Food & Drink

Culinary catastrophes: Readers share recipes for disaster in the kitchen

Failed recipes can still be good for a laugh

Rebecca Groff

Looks can be deceiving. Rebecca Groff's lovely checkerboard cake actually “tasted like it was made of finely ground up cardboard flour and water.”
Rebecca Groff Looks can be deceiving. Rebecca Groff's lovely checkerboard cake actually “tasted like it was made of finely ground up cardboard flour and water.”

It’s April Fools’ Day, and nothing makes a cook feel more foolish than a culinary catastrophe.

A bevy of brave readers heeded the call to share their tales of woe, designed to give you all a good laugh.

It seems only fair that I should share my most blushing moment.

No, it wasn’t the time I roasted the giblets inside the Thanksgiving turkey’s torso or watched in horror as a pan of Easter eggs boiled dry on the stove and exploded, sending shrapnel up to Mom’s kitchen ceiling.

I enjoyed baking fancy birthday cakes for the little girls I helped raise. One year, the oldest child requested a Barbie cake for her party with friends.

I didn’t have a deep round pan or deep pockets to invest in another pan, so I used a big round baking dish. That worked. And instead of sticking a new doll in the cake, I found a faux-Barbie on a stick. That worked, too.

I carefully piped on a pink ballgown and bodice. But it was August, and we didn’t have air conditioning.

After the outdoor games, the girls came inside for cake.

Much to my horror — and their delight — Barbie’s bodice was now pooled around her waist, leaving her topless.

The cake was a hit, but I was amiss.

And now, sit back and enjoy these other tales of woe.




This was an epic fail. It happened in springtime 1982, at our former home in Skokie, Ill. I had cooked fresh asparagus, and didn’t want to throw away the tough stems.

Finding a recipe for cream of asparagus soup, I put the hot ingredients in my blender. The blender container was almost filled when I turned the dial to “puree.” BAD idea. The warm, gloppy mixture came spilling out of the top, and made a huge mess.

Shortly thereafter, I purchased an immersion blender, and have never looked back.

— Margo Jarosz, Fairfax




The burned offerings in the first picture were made from puff pastry that I had NOT put back into the freezer for storage, like the instructions specifically say you should do.

I had kept it in the refrigerator for about three weeks, knowing I would use it and thought that it would be OK. It was not.

But, I decided to go ahead and bake palmiers with it anyway. I couldn’t find my recipe for specific baking temperature and time, so I guessed. And what you see in the photo shows how wrong it all went. The puff pastry was flat and uncooked on the inside — and the outside got the sunburn of its life. They went into the trash, and I learned my lesson.

The second — and really painful disaster — was a failed birthday cake for Wayne’s 58th birthday. I tried to do something different with one of these checkerboard cake contraptions. It was time-consuming, but I like to make special things for my family when I can. The cakes baked fine — with me, for whatever reason, deciding to use actual cake flour for the recipe this time. Something really went wrong, or maybe the cake flour was past its prime. I’ll never know.

I never bothered to taste it until it was all frosted up super neat with piped peanut butter/cream cheese buttercreme, and topped with chopped Hershey’s bars and peanuts. I was so sure it would go over big with him.

We cut into it, and one bite in we just looked at each other like, ‘What the heck?’ That beautifully done cake tasted like it was made of finely ground up cardboard flour and water. Even the chocolate parts in the cake did not taste like chocolate. There wasn’t a hint of any flavor, period.


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I’m never going to know what went wrong. I’ve never encountered a flavor issue in a cake before. And the whole experience put me off using cake flour.

I remember asking Wayne if he wanted to take the rest in for the office, and he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I should have never suggested it. It would have been too embarrassing to subject his fellow office mates to such a pointless stack of cake. Painful as it was, the whole thing went into the garbage.

That cake tends to negate the saying, what you see is what you get.

— Rebecca Groff, Cedar Rapids


I grew up on a farm in the ’40s and ’50s. My main jobs were to do chicken chores and to help with the cooking.

