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When Pastry Chefs Botch Recipes, The Results Can Still Be Delicious

By Janet Rausa Fuller | June 15, 2015 5:39am
 Kitchen mistakes sometimes lead to delicious treats such as the Oops Bar at Veruca Chocolates.
The Oops Bar and other treats
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CHICAGO — The Oops Bar, Veruca Chocolate's newest confection, was indeed a mistake.

Veruca owner Heather Johnston wanted to make a smooth and creamy hazelnut ganache bar. But when a recently hired employee at the Bucktown shop dumped the wrong ingredient into the ganache — caramelized hazelnut bits instead of smooth hazelnut-chocolate paste — the bar turned hard and crispy. Oops.

"We were looking at it saying, 'God, what are we going to do with this,' " Johnston said. "And then we tasted it."

She covered the bar with a layer of dark chocolate, sprinkled sea salt on top, broke the whole thing up into pieces — and the Oops Bar was born.

Veruca Chocolates' Oops Bar was a mistake — it was supposed to be smooth and creamy, not crunchy. [Veruca Chocolates/Heather Johnston]

No pastry chef likes waste. The croissant loaf at the Pilsen bakery Beurrage is just a bunch of croissant dough scraps expertly layered into a Pullman loaf pan. The popular pop tarts at Interurban Cafe in Lincoln Park came about because chef Christine McCabe had pie dough scraps and extra jam lying around.

But completely botched recipes, which no amount of frosting or compote can hide, are a different challenge — one that some chefs have managed to turn into bestsellers.

Janet Fuller says sometimes mistakes are gifts for pastry chefs:

Case in point: the pistachio croissant at Floriole Cafe and Bakery. It was the holiday season 2013 and chef and owner Sandra Holl had just ruined a huge batch of pistachio brittle.

"It was a crystallized mess of five kilos of pistachios and sugar," Holl said, too expensive an error to toss in the trash.

So she buzzed the overdone brittle in a food processor with butter and lemon zest, turning it into a paste. She spread that onto croissant dough, brushed the croissants with a lemon glaze and sprinkled pistachios on top. Voila.

Since then, Holl has offered the pistachio croissant as a weekend-only pastry. It sells out most of the time.

"Kitchen mistakes are the best, because I usually end up with something that either inspires another dish or becomes a dish itself," said Anna Posey, the pastry chef at the Publican and Publican Quality Meats.

About three months into her job at the West Loop restaurant, still green with inexperience, Posey made what she called "the most epic" error. She experimented with a dessert she'd never actually made for service that night.

What she hoped would be a six-layered frozen chocolate terrine ended up as four huge pans filled with a sloppy mess of too-soft ice cream layers surrounding brick-like ones.

There was no chocolate dessert that night, which for any restaurant "is such a sin," Posey said.

But the mistake led Posey to develop what she calls her "most prized dish," the vacherin. The elegant French dessert combines ice cream with a crunchy meringue. It's a staple on the Publican menu now, though Posey changes the flavors depending on what's in season.

Publican pastry chef Anna Posey calls the vacherin her "most prized dish." [Anna Posey]

At Bad Wolf Coffee in Lakeview, a customer's tweet last fall prompted chef and owner Jonathan Ory to produce one of his favorite pastries, the Honey Badger.

Two big-shot New York food writers had come in the afternoon when the pastry rack was nearly empty. (Ory closes at 3 p.m. His pastries often sell out before then.)

Ory was in a pickle. They were hungry, and he didn't want to disappoint. He had some dough and almonds but no more cream cheese filling for a Danish. On the fly, he made an almond cream to spread on the dough. On top, he sprinkled untoasted sliced almonds, figuring they'd toast quickly. They didn't, as one of the New Yorkers later pointed out on Twitter.

"That offended me a little bit," Ory said. "I kind of had to make it awesome out of spite."

At $4.50, the now-perfected Honey Badger is the priciest of the Ory's pastries as it combines his most expensive ingredients — honey, almonds and butter.

At Veruca Chocolates, the Oops Bar is a limited-edition treat for now but Johnston said it has been selling so well the last few weeks at the shop that she'll probably add it to the rotation during the year.

The Oops Bar was hardly the first happy accident to happen in the Veruca kitchen, nor will it be the last, Johnston said.

"It's partly just fun and creative to work that way but also, for a small business, we just can't afford the loss," she said. "When these things happen, it's important for us to look at them as an opportunity."

The Honey Badger at Bad Wolf Coffee is a riff on a pastry owner Jonathan Ory made in a hurry for out-of-town customers. [DNAinfo Chicago/Janet Rausa Fuller]

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