A Recipe for Disaster

The name intrigued me. White Chocolate & Walnut Pumpkin Bread.

I found the recipe several months ago, in the fall, when the internet was chock-full of things pumpkin-y. And I love me some pumpkin.

This affection can be traced back at least 25 years, when I first started baking as a hobby. I found a recipe for a pumpkin-amaretto cheesecake, and fixed it for a Thanksgiving gathering we were attending. It was rich with cream cheese, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and a big hit, as I recall.

A few years later, I went through a sweet bread phase (not to be confused with sweetbreads, which are something else ENTIRELY) and stumbled on a recipe for pumpkin bread in my favorite cookbook. The recipe made two good-sized loaves, and I remember the first loaf disappearing rapidly, soon after coming out of the pan. It was still warm, fragrant with spices, and delicious with a smear of cream cheese on it. My son, Jarrod, was instantly hooked.

An autumn tradition began, and I’ve made that bread for him every year since. The recipe is so good, in fact, that it can (and should) be made year-round. Why not? Canned pumpkin is plentiful in the fall. I buy at least a half-dozen cans, just to have in my pantry as a staple. Wrapped up well, this bread freezes beautifully.

The new recipe included white chocolate chips, and a powdered sugar glaze on top. Not exactly like my tried and true, but it sounded promising. On the first September Saturday that I was not inundated with schoolwork, I gathered ingredients and got to work.

Immediately, I noticed something was amiss. All the usual items were assembled – flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, and the canned pumpkin, along with a little milk and a pinch of salt. But no spices.

What? No spices? No cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves? No allspice? Not even a pinch of the all-in-one pumpkin pie spice? How do you make pumpkin bread without spices?

Still, I dived in.

Moving on to the directions, I was soon stymied, as I was directed to combine half of the dry ingredients in a bowl and blend them together using the bread hook attachment.

Wait…the bread hook attachment? Why, pray tell, would you use the bread hook attachment for dry ingredients? And why only half of the ingredients? A novice baker might not have questioned the directions, but this was not my first pumpkin bread rodeo. I tossed in the remaining dry ingredients, added the milk and eggs, and abandoned the useless bread hook for the more sensible paddle blade.

Once I had a batter of sweet bread/cake-like consistency, I folded in the white chocolate chips and the walnuts (a half cup was called for, but that seemed pretty stingy to me, especially since I’d been instructed to set aside part of that for the topping. I added more), poured the concoction into a bread pan, and put it into the oven for the allotted thirty-eight minutes (Thirty-eight minutes? Random.) I set my trusty chicken timer, and sat down to read while the bread baked.

When the chicken rang, I tested the bread with a skewer to make sure it was done. It was not. Still runny in the center. Back in the oven it went. Yeah. Thirty-eight minutes.

At forty-five minutes I checked again. Still a little gooey. Sigh.

After a total of FIFTY minutes, the skewer came out clean. I set the pan on a wire rack to cool, and prepared the glaze, which consisted of three tablespoons of powdered sugar and “a tiny splash of milk”. It was to be drizzled over the bread once it cooled, but what was in my bowl wouldn’t have constituted a misting, much less a drizzle. It would have hardly been worth the effort. I added more of both ingredients and blended until I had about a third-cup of glaze.

If you’re going to glaze something, at least make a showing of it. Or else don’t bother.

I waited until the bread cooled a bit more, drizzled my more substantial glaze over it, and chopped up more walnuts to sprinkle over the glaze. That 1/8th cup I’d been instructed to set aside was just not going to cut it. Again, why bother if you’re going to be so stingy?

At last, the bread was glazed, sprinkled, and cooled. I sliced off an end. I stared at it.

It was pale, dense, and spongy. It resembled something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Whatever I was thinking of, it was NOT pumpkin bread. I pondered it. And then it came to me.

Google “sliced brain anatomy” and check out the picture. My bread was a dead ringer. No pun intended.

I’ve been cooking long enough to know that not every recipe winds up looking pretty and appetizing, and that sometimes a dish may taste better than its appearance would indicate. Sadly, this was not one of those recipes.
It was doughy and gummy. And virtually flavorless. But then, what could I expect? No spices, remember? Pumpkin, all by its lonesome, doesn’t have a lot of flavor to it. The spices, or herbs, if you’re making something savory, are what make it delectable.

Still, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t hasty in my assessment. I called Mark in for a second opinion.

“What does this look like to you?”

“Uhhhh…”

I sliced off another piece. He tasted it. Shrugged. “It’s bland.”

And with that, a consensus had been reached. Without another thought, I carried the pan across the kitchen and dropped the pumpkin brain into the trash.

And that, my friends, is how it goes in the kitchen sometimes. Not every recipe is a winner. Some of them just suck. Some are more like science experiments gone wrong. And you can’t always tell at the start. So here are a few tips for finding reliable recipes.

Seek them out from people you know are good cooks. Not everyone will share a secret family treasure, but in most cases, cooks and bakers are flattered to be asked for a recipe.

If you’re hunting recipes on the internet, look for trustworthy sources – the Food Network site, and those of well-known chefs and foodies like Paula Deen, Martha Stewart, or Giada de Laurentiis will not lead you astray. That’s not to say you can’t find good stuff from ordinary folks. There are plenty of solid recreational cooks sharing recipes online. Just remember, it’s the internet. Some recipes are keepers. Some are duds.

I usually read through a recipe from top to bottom before I decide to fix it, but not this time. If I had, the absence of spices and the bread hook step would have been red flags. Look for recipes that provide clear directions, and be sure to read through the entire thing before you start.

If all else fails, invest in a good cookbook. The Joy of Cooking is a classic, and offers helpful, basic cooking guidelines – great for beginners. The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook is another standard-bearer, full of terrific dishes. A favorite in our family is the Cotton Country Collection, a compilation from the Junior League of Monroe, Louisiana, and the source of the pumpkin bread recipe we love.

And if you find a winner like that one, stick with it.

Why mess with perfection?

*************

January contest winner De Lisa, from New York City, will be enjoying a pan of brownies within the week. Have you subscribed to Will Work For Foos yet? It’s the only way to win, you know!

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