fail one

Top Ten Macheesmo Fails

I believe failure can be a life strategy. That may sound weird but I’m completely serious. A lot of what I’ve learned so far in my life I’ve learned by persistently failing at something until I get it right. Luckily, people tend to remember the successes a lot more than the failures.

Case in point: This website. It’s very far from perfect and I have a list a mile long of improvements I hope to make over the next year or so, but it’s a start. Almost everything I’ve done on the website up to this point has been the result of a series of failures – changing a bit of code here or there until I get what I’m looking for. Normally I get it wrong about 30 or 40 times, but eventually find a way to make it work. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll hear my occasional rant on CSS issues.

As you can imagine then, I fail a decent amount in the kitchen. Sometimes I try things a bit outside of my skill level, sometimes I botch something that I’ve made a dozen times, and occasionally, I just plain suck at reading recipes.

I haven’t posted all the mistakes on Macheesmo because a lot of times there’s nothing to learn from them. For example, I’ve been battling a croissant recipe for like 6 months. Until I get it right though, there’s really nothing that can be learned from it except that croissants can be hard which is a pretty well known thing.

That said, I do frequently post my failures for one of a few reasons:

1) I screwed up something small that you could easily fix. Maybe I used a cup instead of a quart or a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon. These are easy fixes. It just requires me to admit that I can’t read 100% of the time.

2) I battled and won. Sometimes if I try something and fail at it, but eventually get it right, I’ll post the fail and success so you can get a better idea of what could go wrong and how to avoid it.

3) It’s hysterical. Sometimes I get bad ideas for dishes. At least we can get some entertainment out of the situation.

4) Hopefully it’ll give you a dose of confidence. Let’s face it. If you start cooking a lot, you’re probably gonna bomb a dish or two so it’s helpful to see that you aren’t the only one.

So, over the weekend I went through my rapidly growing archives and picked out 10 Fails since the beginning of the site. In order from lesser fail to greatest fail:

10) Soft Boiled Eggs

So sad.

This was my most recent fail and kind of gave me the idea for this post. There are tons of great comments on how to correctly cook a soft boiled egg. I’m hoping to redeem myself in a few weeks. The only reason this one isn’t higher on the list was because it was pretty easy to just sub poached eggs which I can get right most of the time.

9) Polenta Breakfast Pizza

You’re killin’ me Bittman.

This was a frustrating one. Basically, I found two versions of the same dish and picked one of the methods. I picked the wrong method which became very apparent about halfway through. Oh well. Ya live ya learn.

8) Ricotta Gnocchi

The right way.

This was one of my favorite fails because it was an easy lesson in the importance of ingredients. I was following a recipe from Judy Rodgers and she said to make sure you use real fresh, not processed, ricotta cheese. I didn’t believe her and just used some from the store on my first try. Well, it was WAY to wet and never formed into nice little dumplings.

All I did between the fail and the success was find some good ricotta cheese.

7) Chicken Curry Salad

Doesn’t have to be worth eating to be worth printing.

This wasn’t actually my fault. This was a case of following a recipe and thinking that it might be a bad recipe but not trusting my instincts. Turns out, I was right. It was a bad recipe. This also happened to be the third post ever on Macheesmo and failing that close to the beginning gave me pause about continuing…

6) Bay Leaf Wrapped Salmon

Bay Leaf Bonfire

Sometimes when recipes say to use the grill, they mean it. I tried to cook this dish in the oven instead of outside on the grill and while the final fish actually turned out pretty flavorful and okay, it was not worth the pain. Turns out when you roast like 100 bay leaves they give off an aroma that literally burns your eyes. Think onion chopping times a lot.

5) The Tart That Got Away

Tart Explosion!

This was my fault. I got a bit crazy with the filling and created a ticking time bomb of a tart that went off in my oven. It actually didn’t taste that bad, but it wasn’t going to win any beauty awards. That’s for sure.

4) Attempting A Pastizza

I’ll let this one slide Rachel.

While I would love to blame Rachel Ray for this one, I’m pretty sure it was on me. I changed the recipe a lot by basically removing anything with flavor from the recipe and then I was surprised when it was bland. Go figure.

