As anyone who knows me well can attest, I am prone to winging-it in the kitchen. I have been known to improvise several dishes at a time based on some vaguely remembered show on the Food Network or a long-lost article in Saveur. I am fearless and confident in my ability to deconstruct a restaurant meal and recreate it at home. Cooking is a creative act for me, and I am determined to express myself through the preparation of elaborate and tantalizing offerings.
This attitude is, quite often, hubris.
Case-in-point: compote to jello to spread.
Michelle and I recently hosted a couple friends for a casual brunch. Michelle prepared our legendary* yeasted waffles and I was in charge of some simple accompaniments: vanilla & maple whipped cream and a fruit compote.
My go-to is an apple compote. I decided to experiment with a blackberry compote made in a similar fashion: one-and-a-half pints of berries, zest some lemon, splash of brandy, sugar to taste, half a vanilla bean pod, and a pinch of salt. Simple enough, no? Here’s the thing: apples are a lot more forgiving than berries. I turned my back on the little bastards for a minute to attend to something else and returned to find half the berries had rendered their jus—leaving me with a pot of blackberry soup with a few bobbing survivors.
Hubristically undeterred, I decided to add a cornstarch slurry to tighten it up…simple, no? [Sounds of rummaging through glass jars.] Michelle…do we have any cornstarch left? No?…uh…okay, no problem. [Long silence, then more rummaging.] Hmm…kanten…when did I buy this? This is a thickener right?
Following the directions on the package I ripped up half a bar of sponge-like kanten into pieces and soaked it in a bowl of water for an hour, then added it, unceremoniously, to the blackberry soup. I simmered the “compote” again for 10 minutes to dissolve the kanten, then poured the still soupy mixture into a bowl to chill.
Not leaving enough time to fully chill, I retrieved it from the deck outside—it’s now cold enough around here to chill things, yes—and slopped some semi-solidified mess into a bowl and threw it on the table. Our guests seemed to really enjoy it, which I was relieved about, but I didn’t love it. Too many free-floating berry seeds left from the earlier destabilizing over-cooking.
Now we come to the theme for this post: adapt or die. Sometimes mistakes lead to irretrievably bad dishes, but, with even more of that previously noted hubris, you can sometimes rehabilitate these red-headed stepchildren by working them over even more brutally.
Bringing us to phase two: compote to jello. I thought screw it, ran the whole mess through a food mill, added more sugar and kanten and tried to shoot for a jello.
Which didn’t work either.
The food milled berries were sans-seeds, but had too much of a pulp-to-liquid ratio—or something—and didn’t set into jello by the next day. I may have not added enough kanten, who the hell knows. However, much to my surprise, the result was a very full-flavoured spread—something like an apple butter—which is great on toast or layered thickly onto pound cake, like a kind of strawberry shortcake deal.
The moral of this story kids? As the Buddhists say: every mistake is a rebirth.
*Since receiving a waffle-maker for our wedding at least.