One night in college, I set my toaster oven on fire while trying to make toast. Embarrassing, but true. That's when I abandoned the kitchen altogether and resigned myself to takeout food.
But after graduating, I decided it was time to move beyond delivered pizza and moo shu pork. I begrudgingly began to teach myself to cook. But I wasn't sure how to proceed, and I felt uninspired and lonely cooking by myself.
Christopher Kimball, founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine, likens cooking to playing the piano. "It will take years on your own," he says, "to learn what you could learn in a much shorter time with instruction and guidance."
But I wasn't quite ready to return to the classroom. Rather than sign up for lessons, I decided to start a cooking group just like the one my friend Hilary had founded in Chicago. She had dubbed it "Girls' Gourmet" and invited a handful of friends to take turns cooking three-course meals once a month.
To launch my own "Girls' Gourmet" in Boston, where I had just moved, I invited five women to join and asked each of them to bring a friend.
That was three years ago. Since then, the 12 of us have tested new recipes, laughed at our mistakes, celebrated our small successes, and formed a close bond.
We meet once a month to cook dinner and sample our dishes. We all plan the menu. While the hostess takes the lead with the main course, two other members prepare the first course, and another member gets dessert duty. The remaining group members are the sous chefs. These tasks change each month so that workload and expenses are shared equally.
"I enjoy the ability to focus on just one dish," says Aimee. "It is much more manageable than having to organize a full dinner from hors d'oeuvres to dessert."
Some members were intimidated at first, as they had little experience in the kitchen. But the casual, relaxed tone of the group quickly put them at ease.
Before Girls' Gourmet, Nina, a television producer with an erratic schedule, hardly cooked. "Girls' Gourmet has been great for me," she says. "I finally graduated from grilled cheese to a fancier dish. My first big accomplishment was baked brie, and I have been impressing my friends at parties ever since."
If a recipe fails, that's OK. The group simply chalks it up to experience and moves on. "The great thing about Girls' Gourmet," says Brooke, "is that you can take chances. For one, you are surrounded by friends. Second, the group has enough collective experience to troubleshoot whatever may go wrong with a complicated recipe."
Another member adds that she finds it "so exciting to try a new technique or something that sounds daunting and learn that it is not that difficult. It's a real sense of accomplishment."
We have had successes, like Lisa's decadent coconut cheesecake and Carrie's osso buco - a dish many of us had never prepared before, but found to be as delicious as if it had been served in a fine restaurant.
We have also had our disasters, such as my shrimp potstickers, which turned into one giant potsticker glob because we did not separate them in the steaming basket.
But we keep at it - and as we have become better cooks, we have begun to take ourselves less seriously and laugh more.
That is exactly what Mr. Kimball says happens with experience: "You need patience and diligence, because cooking is only rewarding if you practice a great deal. That's how you get to the point where cooking is really fun."