Lessons from a Baking Disaster

Posted at 10:52 am , on December 16, 2014

I read my assigned dishes on the Christmas party invite. “Please bring: an appetizer and knoxblocks.” Knoxblocks, it turns out, are Jell-O jigglers. I did not know this. Probably because I hate Jell-O and all of its relatives, and I have zero Jell-O-making experience. But how hard can it be right? Stir and set. No problem.

Except that I’m a perfectionist to the worst degree. Since having kids, I’ve learned (very slowly and painfully) to let some of it go for the sake of my family’s happiness, but too-high expectations still creep up on me more often than I would like to admit. It’s weird how I get that way with only certain things. For my appetizer dish, I threw frozen meatballs in a crock pot with a sauce made of ketchup and grape jelly and I never had a second thought about whether that was too easy or not festive enough.

With other things (like the Jell-O), I get all Clark Griswold about it and suddenly I’m attempting something totally unnecessary and unrealistic. The problem isn’t that I get overly ambitious. The problem appears when my grand ideas don’t come to fruition. I get beyond frustrated and all the fun gets completely zapped.

Even though I know this about myself, plain red and green Jell-O was out of the question. A simple Google search led me to this recipe by The Pioneer Woman.

That’s it! That’s what I’m making. Forget that I’ve never even made regular Jell-O or that this recipe was about a million steps (and nine layers!) or that Ree opens her post by saying “I sure hope these instructions don’t confuse the heck out of you.”

Still, I set up a station and got to work on layer number one.


I poured the first red layer into my dish and carried it to the fridge. Now, Ree says each layer takes 15 minutes to set. It turns out this is not true. I even chilled it an extra ten minutes, but when I added the green layer, it busted right through the red layer and became a purplish-brown goo.

This is usually where I lose it. This is where I start storming around cursing everything from my ambition to Ree’s inaccurate instructions.

Only I didn’t lose it, much to my surprise. Instead, I poured out the goo and reassessed my remaining ingredients. I decided to simplify to three layers and try again. This, of course, meant that if I screwed up a second time there would be no Jell-O at the family Christmas party. And is that really the worst thing? It’s not like I’m supposed to bring the turkey.

This is something I’ve been working on for awhile – the ability to confront my expectations before I go off the deep end. Sometimes I get so caught up in making things special and perfect and festive that I lose sight of the real reason behind the celebration. Holidays are supposed to be fun, and the process of preparing for the fun shouldn’t be stressful or aggravating. If it is, then it’s time to lower the expectations, or at least remind yourself that the day will still be special even if a few details don’t work out.

So I started over with a double green layer and let it set for nearly two hours before adding a double white layer, which set for another two hours before I added a double red layer. This is how they turned out…

20141214_110143I was so proud, guys. Not just because I successfully made layered Jell-O for the first time ever, but because I actually had fun doing it, even though it didn’t totally go as planned.

At the party, I got a lot of compliments on my Christmas Jell-O, and nobody knew that the real recipe has nine layers or that my first attempt was a total disaster. And do you know what? Even if there had been no Jell-O at all this year, I’m pretty sure no one would have noticed that either.