12 Intimidating Foods I Want to Learn to Make

My mom and I are good cooks.

Good, simple cooks.

Both of us are whizzes with casseroles, veggies, and all manner of simple, homey foods.  Neither of us, however, is used to cooking fancier fare on a regular basis.

As far as I can remember, my mother has never owned a candy thermometer, a food mill, a souffle dish, or a crepe pan.  I never saw her do any cooking procedure more complicated than making a basic white sauce, and our food was never garnished.

In my adult years, however, I became a more adventurous foodie.  I bought a candy thermometer and learned to make English toffee; I tackled crepes and tiramisu and homemade pasta, and once I got an air-filled baking pan, my creampuffs turned out baked instead of burnt.  So now I’ve sort of made a little hobby out of learning to cook things that  seemed too fussy or hard at first — braided challah, ice cream from custard, things like that — but none of them has turned out to be very difficult at all, so it makes me braver for the next thing.

Still, some things have managed to intimidate me — even some things that friends and fellow foodies have assured me are easy to make.  I need to tackle this list, and maybe you all can inspire me (or at least tell me I’m not risking sure failure).

1.  Gnocchi

Gnocchi is my favorite pasta. I have had it freshly made in good Italian restaurants, and it’s nothing like the stuff you buy pre-made in the store, which makes it an excellent candidate to be made at home. Not only that, but people tell me it’s super-easy to make, so there’s no rational basis for my not having made it yet. Sometimes, I tell you, there’s some sort of reluctance gremlin in my mind, keeping me from making things. This was the case with candy for the longest time, and then I made English toffee and wondered what the big fuss was.

2.  Souffle — Did it! I made a delicious souffle

My kid told a story yesterday that involved her walking in while I was making a souffle, slamming the door, and having my souffle fall.  Pfffffff!, it went, like a deflating balloon.

Never happened.

I’ve made souffle-like foods. I’ve even made something that my sister always called “spinach souffle”, but it was really just a creamy spinach casserole thing. Now, it was *delicious*, but I’ve never been brave enough to try a real souffle. That needs to change.

3.  Croquembouche

The first time I saw a shimmery, towering croquembouche (in a photo; I’ve never seen one in real life), I became a little obsessed with making one. I’m never going to have a really good reason to make one: my tribe doesn’t do fancy weddings or garden parties. I don’t care. I must make one.  I’ve already gotten good at the pâte à choux (creampuff dough), so hey, I’m halfway there, right?

4.  Lattice-topped pie

Now this one, I *know* I’m being silly about.  I’ve made pie crusts. I’ve made HUNDREDS of pie crusts. Making the pies for holiday dinners used to be my job in my family of origin. One Thanksgiving, I went a little overboard and made twenty-six assorted pies! For ten people!  So pie crust is not a problem. How on earth I have made so many pies and never done a lattice-topped one is a mystery to me. I should change that.

5.  Beef Wellington

I confess I don’t even have any idea how hard it actually is to make Beef Wellington. I just know it looks fancy.  Also, cooking a big hunk of meat is outside my comfort zone, because I spent 20 years as a vegetarian.  But if it’s just making a duxelle and wrapping the whole thing in puff pastry, I think I can handle it.  Please tell me it’s that easy!

Speaking of puff pastry, it’s not on this list, though it perhaps should be.  Reliable sources have told me it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

6.  Popovers / Yorkshire pudding

These sound like my perfect food. I mean, I’ve never had them, but fatty, savory puddings? What’s not to love?  So far, I’ve been put off by some unnamed fear of failure where these are concerned. I need to just put on my big-girl panties and go for it.

7.  Croissants

Like puff pastry, I’ve been told these are more fuss than they’re worth.  Still, I want to make croissants at least once.  I’ve gotten really good at making my own bread — we barely buy any bread at all any more — and I feel like making a good croissant would be a real accomplishment, even if it turns out to be an experience I don’t want to repeat.