One day in early summer I was helping Mother prepare dinner. Meatloaf was on the menu. She sent me to the cob shed to get an onion. I returned from the shed with the onion, cleaned and chopped it and added it to the meatloaf. The pan of meatloaf was put in the range’s oven, which was heated with burning cobs.

At noon when Daddy came in for lunch, the food was put on the table and Daddy was served first. I was looking forward to seeing his face when he tasted the meatloaf that I had helped prepare.

He took his first bite, made a muffled sound and promptly spit out that bite. I can’t explain the expression on his face. I just remember my horror as I jumped up from the table and fled to my room.

Later, when all had calmed down, Mother took me to the cob shed and had me show her where I got the onion. There were several mesh bags with bulbs in them hanging from nails on the wall. She laughed when she saw where I pointed. The “onion” I prepared for the meatloaf was actually a flower bulb of some kind.

To this day, I often remember the story of the inedible meatloaf as I prepare onions for our meals.

— Eleanor Roquet, Keystone



I decided to make my own onion strings. I reached into the cupboard to get my container of flour. I dipped the thinly sliced onions into an egg mixture and then, into the flour mixture.

As I put the onions into the oil, they were burning instead of browning. I couldn’t get them out fast enough. My husband came in and tried them, saying they tasted sickeningly sweet. I told him I didn’t add any sugar. Then, I tasted them. They were definitely sweet.

I opened the container, again. It wasn’t flour — it was powdered sugar.

— Genny Yarne, Marion


My tale of kitchen woe begins shortly after marriage and living in a small, rented apartment. I decided to impress my lovely and charming wife with my legendary baked bean and hot dog casserole while she was out shopping. I fired up the oven to 425 to preheat and went about with other chores.

It was at this time I learned of one of my lovely and charming wife’s idiosyncrasies. She likes to leave her empty pizza boxes in the oven.

I smell smoke and as I look through the glass door of the oven, I see small flames. I open the oven and grandly make the problem even worse. Now I see big angry flames flickering at me, taunting me.

I panic. It’s a gas stove: Will it blow up? Should I leave? What do I do? My eyes dart about, desperately searching for something with which to grab the burning pizza box and remove it from the oven. Relying my superior male intellect, I choose the lovely and charming wife’s yellow kitchen gloves. Yes. The rubber ones.

I heroically snatch the burning pizza box from the oven but suddenly realize I had not thought this through. Where does a person put a pizza box that is on fire? Trash can? Filled with paper products. Sink! Filled with dishes. I can’t just drop it and stomp on it, (The kitchen was carpeted for some bizarre reason.)

It was at this moment of indecision that the magic happens. I realized my wife’s kitchen gloves were now also on fire and melting onto my hands.


I drop the burning box onto the kitchen carpet. I am now furiously stomping my feet on the box while also flailing my hands in all directions. What results are these stunningly beautiful balls of yellow burning rubber arching through the air and gracefully landing onto the walls, the floor, my face, my hair, and I do believe the cat unwillingly took part in my ordeal judging from its sudden yowling and quick retreat into the bedroom.

The gloves finally separate from my hands and are now also on the carpet on fire, along with the pizza box, and I am now stomping the gloves into our beautiful avocado green kitchen carpet while also trying to smother the burning balls of rubber that now illuminate the kitchen much like tiny little stars on moonless night, with my bare hands.

Finally, it’s over. The fires are out. All that remains is carnage, burned carpet, yellow pools of molten rubber and smoke. I stand there covered in tiny blackened bits of rubber and my hair still is smoking. The carpet is ruined and the house smells of pungent, eye searing, burning tires with a delightful overtone of overcooked, week old pepperoni followed by an opulent yet lip pursing aroma of well-cooked carpet fabric and burning hair.

(And when his wife returned, she laughed.)

It will always be fondly remembered as my favorite recipe for a laugh and a smile.

— Chris Newitt, Cedar Rapids


As a new bride some 50 years ago, I was getting ready to have my in-laws over for supper. I planned to serve roast beef, and I wanted to make a good impression, especially with my tender roast beef.

