Most challenging dishes to cook?
August 5, 2011 1:15 PM   Subscribe

What are the most difficult dishes to cook? What kinds of foods require complex preparation or lots of skill and precision? Savory souffles, beef wellington, stuffed ravioli, croissants... what else?

I have a large budget for new kitchenware, lots of free time, and a passion for cooking.

I'm looking for really complex dishes that are difficult to master in order to challenge myself. I anticipate making something dozens of times before getting it just right. I'm not afraid of rendering my own fat, making my own infused butter or sauces, using all fresh raw ingredients, etc. in order to get the best results.

Specialized cooking equipment is fine. Extra points if the dish can be easily scaled down for one person.
posted by subject_verb_remainder to Food & Drink (79 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
posted by hungrytiger at 1:20 PM on August 5, 2011

Maybe look into French cooking. It has something of a reputation for being complex, with various sauces and techniques to perfect.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:20 PM on August 5, 2011

posted by nadawi at 1:21 PM on August 5, 2011

and heck yeah to tamales! the best i've had usually started 3 days previous with a pig's head or something.
posted by nadawi at 1:22 PM on August 5, 2011

Souffles are, imo, super-easy. Croissants, on the other hand ... just about any sort of baking improves with repetition and precision.
posted by cyndigo at 1:22 PM on August 5, 2011

What you're looking for is Cassoulet--DAYS of laborious prep!

Have fun!
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:23 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some of the funnest multi-day stuff I like cooking comes out of the Café Gratitude raw cookbooks. Their desserts involve soaking and grinding (and remember to rinse the Irish Moss really well) over two days.

Bonus: When I'm bach'n it and cooking just for me, I make the pies up in little single-serving tins or ramekins and take the extras and knock on neighbor's doors and ask if they'd like dessert. Great way to surprise 'em, and the whole vegan raw thing means all my neighbors can eat 'em. So you don't have to scale them down, just scale up your community!

Double on cyndigo's suggestion of croissants. And once you've got a good flakey rolled dough down there's lots of savory and sweet stuff you can do with it.
posted by straw at 1:23 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by endless_forms at 1:24 PM on August 5, 2011

Try to replicate something like a Twinkie or a Big Mac.
posted by box at 1:24 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, making your own haggis from scratch is quite labour-intensive. It is however easy to finish and store in single servings. You might enjoy sausage making, which requires some kit and some skill and a lot of trial and error.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:26 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Cassoulet!

If you want to wonk out and spend some of that large budget, get a sous vide rig (immersion circulator + vaccum sealer)
posted by donovan at 1:27 PM on August 5, 2011

This blog might provide you with some inspiration.
posted by emilyw at 1:28 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

What about getting into cake decorating? If you've ever watched Cake Boss or a show like that, you know that can get very time-intensive.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:28 PM on August 5, 2011

souffles aren't that hard. They just have a reputation. If you're comfortable with making a hollandaise sauce, you'll be fine.

You know what can be a bottomless chasm of time? Sourdough bread from your own starter.

It might be worth refining what you're looking for in your challenge. Some dishes, like cassoulet, require several steps that ideally should be spaced out over days (making duck confit, soaking salt pork, soaking beans, slow cooking, etc.) but are in and of themselves relatively simple and hard to mess up. But, say, traditional Peking Duck is a multiple day process where messing up one step (ie. properly rendering and degreasing the duck) can result in a drastically untasty product
posted by bl1nk at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is going to sound strange but my answer is the perfect roast chicken: crispy skin with tasty moist breast meat falling off the bone. We've been trying to do this and it's surprisingly tricky!
posted by hellochula at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Baking for sure - I make terrible pie dough because I almost never make it, and experience is invaluable, since weather conditions can play such a large role.

Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon
is a delicious pain in the ass, especially if you make your own stock. So worth it.
posted by rtha at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2011

2nding Cookbooks from places like Alinea, French Laundry, El Bulli, etc.

You'll definitely get to flex your gadget-shopping muscle, and most of those recipes have several components each of which takes a whole endeavor to create. But the results: worth it.
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Traditional French macarons have a well-deserved reputation for trickiness.