8.  Truffles

My dear friend Charlotte makes truffles all the time. She’s been kind enough to bring us precious packages of them (and her transcendent lemon curd) from time to time.  There’s no reason on earth I haven’t made them yet.  I don’t even love chocolate, but I do love chocolate truffles — Hey, truffles are like chocolate-flavored balls of cream, and what could be bad about that?

9.  Cheese Did it — check out my ricotta!

ricotta

Twice, now, I’ve bought the milk to make cheese. (I don’t usually keep milk in the house.)  Twice, it’s ended up going into chowders or onto cereal.  This is a serious mental block, because I wasn’t even going to make something difficult — just a paneer or ricotta or something.  I may need an intervention!

10.  Blintzes Did it — Check out my strawberry blintzes!

My mother’s sister, after whom I was named, made the most amazing blintzes when I was growing up.  I just called her on the phone, and she doesn’t remember how she made them, so I’m going to have to start from scratch. I can do this, right?

11.  Pita bread

I’ve made flatbreads. I’ve made lots of flatbreads. For some reason, pita is not one of them.  Can that pocket really hold all the intimidating qualities of pita?  The dried-out thing one gets in the supermarket doesn’t hold a candle to a fresh pita, I know this, and yet, I waver.  Tell me I can do it, interwebz! Tell me I’m good enough, strong enough, and goshdarnit — oh, never mind.  Tell me you’ve done it, though, and that it was easy, m’kay?

12.  Crackers

Give me the choice between a cookie and a cracker, and I’ll choose a cracker any day. (For the UK contingent: cookie = sweet biscuit; cracker = savory biscuit.)  Savory over sweet, that’s my way.  But I hate paying three or four dollars a box for the things, especially since store-bought crackers often contain a bunch of garbage, and are almost always packaged with BHT. What is BHT, anyway? I’m pretty sure I don’t want any.  I need to learn to make crackers. I have made pasta, so rolling dough out thinly shouldn’t be a problem, right?  Can it really be all that hard? Peter Reinhart says no. I shall give it a try.

Have you made these foods? Did you find them easy or hard?  Are there foods on your personal intimidation list?  Have you stared down a creme brulee recipe and won? Did a granita get the best of you?  Please tell me all about it in comments.  Together, we can do this!

[Edit: To add to my list, now that y'all have reminded me:  Naan, flour tortillas.]

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59 thoughts on “12 Intimidating Foods I Want to Learn to Make”

  1. I love Beef Wellington and prefer to make my in individual portions. You start with a filet, bake it halfway, layout your pastry (and, no, puff pastry isn’t tough but it can be a bit tedious), add your topping, your beef, seal, egg wash, flip and bake til the pastry is golden brown. Duxelle or pate are the traditional toppings but we tried an onion marmalade and a slice of chevre this last time and it was DIVINE!

    Popovers were one of the first things I learned to bake (from a Junior League cookbook) when I was a kid–you can do it!!!

    Croquembouche can be made mini-sized, too. I did that the first day on the job (technically my internship) at the Plantation when the owners requested something special for themselves and it stayed on the menu for 2 weeks. Takes about 6 or so mini profiteroles, a little filling and your caramel!

    1. Oh, that’s encouraging stuff; thank you! Do you have a preferred caramel recipe for the croquembouche? And do you make your puff pastry, or buy it?

  2. Wow that is an intimidating list!! Here I was excited that I wanted to make Kim Chi.
    Homemade Gnocchi is to die for and I’ve made yogurt cheese but somehow don’t think that counts ;)

    1. Oh, kim chee is great homemade! I’ve done it a few times, but I confess that I don’t do it much because I live near a kick-ass Korean grocery with about fifty squillion different types on sale. :-)

      And heck yeah, yogurt cheese counts. We’re in this for the noms! If it’s yummy, it counts!

  3. Paneer is flat out simple, as long as you have cheesecloth. On the other hand, it isn’t very good unless you start out with great milk, so I tend to substitute Chinese style tofu (extra firm) in any recipes that call for paneer.

    Popovers aren’t very difficult if you have enough fat, and a hot enough oven.

    I made a stack of mini cream puffs for Mother’s Day one year, but didn’t do the hard caramel, so I don’ t know if that counts as a croquembouche. The hardest part was the pate a choux, which you’ve already gotten past.