Every time we’d had roast beef at my future in-laws when we were dating, the roast was always a little tough. I’d called Mother and gotten her instructions to ensure a tender roast.

I’d planned carefully, and had potatoes and carrots in the pan with the roast. It was going to be great!

The roast looked delicious when I got it out of the oven. My husband went to slice it, and to my horror, it was nicely browned outside but raw inside. I checked the potatoes and carrots, and they weren’t cooked, either.

I had to boil the potatoes and carrots, since there were no microwaves then. And the meat? No problem, my husband said. He grabbed the skillet and began frying slices of beef.


Needless to say, my mother-in-law’s toughest roast couldn’t hold a candle to the shoe leather I served that night. What a way to find out that our oven didn’t work properly.

My in-laws were good sports and never said a bad word about the meal — and I never said a word about tough beef roasts.

— Nancy Pruin, Marion


Aunt Mary Svaton was making kolaches one day, and my sisters and I were at her house watching.

The wonderful dough was made. They were to the small-ball stage where they needed to rise before you made holes in them to fill with poppy seed, cherry, apple or cottage cheese.

Aunt Mary put the pans of balls in the oven which in those days had a pilot light; in 20 to 30 minutes they would be raised enough to continue.

Oops. In about 5 to 10 minutes we smelled baking dough. Aunt Mary had forgotten that the oven was on and ready to bake the kolaches. She was so angry about the mishap and threw them all away.

— Fran Hanzel Johnson, Cedar Rapids


I’ve started a list called “Things I should never try to do again in this lifetime.”

The neighbor lady in my condo was having her 89th birthday and one of my friends texted me and asked if I had an angel food cake pan. Well of course I do, doesn’t everyone? She told me that Shirley wanted a chocolate angel food cake for her birthday. I immediately thought, “No problem, I can do that.”


The fact that I had not made an angel food cake since I was a kid on the farm should have been my first clue, but I just chalked it up to not being particularly fond of angel food cake.

Since there are no cake mixes for chocolate angel food cake, I went to the internet and found and copied the one that looked the easiest. I checked ingredients to be sure I had everything I needed. I discovered I needed cake flour, which I had never bought in my life.

The first thing the recipe said to do was have all of your ingredients ready to use before starting the cake.

First sift the cake flour and then measure it into a small bowl. Done. Then measure and add the cocoa power. Done.

Next the recipe called for 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar. Done. Separate 12 eggs and put the whites in a large bowl.

I go back and read the recipe, oops. I was only supposed to put the 2 tablespoons of sugar in with the cake flour — the half-cup went into the beaten egg whites.

I throw the dry ingredients out and start over.

Sift and measure the cake flour, add the cocoa and the sugar. Back to the recipe. The next ingredient is 1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar, I throw that in. A light bulb goes off in my head, shouldn’t the cream of tartar go in the eggs? Yes, the cream of tartar goes into the beaten egg whites.

I throw out my dry ingredients again, sift and measure the cake flour, add the cocoa and realize I am completely out of sugar. I text my friend and find out that she has only the exact amount of sugar that I need. I go to her condo, get the sugar and measure it out.


I measure my cream of tartar and put it in a small dish. Finally I am ready to beat my dozen egg whites. I beat them until soft peaks form and then add my cream of tartar and sugar.

Last I fold in my dry ingredients and pour the batter into the cake pan. My oven has been warming up throughout this long process and I slip the pan into the oven and set the timer.

I check the oven several times and notice that it does seem to be rising but is not up to the top of the pan. When the timer goes off I take it out of the oven and immediately turn it upside down on a cooling rack the way I remember my mother doing.

When the pan is cool I turn it over only to discover that it has fallen. Not only is it not up to the top of the pan, it is several inches below that and a bit concave. I decide to frost it to try and disguise it a bit.

The cake ends up edible but not a pretty sight.

— Jeanne Liston, North Liberty


We were married in 1971 and lived in Cedar Rapids at the time. My husband (Larry) had a grandma, Bessie Igou, who lived in a retirement home in Northwood, Iowa. However, every summer she would come to Cedar Rapids to stay with my in-laws, Jim and Carolyn Igou.

