RECIPE FOR DISASTER
By Lissa Brown
The combination of a novice baker and a new oven can produce interesting results. I admit baking has never been my favorite pastime. As a matter of fact, the kitchen is a venue in which I have never been completely comfortable. I do, from time to time, feel inspired to bake a birthday cake for someone, and lacking the experience and the know-how, I am scrupulously careful to follow directions on the cake mix box.
One day, about three weeks after moving into a new home, a wave of domestic inspiration wafted through the kitchen window. By the way, that’s ‘new’ home as in ‘still finding sawdust in corners’. It was a log cabin we’d had custom built. I had all brand new appliances and I figured the virginal wall oven and I could tackle the task.
I began reading the directions on the Betty Crocker box and started to assemble the ingredients. It never fails. There’s always something in the foolproof directions that begs explanation. A third of a cup of oil, it said. But what kind of oil? I was reasonably sure I couldn’t use 3-in-1 or WD-40, but that still left lots of options.
Trying not to sound too stupid, I called my other half, who mercifully is more adept at such things. I casually worked into the conversation that I was baking a cake for our friend, Lyn. “What sort of oil works best with a spice cake?” I queried.
“Vegetable oil, of course,” was the answer. This was followed quickly by, “Are you sure you don’t want to wait until I come home from work? I can do it then.”
“No,” I replied. I can do this. My confidence had been restored once I verified what kind of oil I needed.
I hung up the phone and went to the pantry to get the oil. Our new larder hadn’t been fully stocked yet but I did see a jar of olive oil. Great, I thought. I took out three eggs, measured a cup and a third of water, and emptied the contents of the box into a mixing bowl. I’m not sure why a pang of doubt grabbed me just then, but before I added the olive oil to the cake mix and eggs, I began to wonder if olives were really vegetables. I wrestled with this for a few minutes and decided I needed to consult an expert.
The neighbor I called sounded a bit incredulous when I asked if olives were vegetables. “Why do you want to know?” she asked. I explained what I was planning to do with the olive oil. “Oh, my goodness,” she said. “I’ll be right over.” Then she threw in a “Bless your heart,” and I knew I was in trouble.
The doorbell rang and I found my neighbor with a bottle of Canola oil in hand. “This is what you need to use,” she said. “You can bring back what you don’t use later.”
It’s easy to assume that everyone is savvier about baking than I am, and even though I had never heard of a vegetable called a canola, I took her word for it and poured the oil into the bowl.
I added the eggs and water and mixed the concoction until it looked like cake batter. Meanwhile, I’d preheated the oven to 350 degrees and it signaled it was ready. I set the timer for 30 minutes and vowed to refrain from opening the oven door to check on it, as I am inclined to do. I poured the batter into the greased pan and placed it gently on the middle rack of the oven.
After 15 minutes I couldn’t stand the suspense and broke the promise to myself. I opened the oven door and looked at the cake. It looked pretty liquid but I figured that was because of the 3,700 foot altitude of my new home. I’d moved here from sea level. I closed the door and managed to stay away from the oven for another 10 minutes.
That was easy to do because the plumbers had arrived to fix the leak in our new basement. I showed them where the problem was and left them to do their work. One of the guys mentioned they’d have to shut off the water for awhile and I said that was fine.
I climbed upstairs to the kitchen and went to check on the cake. It was still very liquid and I began to suspect something was wrong. Then it hit me. There was no heat coming out of the oven. It had shut itself off. These new high-tech appliances require a bit more intelligence than the old ones but I really believed I was operating it correctly.
Out came the 62-page oven manual in three languages. I pored over the instructions until I was certain I’d done everything right. I even checked the troubleshooting section and ruled out everything on the chart except the last one that said to call the repair service.
I turned off the oven and restarted it. It started up just fine and I breathed a sign of relief. From the look of it, I guessed the cake had actually baked for about 8-10 minutes before it shut itself off. I set the timer for 20 minutes and resolved to stand and watch the oven this time.
After about five minutes, the oven beeped and shut itself off again. “Oh fine,” I shouted to nobody in particular. “Now what do I do?” I’d already invited people in that evening for cake and coffee to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
With all modesty, I must say that I’m a pretty creative problem-solver. For the heck of it, I tried the broiler and it worked fine. I waited ten minutes and it still was working. If I put the broiler on low, it surely would heat the oven enough to bake this cake, I reasoned. I put the cake back into the oven and set the timer for 15 minutes. I had a deadline to meet for an article I was writing and walked down the hall to my office to work on it.
After about 10 minutes something started to tickle my nose. I sneezed a couple of times and suddenly realized I smelled smoke. I jumped up and ran into the kitchen. Smoke was pouring out the sides of the wall oven. I shut the broiler off and retrieved the charred cake, and rushed it out onto the porch. Of course, on my way I’d managed to set off the smoke alarms.
Now I’m not a religious woman, but I had some pointed questions for our creator that all began with “Why me?” My questions for the oven company involved God too but were of an entirely different nature. They had more to do with the origins of the oven and the parentage of the people who built it. As I went back into the kitchen I remembered the water was shut off because the plumbers were working downstairs. Luckily, the cake was the only thing that caught fire.
It was beginning to look like my friend was going to have a store-bought cake. Getting to the store was a challenge, however. The nearest store was 30 minutes away and I couldn’t leave the plumbers alone in the house. Since they were the ones who did the original plumbing when the house was being built, I knew the leak they were fixing was due to their own ineptitude. I’d already had a fire and didn’t need a flood to contend with.
I swallowed the little pride I had left and picked up the phone. “Honey,” I said, “would you mind stopping at the bakery and picking up a cake on your way home from work?” I tried to sound calm although my adrenaline was flowing as I contemplated what I was going to say to the oven company when I made the next call.
My faith in the Almighty was restored when the only answer I got was, “Sure. Did you change your mind?” I hoped to avoid further discussion but I wasn’t getting off so easily. “How about if I make the cake when I get home?”
“No, even you can’t make a cake in our oven. It’s broken,” I reported. “Without going into gory details, let me just say I’m about to contact the manufacturer and let my frustration out on them. Be glad you’re not home.”
Over the next several weeks the repair service visited my home 12 times, each time except the last one, fixing the errant oven. Fearing what might happen the 13th time I insisted on a replacement oven.
This could not possibly happen twice, I was sure. I was also wrong. The second oven was shutting itself off too. I searched the yellow pages for an exorcist and finding none, I decided to call a different repair service.
My prayers were answered. The nice man figured out that the wiring on the oven was installed incorrectly. “You’re lucky it didn’t burn down the house,” he commented as he put it together correctly, the way it should have been done at the factory.
When I called the department store from which I purchased our appliances, the owner informed me “There wasn’t nothin’ wrong with that oven I took back.”
“Oh?” I said. “And how do you know that?”
“I sold it to somebody else and I haven’t heard nothin’ from ‘em.” he reported.
I’ve scoured the local newspapers to see if anyone has either murdered the store
owner or had their home burned down by a defective oven. My guess is that the poor people who ended up with that oven have done what I should have done, and resorted to buying store-bought cakes and cooking everything else in the microwave.