Monday, March 8, 2010

Happy Failures

The first time I tried to make pie crust it turned out a sticky, awful mess. I was twenty years old, and had the bright idea to make a venison pasty (pot pie, really). How hard could it be to mix up a nice pie crust? People have been making it for centuries, right?

Clever girl. In the end the gunk that looked nothing at all like pie crust went into the garbage, and we went to McDonald's.

But over the years I've read and listened and asked and experimented, until I can make a tender, flavorful pie crust in my sleep. In fact, there have been Thanksgiving mornings when I'm pretty sure I did just that.

During my first wine making attempt I ended up with pink, fermented must in my hair. Stop laughing. I don't have a picture of that (darn), but this is a bottle of wine from that batch. It tastes wretched.

The next batch was better, though. And I'm hopeful the next one will be even better [crosses fingers].

And the first book I wrote? A gritty (I thought) mystery about a woman rancher in Montana. It was my learn-how-to-write-a-novel novel. The manuscript went through at least twenty iterations, and everything changed between the first and the last draft. The killer, the plot, the main character, the gender of the main character, the secondary characters. Only the setting remained.

Because of that book I wrote others. And will write more.

Failure is, after all, inevitable. No way to get around it if you dare to do anything different, learn anything, stride in new directions. Can't avoid it by trying to avoid those things, either. But it's incredibly valuable. Vital, even.

You get better (hopefully). The next mistakes -- and there'll be more -- will be of a different caliber. Failure keeps me humble. Makes me laugh at myself. Makes others laugh at me, too. That's okay. Laughter's good.

This is my latest failure. Over the weekend I tried a new bread recipe using the sourdough starter a friend gave me a couple months ago. It's the real deal, a levain made with the natural yeasts in the air and, I believe, grape skins (which harbor natural yeast). The sour taste is distinct and delicious, excellent for pizza crust and calzones.

It also leavened this bread, which is hard as a rock, and a couple of rolls that could be used as hockey pucks. The sponge bubbled and worked and rose overnight, and then I added more flour and a couple of eggs. Another rise and into the oven it went. The eggs were part of the Joy of Cooking recipe I loosely followed.

When I was eleven I kept a sourdough starter going for over a year, getting up early twice a week to bake bread before going to school (the home crafting disease hit early). I live at mile high altitude now, but then I lived at twice that altitude in Leadville, Colorado. Still, it seemed easy then.


This crumb is so dense it can't really be called "crumb." The top exploded in the oven, while the bottoms of the rolls burned black. BUT: The flavor is so good I kept slicing off little crunchy bits, dotting them with butter and gnawing on them like a dog with a bone. Also, it rose well, so the starter is still active and effective.

So I'll check in with my friend who gave me the starter. He's formally educated in artisan bread baking and will likely roll his eyes and tell me of something stupid I did. I hope so because then I can stop doing it. And next time I'll use less flour, give it an extra rise, slash the top before baking, up the temperature, add some steam to the oven, and leave out those dang eggs.

Wish me luck.


  1. Anyone who can make and bake bread from scratch is never a failure in my book. I guess we do have to make some mistakes along the way to enjoy something when we get it just right. Keeping my fingers crossed for your next batch of wine. :)

  2. Pie crust- I swear it comes out differently every time! The first time I made it I rocked it. But the second time it was a crumbly mess. Love the Crisco recipe (fatty but the best!). Good luck with the bread making!

  3. Thanks, Mason and Anon! And if there's a pie crust recipe that ISN'T fatty, I don't think I want to know about it. ; - )