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Troubleshooting kitchen catastrophes Add to ...

Originally published in December, 2008.

It's everyone's holiday nightmare. The table is set, the family is arriving and you're frantically trying to figure out how to deal with your kitchen disaster. Relax. Most kitchen mishaps are manageable - if you have a few tricks up your sleeve.

The best advice about kitchen catastrophes is to take steps to ensure they don't happen: Read the recipe several times before you start cooking so you understand how it works; check to make sure it's teaspoons, not tablespoons; and don't let yourself get distracted or you'll end up adding salt twice.

Most of all, be completely organized - arrange a mise en place with everything you need, as all chefs do - and have your ingredients prepared and set out before you begin cooking.

But if problems arise, here are some troubleshooting tips:

Burnt and stuck

Let's be honest - if it's completely burned, say goodbye and move on. But slightly burned is salvageable. Leave the scorched part - and its bitter taste - stuck to the pan. Don't try to scrape it off and combine it with the rest of the dish.

Remove the pan from the heat, move your sauce or soup into another pan and plunge the burnt pan into cold water. You can bulk up the dish by adding more ingredients.

If it is an overcooked vegetable dish, consider making it a gratin by sprinkling cheddar cheese and bread crumbs on top and placing it under the broiler for a few minutes. Cooks' lore says a piece of bread layered on top of a soup will draw out the scorched flavour and a spoonful of peanut butter will smooth out the flavour of burnt gravy.

They're late

Remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to stand for 20 minutes covered in tinfoil (this is something you should do anyway to keep the meat tender and prevent the juices from spilling out onto the plate). Carve the breast meat, legs and thighs and place them, covered, in shallow baking dishes in a 200 F oven.

If they're going to be really late, cover and refrigerate the meat. When you're about 30 minutes from eating, drizzle chicken or turkey broth over the meat, cover with foil and heat in a 325 F oven. Warm the stuffing, covered, in the oven as well.

Turkey cooking too slowly

Your turkey will cook much faster if you cut it up and increase the surface area exposed to the heat. Just cutting off the legs drops the cooking time by an hour. Cut the bird into wings, legs and breast and place on a large, lined baking sheet. And don't stuff the turkey - stuffing increases the cooking time.

Lumpy gravy

This is the easiest challenge to fix. A good wire whisk and a strong arm will do the trick. Help yourself out by adding a bit of hot liquid to ease the lumps. Strain the gravy through a fine sieve to make sure it's smooth before serving. If it's still lumpy, pour it into a food processor and let the machine do the work.

Thin gravy

Place the gravy in a saucepan over medium-high heat, allowing the liquid to reduce and thicken. Another option is to make a paste of equal parts flour and cold water (or a teaspoon of cornstarch for each cup of water) and add a little at a time to the prepared gravy, whisking constantly.

Too spicy

Add more of everything else the recipe calls for to cut the spiciness. Three things that counteract spice are acids, dairy and sugar. Try a few squirts of lemon or lime juice. If appropriate, you could add yogurt, sour cream, cream or coconut milk. Lastly, granulated or brown sugar may help.

Too salty

Add several peeled, raw potato slices or chunks to your dish and cook until the potato slices are translucent - about 15 minutes. The salty flavour will exit when you remove the potatoes. Sugar or cider vinegar will also neutralize salt. Add one teaspoon at a time until you have reduced the saltiness sufficiently.

Dessert is a disaster

Turn a crumbly cake into a parfait by alternating layers of fruit and whipped cream with your cake. Cover cracks on the top of your cake with frosting or try an elegant dusting of icing sugar or cocoa powder. A cracked cheesecake surface is easily hidden with a fruit topping, chocolate sauce or a combination of sour and whipped creams.

Accent a dry cake with a drizzle of brandy, caramel or custard sauce or a dollop of whipped cream.

If your pie crust is burned, just pull off the top and sprinkle on a crumble of flour or oats, butter and brown sugar.

And remember, no one knows what you actually had planned - they'll only see and taste the end result.

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