There is only one smell worse than that of the things you hoped would taste delicious burning to a crisp in your oven: the smell of the plastic containers that are holding the delicious food you’ve already made melting in your oven, while the deliciousness inside burns to a plastic-covered crisp. I haven’t had too many cooking and baking mishaps in my lifetime, because I don’t have enough courage or know-how to really screw up anything; I follow recipes like they are carved in stone, and I rarely try anything adventurous. The truth is, it’s when I try to get adventurous and deviate from that hand-written path of a recipe, disaster strikes.
Years ago, when we were still a young, blissful, childless couple, I made my famous chicken tetrazzini. I don’t have too many signature dishes, but if I had to pick the one, this would be it. My husband concurs. It requires three pots bubbling away on the stove at once, which is just about enough to put me right over the edge, but I remember feeling confident in my cooking abilities that night. I think that was due in large part to the Justin Timberlake blaring in the kitchen while I danced and sang. Apparently, I was trying to bring sexy back while cooking. It was three days after Christmas: my husband’s birthday. I was making his favorite dish as a surprise for when he got home from work.
Halfway into the cooking frenzy, I noticed that something smelled terrible. I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I wasn’t about to stop my dance break to check it out. I should have. I wish I would have. But, I didn’t. I just figured I spilled something on a burner and it was going to burn off soon.
Within three minutes, I knew what it was. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was, and I was afraid to look inside the oven to confirm it. There they were: two huge plastic containers filled to the brim with Christmas cookie goodness, and they were melting all over the inside of the oven with the cookies inside. Well, they weren’t really inside anymore; they were falling in a hazy plastic goop to the bottom of the oven and starting to flame. I saw this through the oven door.
I was not known, in the days prior to becoming a mother, for being calm, cool, and collected when I was on my own in stressful situations. Flashback to Christmas the year before the melting cookie disaster, when our puppy was about six months old. He lifted his leg on our beautifully decorated, perfect Christmas tree, and I cried and called my mom. I didn’t know what to do with the tree or the tree skirt or the wet barely-three-months-old carpet underneath, and I panicked. She came and rescued the tree, the tree skirt, the carpet, and the dog (I was determined never to speak to him again), and before she left, she sat me down and told me that I needed to learn to take a deep breath and deal with it.
So, when I saw the gigantic disaster in the oven and figured that I had only seconds to live because I was sure the whole house was going to erupt into a giant ball of oozing, melting, plastic-covered cookie fire, I got on my phone. I still hadn’t learned that take-a-deep-breath-and-deal-with-it lesson. I at least had enough sense to turn off the oven, and I turned off all of the burners and dumped the half-completed chicken tetrazzini in the sink. But, I had no idea what to do after that.
I don’t remember why, but I talked to my brother before I talked to my mom. He told me NOT to open the oven because there could be a fireball – too late, and I was damn lucky – and I could hear his tires squealing while he was still on the phone with me. I didn’t know how to get the plastic containers out of the oven because they were a dripping inferno, but I knew I had to get them out somehow. I still had no idea what to do. The only thing I could think of doing was opening all of the windows and turning off the heat because it was the middle of winter, and I put the dog outside because those fumes were killing us. I was sure of it.
I wanted to beat my head off the wall because I felt so stupid. What is the first thing they teach you in home economics? Make sure there is nothing in the oven before you turn it on. Well, I baked so little that I never kept anything in the oven, and the cookies were barely five days old, so I really was not used to having to worry about anything being in my oven. I was shaking. I was crying. And I was choking on that smell.
Five minutes after my brother got there, it was all over. He got the plastic containers out of my oven by carrying them on the oven racks over metal cookie sheets to my front yard. They still were dripping fiery bombs, but at least they were not in the oven anymore. I had no idea what to do with the mounds of melted, gooey plastic stuck to the bottom of my oven, but I knew they wouldn’t get any bigger. It took weeks for that smell to leave our house, and I still haven’t lived it down; every Christmas, my brother tells the story and my parents and husband tease me about where I store the cookies. I haven’t stored one thing inside our oven since that day.
Fast forward to today. The big kid and I decided to take a risk with our banana bread and dumped chocolate chips into the batter. I thought the pan looked really full when I was putting it into the oven (yes, I made sure it was empty before I turned it on), but I thought the batter would just bake into a nice, tall, golden brown loaf. I was wrong. Within ten minutes, it smelled terrible, and I realized there was a smoky haze in the air. I wanted to panic. I had a sleeping two year old upstairs, and the last thing I wanted was our smoke detectors to start beeping because they’re hardwired and nearly impossible to turn off. I really wanted to turn off the oven and dump the whole sorry-looking mess in the garbage.
But, I knew I had to keep it together for the five year old who had that same look of panic on his face. I took a deep breath. I dealt with it. I opened the oven, put foil on the rack underneath the exploding banana bread, and started scraping out the burning batter mounds on the bottom of the oven with tongs. I enlisted him to help by bringing me paper towels, turning on the ceiling fans, and opening the door to the back porch because I didn’t want him to be scared of a kitchen disaster. More importantly, I wanted him to see his mom in control of a scary situation. I’d like to say the rolling smoke and horrible smell were scary only for him, but I felt that old panic rising fast, too. And you know what? We survived. The bread wasn’t a total disaster; all three boys at least tried it. I’m not even upset that I’m the only one who likes it.
When my mom showed up tonight for a completely different reason other than my calling her in my old panic-stricken state, she immediately said that I should have made muffins instead of bread. One lesson at a time, Mom. What the Hell?
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