    1. What constitutes great milk? Will the organic stuff I get at the market work, or do I need to go with raw milk or something?

  4. Souffles are easy. I get farm-fresh eggs in my CSA once a month, and I did one with cheddar two months ago:

    http://www.bakingaisle.com/2010/06/cheese-souffl/

    This month, I tried the Barefoot Contessa version with blue cheese, and wasn’t as impressed. I love blue cheese, but it was just too much.

    I didn’t mess with a special souffle pan – I just used a round CorningWare baking dish.

    I’ve done cheese, too, and I’ll second the people who say it’s not particularly good without a source of good (preferably raw) milk. I did mozzarella a couple of times, but I only had grocery-store milk, so it came out like grocery-store cheese.

    Never done pita, but I have done naan and it was easy.

    Good luck with your list!

  5. I’ve done truffles, pita and Yorkshire pud. Need to add blintzes to the repertoire, although I’m currently in the middle of run of sweet and savoury kugels while I master that form.

    Truffles were _easy_, the trick being to use good chocolate and to go dark rather than sweet. You want rich rather than sugar. And, yes, Charlotte makes the best. I’d cross a continent for them.

    For pitas, like pizza, the secret is a good high-gluten flour, a pizza stone to hold heat from below and a really, really hot oven (clean it before you do this or you’ll set off fire alarms, she said from experience.

    Make the dough, work it, let it rise, punch it down, work it a little more, let it rest then roll/pat out your rounds and toss them in in small batches, quick like bunnies! The rise is so fast that the sides separate, forming the pockets.

    What’s even more tasty (you thought you could improve??) is to do the NYTImes slow rise sour-dough style bread recipe as pitas. Yum!

    Yorkshire pud is easy-peasy. The trick is to use _lots_ of butter, oil or fat (or beef tallow/beef drippings, if serving with a full roast and you need to nail kosher) to grease the pan The dough should be almost swimming in it (turn it over in the pan once), with a good layer coat to both seal the surface and brown nicely. I like to use a Canadian all-purpose flour for these (somewhat harder than what’s sold in the American South as as equivalent product – here, I’ve used all-purpose and bread flours, half and half) Ain’t low calorie! It’s rich, yummy and should be reserved for special occasions.

    1. When you do the pitas with the NYT bread, do you add extra flour so it’s more solid, or just toss in a clump of the really floppy dough?

      Thanks for the tips!

  6. blintzes
    these are really not hard to make, i learned a few years ago not from my mother but from my mother in law….the hardest part is making the crepes….the filling is just farmers cheese sweetened with powder sugar.

  7. Love homemade crackers! I found them straightforward, and more forgiving than cookies or pie crust. The first few times I made them square, but now I have a set of pretty leaf-shaped cookie cutters I use. And, it’s the only thing I can think of that I make in which onion powder works better than real onion (I dust the tops of mine with onion powder, coriander, and a little salt).

    I’ve made pita, but it was so long ago all I recall is that it was easier than tortillas (I was going through a flatbread phase) and I got it right on the first try. I’ve also made a lattice-topped pie; it was exactly as easy as any other pie crust I’ve made.

    1. I think maybe crackers will be the first thing I try; everyone’s saying how easy they are, and I really do love them.

  8. I’ve made everything on that list except crackers (unless cheese straws count!). They are all easier than they appear. In fact, I found it took me longer to master a perfect roast chicken than it did any of these other things.

    The secret to gnocchi? Don’t fuss (overhandle). Souffles are a snap. And croquembouche and croissants are simply time-consuming.

    Best thing ever? Mini creampuffs filled with Meyer lemon curd and topped with just a bit of powdered sugar, or a lemon syrup glaze and thin curl of candied lemon peel. Also easy!

    Pitas are a kick in the ass fun.

    Me? I’m having a hell of a time finding and/or producing a good homemade flour tortilla.

    1. Flour tortillas! I didn’t put them on the list because I’ve made them, but not really very well. I dislike all store-bought flour tortillas (unless the store is making them fresh, which happens more in San Diego than here), so I really should practice until I really get them right.

