The simple joy of f***ing up in the kitchen

Or, The Tale of the Ugly Dumplings

I had a notion the other day. This happens from time to time — I get something into my head, and I just have to see it through, whether it’s a good idea or not. 

I had a notion about making soup dumplings.

Image result for joe's shanghai soup dumplings

Xiaolongbao, as they’re properly known, are a steamed bun that originated around Shanghai — thin wheat-flour wrappers, typically filled with a mixture of pork and shrimp and a gelled broth aspic and pinched into a coin purse-like shape, open only on the top. As they’re steamed, the aspic melts but stays contained within the wrapper, a hot soup ready to be released when someone (foolishly) bites into them or (wisely) punctures them with chopsticks first.

They’re somewhat laborious to make, but I already had the most time-consuming part taken care of: a container of gelatin-heavy pork broth left over from last week’s ramen-making venture. All I’d need to do was make the filling and dough, then roll out the wrappers and fill them. I love having a project on a Sunday afternoon, and attempting to make xiaolongbao seemed a way more appealing one than filling clearing the last of the dead leaves off the back patio.

I set to it.

The success of this venture, in two images:

Kitchen ventures rarely go exactly as planned. The ingredients have their own agendas, and they don’t have any obligation to tell you when you’re handling them wrong, or using the wrong equipment, or forgetting a step. They’re going to do whatever they feel like doing, and that’s their prerogative. I would be reminded of this.

The first step was easy — make a hot water dough with all-purpose flour and boiling water. I followed the instructions and did so, then covered it with a damp dishtowel to rest for the allotted thirty minutes. That gave me thirty minutes to think. Yes, I’m doing this. I set out to do a complicated thing, and now I’m one step in, confident in the orderly procession of the remaining steps between me and expertly crafted dumplings here in my kitchen. All is well.

Hmm. I guess the dishtowel wasn’t damp enough. Dough dried out a little. No big deal, I can pick some of the crusty parts off. I’ll make 32 dumplings instead of 40. That’s healthier anyways.

I parceled the dough out into tablespoon-sized portions and began rolling them out. It’s hard to roll a perfect circle. How big is three inches anyways? Is that three inches? Are ellipses okay? Shit, I’d better get these in between layers of plastic wrap like the recipe said — I don’t want them to dry out again while I roll the rest.

Shit.

Okay, I’m going to make 16 dumplings instead of 32. That’s fine. This will be an afternoon snack for my wife and I instead of a full-fledged dinner. We’ve got other things I can make tonight. Clearly I’m an experienced hand in the kitchen; I can recover.

The filling was already in the fridge — keeping the gelled broth solid was important. I’d have to work quickly if I was going to get these filled. The clock’s ticking. The pressure’s on. My hands are sweating. The filling is melting in my hands. I was promised this would not happen. Alexa, take a note: product idea, gloves you freeze first? Possible Shark Tank appearance? End note. End note. End note.

Honey we don’t have an Alexa we have a Google Home and you unplugged it because you got tired of getting really accurate promoted ads

Oh, right. Okay, I’ve just got to pinch these up into perfect little purses.

They’re not pinching right.

I saw this part coming, honestly.

Alright, well, I won’t do the really artful pleats like the pros do, I’ll just kinda mash ‘em together at the top and hope for the best.

Thirteen dumplings. That’s fine. We’ll have thirteen. I’ll get out that bamboo steamer I bought ten years ago and used three times since. Trader Joe’s didn’t have cabbage leaves for lining it, so I’m using romaine leaves. They keep falling over. Maybe if I smash the ribs of the lettuce? Yeah, there we go. Alright. Almost home.

Five burst in the steamer. Fine. Whatever. Eight left. We’re ordering pizza tonight.

The filling was tasty enough, I suppose. The broth, or “soup”, you know, the thing that gives these their name? It either leaked out entirely or soaked into the wrappers while cooking. The eight survivors from the original band of 40 were mediocre at best, a quiet final salvo in an unmitigated kitchen debacle. I failed miserably.

Do I regret it? No. 

I love cooking, and part of why I love it is the ability to try something different and just completely botch it up. I’ve made lots of great food over the years, and I’ve made lots of terrible food. Gnocchi that dissolved in the water. Fish that burned to the grill, scallops that stuck to the pan. A pizza that folded over on itself like a MAD Magazine Fold-In as I tried to shake it off the pizza peel onto the hot stone. A pizza with a rye flour crust. (I was curious. Do not try this.)

It’s satisfying to fail in the kitchen because of the relative stakes.

The stakes seem so high in every part of life, and I’m constantly afraid of fucking up, in all sorts of different ways. At work, where a mistake I make might not be uncovered for months or years, but when it is it might cost tens of thousands of dollars to correct. As a parent, where I feel like I’m never meeting the standard I want, and I’m just hoping I don’t pass on the worst parts of me to them. As a member of society, where the world seems to be spinning out of control faster every day and there’s little or nothing that I can do to change it. 

I’m fortunate that there’s enough in the fridge to cover my mistakes, and no one in the house will go hungry when I do screw up. That’s a gift. It’s a gift to be able to set aside my constant fear of doing something wrong and just… do something wrong. I can take on a venture that I’m wildly unqualified for and fail spectacularly and predictably and I can simply eat or hide the results without jeopardizing a construction project or a child’s emotional development or the climate. After a tough day of work, or a fraught evening of parenting, or another day of scrolling through the news in horror, there’s something to be said for cracking open a cookbook and forging ahead toward failure.

I ate the dumplings, and then I set to making dinner.

Maybe next week I’ll make a souffle.