Many years ago, I saw a photo of braised Provencal duck in a food magazine. It was stunning, with bronzed pieces of meat nestled in sauce studded with olives and potatoes.
I made it for a dinner party. Instead of a culinary masterpiece, I was left with a soupy pot of pale duck bobbing under a slick of its own liquefied fat.
Had the same thing happened to me today, I would have simply changed the name of the dish to "duck confit with potatoes and olives." If people were expecting that layer of fat, it wouldn't have bothered them. Or if I wanted to get fancy, I could translate the whole thing into French.
But for years, I didn't realize that was an option. And when I served the duck, which was tasty despite its appearance, I spent a good chunk of the evening explaining, apologizing, and generally agonizing over the homely thing.
I know I'm not the only one who's done that. Inundated by food porn in cookbooks and magazines, online, and on food TV, a whole generation of home cooks has become caught up in the Cult of Foodie Perfectionism.
It's the desire for perfection, however unconscious, that causes many otherwise-practical cooks to think they must recreate entire meals — amuse-bouches to petits fours — from, say, the Alinea cookbook, when one dish would have sufficed. And perfectionism can breed performance anxiety, a cloud hovering over the kitchen counter. Sometimes I wonder if cooks put so much pressure on themselves they become reluctant to have friends over at all.
Will my soufflé rise as high as Thomas Keller's? Will my terrine be as jewellike as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's, my cakes as luscious as Nancy Silverton's?
That anxiety can harden into a sense of failure even if you didn't shoot for the culinary heavens, as you fret over the fact that the cupcakes you made for your preschooler's birthday weren't as pretty as Martha Stewart's, or your pie filling bubbled over, destroying the look of your lattice top.
If this sounds familiar, then you know that the urge to apologize runs deep.
After all, you've just invited your friends into your home and cooked them dinner. They are happy to be there, and they don't care if the roast is a tad dry, or if the vegetables are a bit soggy, or if your duck looks as if it waded into a coastal oil spill.
Instead, pour yourself a glass of wine and re-evaluate the situation.
If the dish looks funny but tastes fine, the solution is easy: rename it.
Through the years, I've served my guests "blackened carrot salad" (I added pomegranate molasses too early when roasting the roots), "melting, garlicky green beans" (I forgot about them on the stove and they almost dissolved), "molten fudge brownies" (underbaked, that is). Butterscotch pudding that never quite solidified in the fridge was rechristened butterscotch crème Anglaise, and poured over fruit.
I served all of this without apology. Since everything still tasted good (often better than intended), my guests thought that's what I had been planning all along.
How do you think chocolate mud cake got its name? Probably from some cocoa experiment gone awry, but in a good way. And those Italian cookies called brutti ma buoni? It means ugly but good, a perfect way to manage expectations because the name says it all.
Of course, if the dish has truly failed in that you oversalted or overspiced, or if you've overcooked the meat, or if the cake stuck to the bottom of the pan, you need to do a little more than just rename the thing. But it, too, can be saved.
Overcooked meat or fish is rejuvenated when it is chopped into small pieces and fried in a crisp potato pancake. Call it roesti for maximum elegance.
Overseasoned or overcooked vegetables gain new life from being folded into eggs to make a frittata, quiche filling, or souffle.
And pretty much any sweet pastry recipe that didn't quite work out is born anew when it is made into crumbs and layered with cream into trifle.
(You can make these recipes even if you don't have a wreck of a dish on your hands. They work equally well with leftovers.)
All of these techniques can help take the pressure off the cook who wants to relax and enjoy the party. Just refrain from sending your guests the menu in advance.