  9. Also? Yes. Puff pastry is more trouble than it’s worth. Buy the frozen stuff, it’s excellent. I made puff pastry once. It was great. And I’ll never do it again. If you want to make it so that you can say you did, hey, go for it. But the frozen stuff is just as good.

    Also also? Beef Wellington is dead easy. Especially if you use the frozen puff pastry!

    Also also also? Yorkshire puds are *dead dead* easy! Same with popovers. Popover pans are great for those, but you can do them in muffin pans too. The secret is to preheat the pan with the fat in it, and fill the cups as quickly as possible and get the pans back in the hot oven.

    Try this recipe! I made them the other night, and I now have a new favorite popover recipe! All I can say is O.M.G.
    http://myhusbandcooks.wordpress.com/2006/12/13/youre-french-arent-you-blts-popovers/

  10. That is some list! Some of those I’ve done, others not so much. I recently did a croquembouche and it was well worth it!

    I hope it’s ok to add a link; here’s the one I did. Hopefully it will inspire you to try you own! I know you’ve inspired me to try a few on your list. :)

    <a href="croquembouche

    1. Oh, that’s great! I remember seeing it during the Daring Bakers challenge — was yours on Tastespotting? (That’s usually where I see them.) It’s awesome; thanks for sharing it.

  11. I would love to have the time to be more adventurous in the kitchen but with 5 kids I’m lucky to get the ‘regular, boring’ stuff made each night.

    What I really want is a housekeeper to free up some kitchen time…I hate having to choose between the family having clean underwear and some spectacular for dinner!

    Thanks for visiting…I’m off to peek around your lovely blog! Kim

  12. Gnocchi is one of my favorite ‘comfort’ foods. Since I’m a vegetarian, my list of challenging dishes will differ, but I admire your taking on the challenge. I tend to get into food ruts, and I keep saying that I am going to branch out and try some new recipes, but somehow, the rut continues. . . ;-)

    1. I know what you’re talking about. Part of what this project was about was to put some excitement back into my cooking. There’s only so much tofu and brown rice this family wants to eat, even though we do eat a lot of plain foods.

      (Really enjoying your site, by the way.)

  13. I’m over from Blog Frog and am glad you promoted this post. I went to cooking school so have made just about everything on the list. I suppose it’s like anything else, you just need to jump in and do it. Once you’ve made some of these things several times, it’s not so intimidating. Making really good puff pastry from scratch is a long and arduous task. I don’t recommend it unless you have someone who has done it before to show you the ropes. The rest you will be fine with.
    Keep writing and working on the challenge!

  14. Great list! It’s interesting that I’ve never made any of those foods in all the years I’ve been cooking/baking either. My daughter lives in England, and she and her husband recently learned to make truffles at a Cadbury’s workshop. She said it was easy and fun! Visiting from SITS.

  15. I’m not a fancy cook either, and I’ve also never tried any of those recipes you listed. But for some reason I find the savory dishes are easier to create than the desserts. They are more forgiving and you can get away from needing exact measurements most of the time.

    1. Yeah, I see what you mean. Also, we just don’t eat dessert much around here (combination of my not having a sweet tooth, and my wanting to spend our limited food money on nutritious dinners instead).

      Also? I’m totally stoked that Candy from SoupBelly is commenting on MY blog! Fangirl squee! :-)

  16. Best of luck to you! You sound like my friend Steph :) I can’t say that I won’t to learn any of those things, but I will be a willing taste tester for ya! Great post!

  17. Good thing it’s lunch time, because now I’m really hungry! Truffles are ez-pz. I got a Martha Stewart recipe from the newspaper years ago. Let me know if you want it. These make great gifts!
    I’ve made gnocchi, not so ez. Also, crackers, pitas, Beef Wellington, and souffles. I confess, I did not know what a croquembouche was. Beautiful photo, but too pretty to eat! While I’ve made a lattice-work pie, I’m not sure I’ve made 26 pies in my life. Ambition, thy name is the Mom Food Project! I’m over from the challenge. Take care.