Francisco Migoya mentions them among his eight skills a pastry chef must have.
posted by novalis_dt at 1:35 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

On the opposite end of molecular \ trendy uber modern cookbooks like Alinea, etc. you can also look at some of the classic cookbooks that presume either stay-at-home domestic or ambitious amateur (James Peterson's Sauces book comes to mind, as does Barbara Tropp's Modern Art of Chinese Cooking and, of course, The Larousse)
posted by bl1nk at 1:36 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Croissants are actually really easy to make - just time consuming but they've very versatile and great for impressing people. The recipes don't really scale down to a one person portion well but the excess dough freezes well.

Spun/stretched/sculpted sugar is quite an art - it requires special equipment and its quite dangerous ;)
posted by missmagenta at 1:40 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sauer braten isn't difficult really, but it requires a lot of labor many days on end. Kim chi is easier but similar. Some people find making risotto just right harrowing; polenta too, to a lesser extent. I still can't make a Bolognese sauce I really love; I'm working on it.

Really awesome tamales, the kind where every element has been made by hand, are blow your skull off awesome, but it's no coincidence they get made traditionally by employing entire big families in an assembly line sort of mode. Time consuming and delicate but wonderful.

Cassoulet and the bickering around it can get kinda heady. Which of course is a shame as it was supposed to be humble fare, but.
posted by ifjuly at 1:43 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Baked Alaska is quite easy to screw up.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 1:44 PM on August 5, 2011

Get yourself a copy of Modernist Cuisine and work your way through all the recipes - you will be there for *years*
posted by unlaced at 1:44 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a this cookbook, Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey. It's a great cookbook - everything I've made from it has been delicious and incredibly flavorful. Almost every recipe, however, is complex, very time-consuming and calls for middle-eastern or far-eastern ingredients that take some effort to find in the US.

For example: "Mesopotamian Rice Salad with Green Lentils, Dates and Raisins" is one of the most delicious things I've ever made. It won't take more than a few hours, but for a salad, that's a long time. It has 20 ingredients.

Beijing (remember the Silk Road went all the way to China) Hot and Sour Noodle Soup is another fun project full of Asian ingredients.

"Shirazi Baked Saffron Polow with Spinach" took me a whole day to prepare, partly because it requires making candied orange peel. It contains pine nuts, prunes, a saffron yogurt sauce, rose as a garnish... delicious.

Making your own Turkish Delight is quite an interesting project. Tracking down orange flower water can be hard.

I am currently - right now! - making "1001 Nights Chewy Saffron Ice Cream", which calls for salep powder, mastic gum, organic crystalized rose petals, and pistachios. The result is an incredibly flavored ice cream that is so thick and elastic you can chew it. Awesome stuff.

The cookbook also contains many bread recipes, and, as a bonus, is at least 50% pictures and visual history about the Silk Road.
posted by Cygnet at 1:44 PM on August 5, 2011 [14 favorites]

and i know they're end-trending as all hell, but macarons and really, most things involving almond flour/meal (mm panelletes). finicky as hell, where you'll want to be one of those scale-weigh type bakers.
posted by ifjuly at 1:46 PM on August 5, 2011

The recipes in Thomas Keller's French Laundry cookbook are notoriously complex and gourmet.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:47 PM on August 5, 2011

Pommes Souffle.

But it's the simple things that actually give me fits. I've been cooking seriously for several years, and if I've learned anything it's this: deceptively simple things are the ones that take the most skill. Eggs are one example. Lots of people can cook one, but few can cook one perfectly. A perfect roast chicken or turkey is difficult. Grilling them perfectly, even more so.

If you mean "labor intensive" rather than "requiring maximal skill," try mastering various sauces in Escoffier. I worked on this for some time, and thought a proper demi-glace (from sauce espagnole) was pretty cool.

Tracking down orange flower water can be hard.

Try Amazon.
posted by Hylas at 1:48 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

also, things that get overlooked and seem simple often aren't--really mastering the fuck out of, say, apple pie, is often something you can spend an entire fall working on. pie crust is a biggie--getting it AMAZING, not just "good-enough".
posted by ifjuly at 1:48 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also: this book is pretty much the apex of complex cuisine today.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:49 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

and how could i forget--REALLY good biscuits, NYC pizza dough and bagels with that mysterious tooth. things where texture is everything and often that perfection eludes home cooks.
posted by ifjuly at 1:50 PM on August 5, 2011

A proper classic french omelet is pretty tricky and unforgiving. But can be done in about 3 minutes, so it's not complicated.
posted by jefftang at 1:52 PM on August 5, 2011

This is going to sound strange but my answer is the perfect roast chicken: crispy skin with tasty moist breast meat falling off the bone. We've been trying to do this and it's surprisingly tricky!

