Kitchen Confessional: Burnin’ Down Da House

Now that the turkey leftovers are gone, the tryptophan torpor has receded, and we’ve physically and emotionally pushed away from the Thanksgiving table, I need to get something off my chest. A kitchen confessional, if you will: On the Holiest of Holy Days for culinistas all over the country, I failed miserably at the stove. Twice.

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It was far and away the worst hatchet job I’ve ever committed–and it was at baking, my bailiwick. In the 20-something years that I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinner, yes, I’ve forgotten to take the giblets packet out of the bird; yes, I’ve both under- and overcooked the turkey; and, yes, I’ve neglected to heat the stuffing to the ideal (read: salmonella-free) temperature. But I’ve never, ever failed to whip up gasp-inducing desserts. But I can’t take full responsibility for my fumble: I mostly blame Twitter and Instagram, because if it weren’t for me snapping pictures of my marvelosity in the kitchen for public consumption, I would’ve had a relaxing holiday, and the members of the Roxbury volunteer fire department would’ve been able to finish their meal undisturbed.

Let me backtrack. Please.

The Tuesday night before Thanksgiving I was planning to make my pumpkin cake with maple-cream cheese frosting and Melissa Clark’s spiced maple pecan pie for dessert. The One is a pumpkin freak and demands the cake every year. The pie was a concession, a peace offering to those poor friends of ours who’ve been politely eating the same dessert for nearly a decade. I thought they might want need a change.

Knowing that some of my blogging brethren, among them Ree Drummond, Shauna James Ahern, David Lebovitz, Gail Dosik, Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, are quite adept at snapping cell phone pics of their kitchen hijinks and tweeting them while cooking, I decided I could, too. So with iPhone in hand, and iPad in its kitchen condom, I began clicking away. But instead of waiting until the cake was safely in the oven to upload the shots and check Twitter for the inevitable onslaught of kudos from you all, I decided to reply to every single response while baking.

Cake Making

Basking in your immediate adulation and unconditional love with one hand while meticulously dividing, weighing, and smoothing the batter with the other, I noticed something odd. As in the batter spreading as thick as spackle. I had to work it into the edges of the pan, where the sides meet the bottom. No big deal, I thought. I’ve made this a million times, and it always comes out perfectly. Must be the dry weather. With that, I slid all three pans into the oven and returned to my 4G iNeedConstantLoveMachine.

Forty minutes later, I pulled the cake layers from the oven to discover they hadn’t risen much. No big deal, I told myself again. I’m using three nine-inch pans instead of the usual two eight-inchers. They’re bound to be a little thinner.

I tipped the cakes out of the pans, and instead of steaming circles of spicy pumpkin loveliness, I was affronted by what can only be described as mutants. Each layer was riddled with worm holes. Entire sections were curdled and dry, with huge gaps in them. No big deal, that’s why God made frosting. It was while reaching for my iPhone, to see who else liked my photos on Instagram, that I spotted them sitting on the counter, mocking me: a chorus line of three cans of unopened solid-packed pumpkin. I’D FORGOTTEN TO ADD PUMPKIN TO THE PUMPKIN CAKE.

For a brief, dark moment, I contemplated passing off this castrato of a cake as the real thing. Chances are my guests wouldn’t know, and, most important, neither would you. I imagined millions of you sitting at your computers or holding your cellphones while watching “Body of Proof” just waiting for the final shot of my towering creation. Guilt, my constant sniggering companion, won out. I dumped the damn thing into a plastic trash bag like so many dead bodies on TV.

The next morning, refreshed but hours behind, I turned out what The One later called the best pumpkin cake ever. Below is its headshot, which is what I, of course, tweeted.

Pumpkin Cake with Maple Cream-Cheese Frosting

The cake redo slapped me all the way into the middle of Wednesday afternoon. If I worked quickly and efficiently, I could knock out the spiced maple pecan pie and prep my three side dishes: Virginia Willis’s bourbon sweet potatoes, roasted carrots with an agresto sauce (a to-die-for mix of chopped nuts, lemon juice, vinegar, wine, parsley and spices), and homemade green-bean salad. (Revel below.)

Thanksgiving Sides

Melissa’s recipe calls for maple syrup and demerara sugar to be simmered until reduced by about a third. Being in a hurry, I calculated I could save almost 20 minutes if I let it boil down–and who the hell has demerara sugar in the middle of rural Connecticut? So I used granulated sugar instead. It was then that I walked out of the kitchen into the family room to get a recipe. I’m talking all of 60 feet, people. I was flipping through a cookbook when what sounded liked a nuclear-disaster siren went off.

I ran to the kitchen and from the pot billowed the blackest, foulest-smelling smoke I ever had the misfortune to encounter. Now, I’m good in emergencies. The One and I were like hopped-up Eagle Scouts on 9/11, filling bathtubs and sinks with water; withdrawing huge sums of cash from all of our accounts; and shopping for food, flashlights, batteries, and the current issue of People magazine. But on this day, as I ping-ponged between four fire alarms and three French doors, shooing out the smoke with my apron and a spatula (spatula?), what’s the one thing I forgot to do? Turn off the stove. So as soon as I got the air raid under control, it started again. And again. And again. Finally, I tossed the pan in the sink then thought better of it and flung it out into the yard.

With the bleating now over, the phone rang. Holy go to war, the alarm company. I smoothed my sooty apron and cleared my throat. “Hello?” I said, as if I were the top earner at a phone sex company.

“Sir, we have a report of an alarm trigger at this residence. Who am I speaking with?”