  18. What a wonderful blog! So glad I found you! Thanks for stopping by & commenting mine! I am feeling so inspired just by reading your posts. (and hungry!) I can’t wait to get to know you better :)

  19. WOW what an admirable and for myself intimidating list! All I’ve been dreaming of getting good at is making bread. Phew, I feel like a wimp now! Best of Luck..hope you’ll keep us updated on your progress! ~Jen

    1. I’m a little intimidated by it, too, but I gotta say, getting good at bread was a much more worthwhile goal. Now that I can make all our bread, all the other stuff is just frosting on the cake. Have you tried the NYT no-knead bread? It’s kick-ass, and sooooooo easy! I can get you the recipe and maybe even the great video if I can still find it online. For a while, NYT had it off their free site.

  20. Serene, I love this list! I think we all secretly have this sort of list locked away up there in our brains. I keep waiting for someone to offer to make croquembouche for my wedding next May.

    I made mozzarella recently for the first time and it was easier than I thought (I cheated and used a kit). Then I was feeling all puffed up and tried the goat cheese kit and “udderly” failed – not to mention that I wasted a gallon of goat milk (that would have been better in soup!).

    You win some, you lose some.

  21. My nieces and I have a New Year’s Eve Gnochhi-making tradition that began when they were ages 5 & 10, and the results are so superior to anything you can buy or eat out, it’s like a food category all its own. We use a recipe from The Rose Pistola Cookbook (one of my faves). It’s just Yukon Gold Potatoes, flour, egg, a little olive oil and salt; combined, pressed through a ricer, then rolled and cut. Very simple, but also time consuming as the finishing step is to hand-roll each bit of the dough over the tine of a fork … thus the fact I only do this when I have company in the kitchen.

    I would say the delight our family has in eating the homemade Gnocchi equals the fun making it, but that’s not true. Delicious as the finished dish is, cooking with two of my favorite people in the world is the truly magical part.

    Glad The Mom Food Project extends to Aunts as well.

    1. Oh, aunts are super special (the kid I’m raising came out of my sister, not me). :-)

      I love love love your gnocchi-making tradition! My kid’s a holiday baby, and our foodie birthday tradition is that she gets to pick any restaurant she wants for her birthday. Last year we did sushi; the year before was Ethiopian, I think. I love having an adventurous eater to go eat out with.

      I’m really going to try gnocchi soon. Maybe tonight. I need something for Meatless Monday this week anyway. Thanks for the encouragement!

  22. Now, I don’t think any of these things are difficult.
    Puff pastry can be a little problematic, but if you do it right, and steady, you shouldn’t have any problems. Still, it’s ok to buy it ready-made.

    Croissants are really easy and delicious, and in my mind quite worth the effort (which, I think, is nothing much at all :-D A bit like baking cinnamon rolls.)
    Pita is really easy too :-D
    Yorkshire pudding… is like making thick pancakes in oven. Here “pancake” IS baked in oven, on a swiss roll pan :-D
    Croquembouche is really easy too. Like making gingerbread houses. You do know how to make those?
    Truffles are so easy you probably will regret daring to make them :-D
    Cheese is not a problem, curd is not a problem, clotted cream, yogurt… dairy is actually quite easy.

    What did I have problems with?
    I had real problems with Danish rye, but when I saw someone make it and had a recipe, I managed to bake it too.
    I just can’t get my Karelian pirogs right. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A852842) But I’m from Eastern Finland, and there they know how to make the real things… and if you have ever eaten the Real Thing, you wouldn’t be pleased with the soft and bland half-wheat thingies either.
    I didn’t have problems in making soy milk and okara, and tofu.
    I have problems with my swiss rolls. I suppose I bake them too long. (And Karelian pirogs too short…)
    Mayonnaise and Hollandaise might be something to try. Not too difficult either.
    You could try charlottes :-D They are usually considered very fancy, and I think they are pretty easy (and delicious :-D). Would be a great treat for potlucks and picnics :-)
    Ketutar recently posted..Worldviews arbitrarily named religious

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