The Seduction of New Kitchen Utensils

deta-201.jpgWhile frantically trying to come up with great holiday gift ideas each year for various members of my family, I often ask them what they would like to receive, making the assumption that giving them something they want is better than the random shot-in-the-dark that often results in an unsuccessful or unwanted present.  When queried this year, my partner’s stepmother informed me that she wanted kitchen utensils “of any kind,” citing the fact that most of hers were at least twenty years old or older. 

With the notion fresh in my mind, I went flying out the door to the Broadway Panhandler, a local shop in the village which specializes in anything and everything relating to the kitchen.  Assuming I would be in-and-out and on my way in under twenty minutes, I was surprised when I emerged three hours later with a sack full of the latest kitchen gizmos and gadgets, as well as a variety of the newest versions of old standbys and favorite tools.

One of the best items I discovered during my foray was a big rubber oven mitt, unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Now, perhaps this item has been de rigueur in chic kitchens across America for a while now, but it somehow had not made it on to my simple and definitely limited culinary radar.  Like a big giant toy, of all the things I bought that day, I saw this item as the crowning glory to a Christmas package that I was sure would be the ultimate wet dream for any cook.

I became so enamored of “the Glove” as it is called, that when I moved a few weeks later, I seized upon the opportunity to shop for one of my very own.  Once again, what started out as a simple task turned into a shopping extravaganza in which I found myself fondling and hoarding all sorts of needless kitchen items including egg separators and cream dispensers shaped like baby calves where the milk ran from their gaping mouths.  One item quickly led to two and so on as I seized upon the notion of making red velvet cupcakes (“Obama-cakes!”) in celebration of the upcoming inauguration.  Emboldened by my vow to make them from scratch, I became swept up in the endless supply of kitchen doo-dads and told myself I had to pick up just a few more items. 

cupcakecarrier.jpgSuddenly, I had to have a non-stick rolling pin, which I rationalized (perhaps as one would murder) was a bargain at $24.99!  I was like a drunk on free beer day at the local brewery; I was out of control and couldn’t stop myself.  Over a $100 dollars later, I shamefully rolled out of the store with so many bags I kept dropping things, including a deluxe cupcake carrier (“I have to have something to carry them in” I swore to myself).  Among the various accoutrements were stacks of cooling racks, Crisco, and a curious can of something called buttermilk powder, a substitute for the real thing, whose label declared it “perfect for baking.”

Over the next day, I made oatmeal Scotchie cookies, baked a tomato and goat cheese quiche (homemade crust and all), and put together a huge salad with blue cheese, walnuts and Granny Smith apples topped with balsamic vinegar.  I was on a roll as I watched the snow pile up outside.  After a full day in the kitchen, though I was starting to lose steam, and the cupcakes were still only a thought as daylight began to fade fast. I cleaned up a bit, and finally dug into the cupcake recipe with a huge cup of coffee to support me. Using my new hand mixer, I felt a smug sense of pride, as I flew along.  I measured, scooped, mixed and finally added the red food coloring, practicing great caution to ensure that I didn’t send globs of red batter splattering across the room.  As precise as I thought I was, it didn’t matter. I ended up making a mess anyway, leaving my kitchen looking like a hospital operating room at the end of a bad day.  

cupcaketins.jpgAfter what felt like hours, I finally loaded the twenty four paper cups into the two new muffin tins that I had recently purchased, setting the timer so that I could rotate the pans at just the right moment.  After 10 minutes, I looked at the lumpy red mess in each cup and was a bit horrified to realize that each resembled some terrible flesh wound.   Strange, I thought, as I pondered the situation, and wondered if perhaps I had done something wrong.  I retraced my steps and assured myself, I had followed the recipe word-for-word and measure-for-measure.  After another 10 minutes, I tested the lumpy mess which now had a peculiar grayish tint, and decided that although they did not look very appetizing, the cupcakes were indeed done.  Pulling them from the oven to cool, I next turned to the task of making a cream cheese vanilla frosting.  After another 30 minutes of blending, beating and cajoling the massive one pound+ mixture, my peaks were whipped high enough and I deemed the job complete.   

Finally, I was in the homestretch.  Using my new pastry frosting knife, I pulled the quickly hardening cupcakes from the rack and glopped on the cream cheese frosting as my mouth watered.  I was ready to savor the final result of a lot of time, money and effort, but what I found on first taste was something less like cake and more akin to the chewy consistency of a brownie.  Being the king of over-rationalization, I told myself, “they are supposed to be that way.”  Still unsure of myself, I offered one to my partner, Chris, who put on his game face and politely lied to me in a voice that was a bit too chipper saying, "they’re good.”  

As I continued to clean up the mountain of mess that I had created, I thought “they’ll be better after having sat for a while.” An hour later, once I had the kitchen cleaned, I was exhausted and ready for bed, but not before deciding to give the cupcakes one last try.   As I peered down at what now resembled a lab experiment gone terribly wrong, I forced one into my mouth and realized in horror that they were now as hard as a brick.  Feeling defeated, I sat down on the floor with the dogs next to me, and wondered what had gone so wrong.  As I looked at Petey, my three year old French bulldog who normally eats everything, and realized that he too was turning his nose up at my strange concoction, it struck me that perhaps my cooking disaster was because I had put in too much or too little of the buttermilk powder, not substituting the right amount for the real thing.  

As I grabbed the can from the cabinet, I asked Chris what he thought, since he is the much more successful cook in our family.  I told him I had used the exact 4 tablespoons the label called for, which were the equivalent of a cup of real buttermilk.  He asked me how much water I had added to the powder in order to reconstitute the mixture before dumping it into the batter.  “What water?” I sheepishly asked.  Furious, exhausted, and as red-faced as the failed cupcakes should have been, I dumped the remaining 21 disasters into the garbage can, and told Chris to keep me away from all kitchen “gimmickry” until further notice.


Seale "Brother" Ballenger is a twenty year veteran of the book publishing industry and currently works as the senior publicity director for Harper Entertainment and William Morrow at Harper Collins Publishers. He is the author of HELL'S BELLES: A Tribute to the Spitfires, Bad Seeds, and Steel Magnolias of the New & Old South.  Seale, his partner Chris, and their two French bulldogs, Maddie and Petey, live in New York City.