3) Spanako-what?


I actually served this to a dinner guest. Luckily he was a good friend who I’ve served many successful meals in the past. Also, I corrected this fail a few weeks later after many fantastic reader suggestions.

2) Mega Brownie Fail

Go back from whence you came!

This was one of the worst things ever. You cannot bake mascarpone cheese. It doesn’t work. Don’t try it. For any reason. That is all.

1) Shrimp Thing


This was just horrible. I got the idea from a Top Chef dish… a losing Top Chef dish. I thought I could fix it. I was wrong. So so wrong. The good news is that there’s some tips in that post on what to do when your recipe fails because it’s the only way I could justify posting this epic disaster.

I’ve been working on the FAILS for this post for over a year so I’d love some company… leave a comment and share one or two of your mess-up stories!

25 comments on “Top Ten Macheesmo Fails

  1. This post made me laugh out loud. Especially those poor brownies! Bless their cheesy, fudgey little hearts.

    Kitchen failures are great! They can be hilarious (except that time I dropped a whole raw, topped, ready-to-cook pizza on the floor — that was sad), and they're certainly a good excuse to order Chinese food delivery.

  2. Okay, here we go: EPIC FAIL (I can speak freely about this because it was a couple years ago and the friend I served it to brings it up ALL THE TIME, so my ego has some good callouses now). Picture it, April 2007, a New York Times article about how you can eat oysters in months that don't end in R these days. In it, praise for a recipe the writer said "caught my attention immediately" while on a recipe hunt. In involved peeling, coring and slicing an apple, shucking an oyster into the middle of the apple silce, topping it with crème fraîche and and lemon juice and putting the whole mess in the oven. I said to myself, "Self! That sounds so weird, it might just be delicious! You should try that out as an appetizer tonight! D. is an adventurous eater. It will be AWESOME." Um, no. It was one of the most disgusting things either of us had ever put into our mouths. But many lessons were learned that day, from "Don't try out weird recipies on friends" to "Don't put dairy on oysters and then put it in the oven" to "Just because it's in the NYT doesn't mean it will be automatically awesome."

  3. This sad kitchen story didn't exactly happen to me, but it did happen to someone I know, and it's pretty funny so I thought I would share it:

    You know how sometimes people will store their extra virgin olive oil on their counter top, perhaps in a clear, tall container with a little silver spout for pouring it out as desired (think Rachel Ray style?). Well, this friend of mine uses one of those containers…for dish soap. She keeps it by the sink, filled with yellow dish washing liquid, as it's a convenient way to pour soup out as desired.

    Well, you can probably see where this is going…this friend had a group of people over for a potluck, and one of the guests brought a big tray of Caprese salad. Imagine huge slices of fresh buffalo mozzarella, ripe farmer's market tomatoes, and aromatic basil, all artfully arranged. This guest brought some of her own EVOO, but then saw the container on the counter and decided the salad could use a bit more drizzled on…and covered the whole platter in soap! Epic fail…so sad! But, in the end everyone had a good laugh about it. Now my friend knows to warn her guests, lest they receive a sudsy surprise!

  4. I've been cooking for – ahem – many decades. I learned from my mother, my grandmothers, my ex-mother-in-law, Julia Child, and Giuliano Buliagli in Florence. At most things, I do very well.

    But I can't make a pie crust to save my soul. I cut the butter into the flour until it's the right texture, add the water until the mixture comes together . . . try to roll it out . . . and get something that looks like a ragged Rorschach blob, half wound around my marble rolling pin. (My daughters thought the marble rolling pin might help but it hasn't.)

    So to me, your exploding tart looks fabulous, Nick!

    I loved the soap/olive oil story!

  5. I've been experimenting with a homegrown sourdough for a few months now and some of the loaves have been serious fails. From my reading I find that I'm not alone-there have been other blogs referencing the "pancake" of fallen bread and such, but it is still disappointing every time I spend a day working on a loaf of bread and it doesn't turn out. But I keep working at it, and the flavor of my sourdough is now really great, so even if the loaf is a little flat it still tastes yummy (and makes for good bread pudding the next day).