“David Leite.” My voice was all warm caramel and Cognac.

“Who else is on this account?”

“_______________,” I replied, using The One’s real name.

“What’s the passcode, sir?” Passcode? What passcode?

And as if reading a roll call, I listed every single password I could remember. (Note: None of these are real. What do you think? I’m crazy?) “Ginger, Gilligan, Miss Piggy, Marcia Brady, Julia Child, Tom and Jerry, Mr. Spock.”


“Murphy Brown…”



Dial tone. He’d hung up on me. Then the most sickening sound pierced the air: the wail of the town’s fire alarm. “Noooooooooooo!” The One is going to kill me. I could see the headlines in the Litchfield County Times: “Lauded Food Writer Almost Burns Down the House.” Frantic, I called 411 and asked for the Roxbury Fire Department.

“Sir,” said the operator, “you don’t need to call the fire department. You just need to dial 911.”

“No, I don’t need to report a fire–“

“Then why are you calling the fire department?”


“Sir, I’m required to connect you to 911–“

I pressed “End Call” and dropped my iPhone on the couch as if I were letting go of a putrid piece of pork. Lying there, it chimed an alert: “Instagram: Talon245 liked your photo.” Oh, how sweet of him. I instinctively reached out to see what he’d written. “No!,” I shouted, shaking my head trying to gain perspective.

After a few minutes, The One and our friend Caroline, who was spending the holiday with us, came home. He looked around the kitchen and out into the backyard at the tar-colored pot, slack jawed. “Don’t ask,” I said before he could say anything. “Please, don’t ask.” As we stared at each other the whine of another siren grew louder.

“Don’t tell me…,” he said pointing over his shoulder to the sound, realizing it had my name on it. I nodded my head. “Oh, David” was all he could get out before flashing red lights splashed across the family room walls. I rose to go to the door. “Sit,” he said. “SIT!” I obeyed.

“Think this will end up in the newspaper’s police blotter?” I asked Caroline, looking for some sympathy.

Ever immune to subtle interpersonal cues, she said flatly, “Probably.”

I ran through the kitchen cutting off The One before he got to the door and opened it. A man in a flannel jacket and a bruised fire helmet poked his head in. “Um, is there a fire here?” he asked, unsure he got the right address.

Suddenly self-conscious about what I looked like–after all I was in my Warner Bros. pajamas and a sooty apron–I smoothed my hair. 

“Hi, officer,” I said, smiling. Behind him was a fire truck and several men putting on gear. “Um, is it officer,” I continued trying to sound nonchalant, “or fire marshall?”

“John. It’s John.”

“John,” I replied, emphasizing his name, “this is rather embarrassing, but I kind of messed up my Thanksgiving dessert. Just a bunch of smoke and drama, but no fire.” He looked at The One who was behind me for some kind of assurance. The One nodded.

“I hope I didn’t pull you all away from anything important.”

“Well, some of the guys were just having an early Thanksgiving at the firehouse.” It’s amazing how small a 295-pound man can feel.

“Stay away from the stove, will ya?” he said as he jumped back on the truck. “And happy Thanksgiving.”

“You, too.” I waved off my own personal fire brigade parade.

Exhausted, I curled up on the couch and fell asleep for the rest of the afternoon. I awoke after dark, shivering. The windows were still open; the kitchen still smelled acrid. I avoided The One’s gaze as I quietly made my fallback chocolate pecan pie. When I pulled it from the oven, it was a picture of baking mastery. Forgetting myself, I held it out for him. “Look!” He just nodded. Realizing that the coolness in the room wasn’t coming from just the windows, I slid the pie on a rack, and then I couldn’t help myself.

I took a picture and posted it. (See it in all is glory above.)

The word "David" written in script.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. This story makes me feel so much better about my cooking disasters. My smart ass son is in the habit of yelling “supper’s ready” whenever the smoke detector goes off!

    1. Catherine, ha! That’s an inside joke here, too. When the alarm company calls, we answer with, “Oh, no problem. Dinner’s ready!”

  2. A dubious distinction. 😉

    The roasting pan thing came about because I had to rush to the airport leaving my aunt to make the gravy for T-day dinner. Lord knows what hellbrew she came up with, but it definitely did not involve pan juices. Ick. Double ick. 😉

  3. You want disaster stories? Well, when I was working on my thesis, I set a couple dozen eggs to boil (for deviled eggs for a party) and went back to the computer. Three hours later, I looked up to see a pall of smoke hanging mere inches over my head, and I had 14 foot ceilings! The eggs weren’t just burnt, they were vaporized. It looked like a couple had exploded before the remainder achieved a gaseous state. 😉 I am so ADD, when I get focused, I hear nothing, I smell nothing.

    Then there was a disaster of a non-combustible variety. We have two ovens. It was a couple months since Thanksgiving and the first time I’d needed to use both ovens since the holiday. Like a responsible cook, I checked both ovens before turning them on. In the second oven, the one seldom used, there was the turkey roaster. I took it out and set it on the counter. Then I lifted the lid. Try to imagine pan juices a couple months after the fact without refrigeration. Oy! It was simply alive. Squealing and holding it at full arm’s length, I ran to the back door and flung it outside. Fortunately, it was raining because I am squeamish, and there is no way I could ever have washed that thing out. After about a week of rain, I figured it was safe to bring it back in the house. This was my Mom’s house. She was really annoyed at me for throwing the pan outside. I offered to let her clean it. She decided that the rain would be good for it. 😉

    One tip: when you have cremated a pan with its lid on. DO NOT take the lid off in the house! Heh.