you can eat all the batter/dough.

    • Elizabeth

      OMG. Ok, normally I’m super snooty about ready-made pie crusts … but you can buy a ready-made pie crust in any grocery store. Seriously, your corner bodega probably has one. And it *comes with a pan*. Really. Hell, you might even be able to make a pie in the crust, then save the aluminum pan for later.

      Having watched my parents cook, I will agree that Ina Garten’s recipes should be tried. They are delicious, and foolproof. As long as you do exactly what she says and do not deviate, you will have amazingly awesome food. (My father keeps trying to alter the recipes. “That looks like too much liquid. Add less liquid.” And I’m like, “DO NOT CONTRADICT THE CONTESSA!”)

    • NotThumper

      Do not feel bad! Everyone makes cooking mistakes. When my aunt was younger she followed a recipe too closely, it said to sift all ingredients.
      She sifted the eggs.

      She is in her late 60′s now and still hasn’t lived it down, however her baking is fabulous and I look forward to holidays simply to see what she’s brought.

      Personally I love to try new recipes but they don’t always turn out the way I’d planned. Just chalk it up to trial and error. :)

    • Lexi

      I accidentally lit my oven on fire once (apparently there’s more to broiling than you think in a gas oven). My landlord suggested I use this oven cleaner (Maybe called “Easy Off”?), it’s in the cleaner aisle at the grocery store, and it’s in a can (probably yellow?). It’s really easy to use, but I suggest using rubber gloves and buying the “no fumes” kind. It’ll do the trick.

    • Dana G

      Drunk Cersai, obviously.

      Totally the muffin /cupcake pan idea from above. You can bake anything in those. Remember most things you bake need about an inch of space to grow.
      About the mess: leave a warm soapy cloth on the area and scrub with a brillo pad the next day. I use Vim for both steps.