    It is sad when a celebrity chef fails you though-I wrote a post on an Emeril fail a couple of months ago:… Just goes to show that if the recipe seems wrong to you, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS!

  6. Oh, you mean like the first time I tried to reduce balsamic vinegar for a glaze… and I turned up the heat too high? (burned it) Or the time I thought it would be a brilliant idea to use brie for a grilled cheese sandwich — only I didn't adjust the temperature accordingly? (Yikes, that was a tasty greasy mess!)

    I think kitchen fails are inevitable for those of us who consider experimentation to be one of the foundations of good cooking. Although some have been downright painful, I've learned to love those "teachable moments," since they inevitably lead to an incredible amount of growth.

    Before I learned that "more cheese" does not necessarily make a recipe better, I had an experience with pizza very similar to the one you had with your over-filled tart. The amount of cleaning that took place after that was enough to teach me a lesson I'd not which to repeat!

  7. If you don't have an occasional fail, you aren't going out of your comfort zone and expanding your skills. Problem is you still have eat… a well stock pantry allows you to brush aside the fail and serve something else instead in a pinch.

    Some fails can be saved though… might be a good idea for a post.

  8. You won't learn anything unless you fail.

    That being said, I feel strangely responsible for that horrible polenta breakfast pizza. Remind me not to send you recipes anymore, lol!!

  9. Ha! Great stories so far everyone. I forgot to mention one of my favorite fails of all time which is from the show "Chopped" on Food Network. It was the dessert round and this guy made a beautiful cake and never tasted it until it was on the judges table… he accidentally switched the sugar and salt containers.

    Needless to say he did not win the Moollaa.

  10. Hilarious post, Nick. My most recent cooking fail was trying to cook this cool artisan farro (a grain) with mascarpone and mushrooms. It said to cook for 40 minutes. I cooked it…and cooked it…in the meantime I somehow managed to BURN some sauteed kale, which I can usually cook in my sleep…and at about the 90 minute mark I just gave up and used the mushrooms and mascarpone with some pasta. Pasta is always a good fallback!

  11. not fair – almost all of your fails are pretty at least. My biggest failure was a crock-pot chicken stroganoff recipe. I've had lots of smaller failures but to this day my husband always responds with "X wasn't as bad as that stroganoff". I seem to really struggle with Indian flavored recipes and meatless meals – I've tried making bean burgers multiple times and they are always a disaster.

  12. I set things on fire like its my job…and not things that should be on fire. I learned the hard way why one uses a broiler pan, why one shouldn’t forget about muffins stored in the oven and then preheat to 450, why one should use a deep sided pan to roast veggies with olive oil…the list goes on. My husband is in the navy and is extensively trained in fire fighting techniques because he works with fuel. I have had intensive training myself on the proper use and placement of a fire extinguisher, as well and random “spot checks” to make sure I still know where it is and how to use it.
    This is just one facet of my ability to fail epiclly in the kitchen.

  13. Hey Macheesmo,

    YOU CAN bake marscapone. Here’s a recent recipe I developed for an office brunch:
    Spread thawed puff pastry with 4-6 oz marscapone cheese.
    Sprinkle with dried cranberries and tangerine zest.
    Roll, slice, and bake as directed on the box.
    Boil the tangerine juice to about 1/2 volume and stir in powdered sugar to make a glaze for cooled pinwheels.

    SO GOOD (and easy)!


  14. Excellent post, thanks for sharing your adventures, even if they don't always work out. It makes me feel a little better about my hit or miss cooking skills!

  15. My most spectacular fail was last year. My best friend from my teenage/young adult years came to visit for the first time I'd seen him in 10 years. While most all of the food was superb, the highlight I was looking forward to was having them taste my ribs fresh out of the smoker.

    I put three racks on the Egg using my normal recipes and processes. Shortly into the cook, I was having problems keeping the temperature up. I had the vents open more than normal, seemed to be burning coal at a fast rate but just couldn't get the cooking temp up to the 250f that I was wanting.

