Posted by: susanideus | October 13, 2010

Failure or Opportunity?

This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun! ~Julia Child

In my last post, I mentioned what I’d learned along the way on my cooking journey, but I realized I’d forgotten something very important.

To create some spectacularly successful dishes, you have to be willing to experience some not so spectacular failures. That was a very hard lesson for a recovering perfectionist like me. If you want to experiment and be creative, making substitutions, there is always the possibility that the trial will not turn out as expected.

Once I made a batch of banana muffins without adding the sugar–a fact I didn’t recall until they were almost finished baking. When they came out of the oven I sat them on the counter, thinking that when they cooled I’d plop them in the trash. Well, Harold came in, grabbed one and ate it. I expected a sour face, but to my surprise he ate another. Curious now, I tasted one…and it wasn’t bad. Not as sweet as usual or as sweet as I prefer and a bit denser, but definitely edible. The sweetness of the bananas carried it and led to a teachable moment–I greatly reduced the amount of sugar I use in this recipe. As a side note, I’ve not eliminated sugar from my recipes but now use more natural sweeteners like local honey or less refined sugars such as demarara or sucanat. Makes very little difference in most recipes and I prefer the taste. More on this later.

Not all errors turn out so well. Mistaking kosher salt for sugar does not bode well for the taste of the finished product. Trust me on that one. If you are not familiar with herbs and spices, some substitutions can be less than palatable. I’m better now that I was as a novice, but if I’m not sure about the flavor of a particular herb or spice, I research it.  Another caution about spices–those dried ones in little bottles–look to see if there is a shaker top on it before you shake it into your sauce. Experience speaking here. Peppers and hot sauces–try to determine their relative heat index before using copious amounts. Experience again. Painful lesson! They are not all equal. If a sauce calls for cream, milk is not acceptable as a substitute–the sauce separates. As will sour cream if you add it to a sauce that is boiling.Not pretty. Sometimes things just don’t work.

Still, I keep on cooking. Experimentation doesn’t always work, but it does teach. Even unplanned accidents can be instructive.  My learning curve is less steep as I gain more experience. And, I do have a forgiving–and always hungry–hubby. That helps!

As with life. Errors can be viewed as failures, with nothing salvageable coming out of them. Just another dumb mistake, right? Not! Some of my best learning has come from trying to reclaim my mistakes. Maybe it’s that perfectionism thing again–I don’t like to be wrong, so when I am, I try to make it right. If I think a dish is worth serving, I’ll attempt to find a way to pull it off. If I’ve made an error in life that I can correct, I’ll give it a try. On the other hand, not all mistakes can be fixed–sometimes I just have to admit to being human and less than perfect, forgive myself and move on. This is something I still have to practice but it improves with age and experience too. And, some recipes end up in the trash…

Cooking requires confident guesswork and improvisation– experimentation and substitution, dealing with failure and uncertainty in a creative way.  ~Paul Theroux

Now back to those muffins. This is a recipe I’ve had so long I have no recall of its origin. It’s my daughter Johanna’s favorite and a frequent request. I’ve changed it so much over the years, it bears only a faint resemblance to the original. It’s become more healthy, or at least less unhealthy, and if I do say so myself, more flavorful. From white flour to whole grain, from white sugar to a less refined sweetener, more fruit and less fat–even lower sodium sea salt helps. Want to try it? Here’s my latest version:

Mocha Chocolate Chip Banana Muffins

1 cup butter, room temp
3/4 cup turbinado or demarara sugar
1 egg
4 or 5 ripe bananas, depending on size
1 tablespoon espresso powder dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour (can use unbleached all-purpose or regular whole wheat)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup semisweet chocolate mini-chips

1 Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2 Blend butter, sugar, egg, banana, espresso,
and vanilla in food processor for 2 minutes. Add flour,
salt, baking powder, and soda, and blend just until flour
disappears. Add chocolate chips and mix in with wooden spoon.
Spoon mixture into 15 to 18 paper-lined muffin cups.
3 Bake for 25 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

My next challenge is to substitute a healthier oil in place of the butter. I may try subbing for some of the fat with unsweetened applesauce, and I’ll add in a tablespoon of flax meal for another healthy boost. In the meantime, enjoy as is, or do your own experimentation. They are scrumptious! Let me know what you think.



  1. I’ll try these Susan, thanks! If I make a mistake I have to clear away all sight of it quickly…just can’t look! I think it’s because deal with all mistakes in my life by learning quick lessons and moving on.

    Fabulous post as usual.

  2. Hope you like the muffins. I don’t always keep my mistakes around either, unless as I said, my hubby finds it. The guy will eat just about anything! There have been time when something has gone straight into the trash, along with the recipes. Some things are not worth trying to fix.

  3. The muffins do sound yummy, and also familiar. Chocolate minichips have been a standard ingredient in my banana bread for years. As for the oil, I use canola oil instead of butter or oleo in my banana bread, and it works just fine. I use the full amount, but I suspect a tad less would work as well.

    Aside from that, I love your metaphor of cooking mistakes teaching about life mistakes.

    • Bananas and chocolate chips–a classic and always appropriate. Strangely enough, my hubby who eats nearly everything will not touch these. Doesn’t know what he’s missing. I’ll try canola oil the next time I make them. Might try a bit less and add some extra banana or some applesauce. Thanks for stopping by, Sharon. I always appreciate your comments.

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