Grandma Bessie was just a sweetheart, soft-spoken and so nice. So since we were newlyweds and she was here for a couple of weeks, I decided to have her and my in-laws over for a nice dinner.

I liked to cook and I was going to make sure everything was perfect. I was so proud as I made my first two-crust cherry pie. It came out of the oven beautifully. So I cut Grandma Bessie the first piece and put a dollop of ice cream on it and then proceeded to cut my in-laws and my husband their pieces. I asked how the pie was and my father-in-law told me, “It would be better if you did not have to pick out the pits!” I wanted the floor to cave in. And sweet Grandma Bessie said, “It’s OK, sweetheart, we can pick out the pits, the pie and crust is very good.”

Tears started rolling down my face and I was so embarrassed. Just like the first meal for my husband when we got back from our honeymoon. I went to take it out of the oven, and the oven hadn’t worked.

— Sheilah Igou, Swisher



Back in 1969, my mother gave me the following candy recipe. (I don’t have a name for it.)

She said it was delicious and that it takes a long time to form a “hard ball.”

I guess I didn’t know exactly what a “hard ball” was. I kept testing it with the cold water method and thought I boiled it long enough and put it in the pan.

I’m not sure how I got it out of the pan, but I couldn’t cut it. We used a chisel and hammer to get small pieces to eat.

My mother came later and made me a perfect batch.

6 cups white sugar

2 cups white Karo syrup

4 tablespoons butter

dash of salt

1 tall can Carnation milk

1 small can Carnation milk

Cook over a medium heat until it reaches a hard ball stage. Add 1/2 pound chopped nuts. Cool and beat well. Put in buttered 9-by-13-inch pan. 

— Joyce Kuhnle, Marengo


I love to cook, so about twice a month I invite two friends over for a meal. The menu always includes at least one new recipe that I have never made before.

One of the side dishes was dumplings. I mixed all the ingredients, dropped them in to the boiling water, placed the lid on, and set the timer.

The timer went off and I lifted the lid and stood there looking at the pot of milky watery pot of something — not even the hint of a lump.

Thank goodness for nice friends. We all had a good laugh.

— Pam Malczynski, Cedar Rapids


My husband and I had just gotten married and moved into a tiny third-floor apartment. My husband grew up on a farm, and needless to say, his mother was a great cook.


He asked me one day if I could make chicken and dumplings. I said yes, because I watched my mother make them all the time for our family of eight.

I put a sauce pan of water on the small, apartment-size stove to boil. Then I mixed together flour and some spices, not really knowing what I was doing.

I started scooping tablespoons of the flour mixture into the boiling water. Pretty soon, dumplings were boiling over onto the stove and then the floor. Aghast, I grabbed a larger pan, scooped up the dumplings off the stove and floor and put everything into the large pan.

My husband did not see what happened in the kitchen. We sat down to eat chicken and dumplings, and my husband remarked that they tasted pretty good. I secretly hoped he wasn’t eating any dumplings I picked up off the floor.

Now I am almost 80. I still get a chuckle every time I hear the word “dumplings.”

— Penny Fisher, Cedar Rapids


My mother was a very good cook with most all foods, but a baker of bread, pastries and desserts she was not.

One morning (I was in third or fourth grade), she told me she was going to make a banana cream pie. My eyes lit up with excitement and joy.

I called Grandma and said, “Mother is going to make a banana cream pie. Goodbye.”

Mother put out the flour, shortening and a small dish of water. She mixed the ingredients and starting kneading the dough.

She washed and dried a long pop bottle and put flour all over the bottle, then started to roll out the dough, but it kept sticking to the bottle. After so many attempts, Mother looked frustrated. “I guess I should have bought a regular rolling pin,” she said.


I called Grandma and said, “We are not going to have banana cream pie. Instead, we are going to have banana cream pudding. Goodbye.”

— Judith Marshall, Washington, Iowa


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