When Dessert Goes Awry, Christmas Edition

burned cake, header

It happens to the best of us: juggling five tasks at once, you forget the cake baking in the oven. Before you know it, the smell of burning wafts in your direction. Rushing to the oven door, you crack it open to find your worst fears confirmed: your cake has charred to a coal-black crisp.

I would like to say: fear not! This circumstance doesn’t have to be an occasion for despair. So much in the kitchen is salvageable. If you give that disastered cake a loving adjustment or two, your mistake need never be revealed to your dinner guests.

Burned-Cake Christmas Trifle 

This idea works with any cake, really, as long as it hasn’t been burned all the way through. There are three parts to consider:

1. The cake itself: You can decide to be as fancy or as rustic as you like. Either way, start by cutting away the burnt parts of the cake. From there, you can break the cake into crumbles/pieces, cut slices, or even use round cookie cutters to make rounds you can stack in individual tall glasses.

burnt cake from above53

burnt cake, charred side

2. Syrup to soften the cake: The burned cake (pictured) is studded with candied fruit and citrus, and so my syrup continued in this vein: I simmered clementines, sugar, water, and rum until syrupy, and then added a dash of almond extract to finish.

When you make your syrup, think about flavors that will complement whatever cake you’re using. Add booze, or don’t. Add aromatics like vanilla, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, or nutmeg. Add fruits, or mint. Most simply, thin your favorite jam in a bit of water.


3. Filling: Here, you can use custard or whipped cream, whichever you prefer. In my case, a little lemon curd would not have gone unappreciated.

If you want an even simpler solution to burnt cake, use slices (the charred bits cut away) to make ice cream sandwiches: the ice cream will melt into the cake, flavoring it, and lending it some much needed moisture.

And another thing: a little re-naming goes a long way.

Forgot to add flour to a pan of brownies? Now you are serving Flourless Chocolate Fudge Cake. Forgot to fold egg whites into that tart batter? I now present to you Custard Tart.

custard tart, from above

I was assured over and over that this Custard Tart would taste better with egg whites folded into the batter, but truthfully, I enjoyed it immensely just as it was. If I hadn’t been told, I would have never guessed this tart wasn’t just as it was meant to be.

custard tart, up close

And so, in general (and in particular this holiday season when you are likely feeding more mouths than usual), try not to be too stressed out in the kitchen. Trust your creativity, and trust that most mistakes can be fixed, or at least re-worked.

Trust that your guests and loved ones will appreciate your efforts in the kitchen. I promise, the diners at your table are likely far less critical of your cooking than you are.

And if dinner does turn out to be an unmitigated disaster, just remember the words of Julia Child:

Upon cooking a less-than-perfect eggs Florentine for a friend, “We ate the lunch with painful politeness and avoided discussing its taste. I made sure not to apologize for it. This was a rule of mine. I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile- and learn from her mistakes.”

Happy holidays!

custard tart, vertical


  1. Mama

    Bravo to fearless cooks!

  2. Alejandra

    I absolutely love this post! And I completely agree about not apologizing or making excuses.

  3. clutterfly

    Alas! My version was an entire oven full of cheese breads that were to be gifts. Well, at least the insides made lovely bread crumbs for topping casseroles.

  4. isabelle

    J’aime bien ces idées pour ces gâteaux ratés!
    Merci pour leur nouvelle vie!

  5. Emma @ Poires au Chocolat

    That Julia Child quote is fantastic. I must remember it – I might stick it on a post it somewhere. I’m terrible at making excuses for things even when they’ve gone well. I know it sometimes annoys my friends and family when they just want to enjoy it, rather than be told all the things (however small) I did wrong or want to improve!

    • CristinaSciarra

      Ha, I think perhaps all of us (dare I say, perfectionist?) cooks do that more than we should. That quote is as much a reminder to myself!

Leave a comment