    Finally after an hour and 15 minutes, I opened the Egg up and faced an inferno. My experience knew the heat was easily 450-500f and the ribs were screwed. I had bought a new thermometer for the Egg and this was the first time I was using it. It has a 4" stem vs. the 2" of my old one so the whole time, the thermometer was touching the cold meat instead of air! Embarrassing but funny.

  16. Fail – a recipe I had been dying to make for months. Nutella-Swirl Poundcake.
    I finally found an appropriate occasion (a friend's get together) and got baking. Well – I think my oven was too hot (I need an oven thermometer) so the cake seemed done, tester came out clean, etc. But when I flipped it out onto the cooling rack 10 minutes later – batter started oozing out! I refused to give up. I put the cooked part back in the pan, scooped up the raw batter and spread it on top of the cake, then baked it for 30 more minutes. It ended up looking OK – sort of like a babka. It tasted OK too – more like a big loaf-shaped cookie. But I definitely did NOT bring it to the party!

  17. I've had many kitchen failures, but the worst was in the early days of my now-husband and I's relationship. I was just starting to really cook on my own and was full of Food Network-induced ideas but had little knowledge or experience to back them up. Two words: Vinegar Chicken. Please learn from my mistakes. Somehow the man still married me after I subjected him to that.

  18. Oh, where do I begin. I like to experiment but because I fail so often, I don't try to cook much. I love barley like you find in Vegetable Beef & Barley soup. I found out that you could make it as a side dish, so I bought some. I was going to try to cook it in the microwave because I get a little anxious using the gas stove. Anyway, there weren't directions for cooking in a microwave, so I just put the barley in a dish, covered it in water and put the microwave on 10 minutes. It said to cook it at least that long on the stove. Well, I decided to go get on the computer for a few minutes while it cooked. About 9 minutes later, I looked up and noticed there was smoke coming from the kitchen and it had almost reached the computer room which is separated from the kitchen only by the den. Needless to say, the barley was now a charcoal brick in the microwave, and the kitchen stunk for months after. My parents actually threw away the microwave! Then a little over a month ago, I tried to make hard boiled eggs without checking the recipe. I thought that I remembered how to make them, but I didn't. It helps to follow the recipe.

  19. These posts have definitely brought a smile to my day. Recently I had company and decided I would surprise them with a batch of fresh cinnamon buns for breakfast. I decided to try an ‘overnight’ recipe to easy my efforts in the morning to disastrous results. I mixed up a very nice sweet dough that seemed to be a good start but it refused to rise at all. After two hours it hadn’t even budged. It was now almost 1am so I decided that perhaps some heat would assist in the rising. I placed my dough, covered with a tea towel in the oven with and turned the oven on for a couple minutes to warm it up as my house was cold. I cam back and looked in the oven to find my tea towel in flames!

    Several glasses of water, a loud buzzing hood fan (but thankfully no fire alarm) the fire was out, the towel ruined, and the dough hadn’t even budged. A quick taste assured me that tea towel smoke infuses sweet dough very thoroughly and the whole thing went in the garbage.

    The next morning I got up early and put together another batch of quick rise buns that turned out all right. Turns out my company slept in peaceful oblivion and never knew anything had happened.

  20. Love this post!

    By now my favourite taste tester knows that the dinner menu will be whatever I am attempting


  21. Indian dishes. I just can't win with Indian dishes :( I've only successfully made chicken vindaloo, everything else I've tried has been an epic fail and has led to me getting takeout from nearby Indian restaurants (where I get mad all over again because I can't make it!)
    My recent post Slow Cooker Chicken Adobo

  22. Around our house the words Guinness stew will get a snort of laughter from anyone. It’s the start of our using the term “hot garbage” to describe things, like the taste of this stew, and the smell of our dog’s breath when she had a rotten tooth…
    I don’t know if i made it wrong (probably) or if the recipe was off. It smelled wonderful, we couldn’t wait to try it, then I tried it and hot garbage was born. My husband put some in a bowl and put carrot sticks upright in it for eyes and left it on the counter for me to find, like it crawled out of the pot.
    I would love to try this made by someone else to see what it is supposed to taste like. How does something smell good and taste so very, very bad?

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