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August 6, 2007

I am writing this blog to dispel any misconception that just because I’m a food editor and supposedly know how to cook, all of my recipes turn out perfect. It just ain’t the case.

Take this plum tart that I’m eating myself instead of taking to a dinner party tonight. For all intents and purposes, it should have been sublime. Freshly picked plums from a friend’s garden, homemade crust, a light dusting of organic cane sugar—plus the fact that I studied pastry, so I like to think I know my way around pies and tarts.

But no. What I pulled out of the oven a half hour ago is a sodden mess. And I’m kicking myself because I should have known better.

For one, the recipe I was following was from a cookbook I’ve used before—and had trouble with before. So when the author said I didn’t have to blind-bake (prebake for 10 minutes) the crust before adding the fruit (plums are ultrajuicy and release a lot of liquid, which seeps into crust dough if it’s not baked a bit before they’re put in the tart), a red flag should have gone up in my head. Still, I trusted her. I followed the directions. My reward? A soggy tart, a smoky kitchen, and an oven that needs to be cleaned, thanks to the juice that leaked out of the gooey crust.

This would be enough to make many cooks swear off plum tarts—and sometimes all pies in general—for good. But I’ve baked enough (and failed enough) to know that there will always be a certain percentage of error in the kitchen. Crusts leak. Food burns. Cookbook authors and food editors don’t always get it right. Not often, thank heavens, but occasionally. The trick is to not get discouraged and, yes, even try again. I just blind-baked a second crust, filled it with plums and put another tart in the oven. Tune in next week for the results, and in the meantime, share your food preparation frustrations. There’s nothing like comparing battle scars and baking mishaps to make you feel better.

PS: One of the greatest cooking tips I ever learned is this: To stop oven spills from smoking, cover them with a handful of coarse salt. This also dries out the mess so all you have to do is scrape it out when the oven’s cool.

Mary Margaret Chappell, food editor