The trick to roasting chicken is to do it on a charcoal grill. Build up a nice fire, split the coals in half, and push each half to opposite sides of the grill. Rub the chicken with salt and pepper, and brush oil over the whole thing. Cut a lemon in half and shove that and whatever herbs strike your fancy into the cavity. Chicken goes in the center of the grill. Don't let it overcook - trust your meat thermometer. Use some wood chips if you like smokiness.

Actually, if you don't have one already, drop the money and get a good instant read thermometer AND a second probe thermometer. This one should have a cable that attaches the probe to the base station; the idea is that you shove the probe in your roast/turkey/whatever, set an alarm for the proper temperature, and walk away. The base sits outside the oven and the probe stays in the meat for the duration of cooking.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:02 PM on August 5, 2011

Thanks for all the answers! I'll be going through later and looking some of these up and marking best answers then.

To clarify... labor intensive is fine, but I prefer things that require great skill. The "one step wrong and it's practically inedible" is more of what I'm looking for. I'd rather it be obvious when I make a mistake so I can learn to not make mistakes. Ever.

I've have gone through some of the French Laundry recipes, and am certainly open to checking out other gourmet recipes or books on techniques. Generally, I'm looking for somewhat common dishes that many chefs have different recipes/techniques for so that I can compare/contrast/experiment until I find the best combination.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 2:05 PM on August 5, 2011

The Fat Duck Cookbook is right up your alley. A single recipe can take 10 pages. Epic.

Seconding the sous vide machine - we really, REALLY want one.

I've found making french bread a pretty time-intensive process (it's taken me about a year and a half to get consistently good results, but it's WAY better than anything I could buy - including from any local artisan bakery). I use Bread Baker's Apprentice, and have LOVED it.

Good scones are also hard to master. I use James Martin's recipe from Saturday Kitchen (but without the sultanas and with about 25 grams more sugar to compensate for not using the strawberry jam with it). It's really good. They're actually in the oven now...
posted by guster4lovers at 2:11 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh! Oh! Cheese! I make paneer (boil milk, add lemon juice, strain) but that's easy - make REAL cheese with rennet and other weird ingredients.

Custard is also pretty difficult, especially if you don't use double cream or other thickeners.

Make your own sausages! Something awesome like duck or rabbit sausages...

Long cooked dishes like gumbo or mole are so complex that getting them perfect is challenging.

How about making your own REAL (not rough) puff pastry?
posted by guster4lovers at 2:16 PM on August 5, 2011

I wonder if you might like Heston Blumenthal's dishes. They definitely require practice, special equipment and skill. They might be too ridiculous or over the top for some, but they are without any doubt a big challenge.

The Fat Duck Cookbook
Heston's Fantastic Feasts
posted by NoiselessPenguin at 2:17 PM on August 5, 2011

Of course - there is the River Cafe Chocolate Nemesis Cake. The original recipe was said to be impossible to make - and many wondered if the River Cafe ladies purposely fucked up the recipe.

When a London newspaper asked three chefs to make the infamous dessert, all flunked. ''It is a sort of challenging cake,'' Ms. Gray acknowledged in a telephone conversation. Mrs. Dyson says she knows only one person who was successful with it, describing her as ''an ace cook who adapts as she goes along and never reads recipes properly.''

I think good cake baking and dessert making is exceedingly difficult. Finding that combination of real flavors, perfect texture, and good construction is torture for me.
posted by helmutdog at 2:17 PM on August 5, 2011

There are things that are hard because they take for-EVAR. Cassoulet, tamales, demi-glace.

And then there are things that are hard because of the technique. macarons, really good sushi rice, blowing sugar, learning how to caste chocolate.

I think that the only things that I have ever done that crosses into both territories involve bread baking. Going for the perfect pain Poilâne may take up a lot of time and sanity.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:23 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Other ways I like to have fun and challenge myself while cooking:

1. Make perfect French bread - the kind with 4 rises, from a sponge, in a very hot oven, with steam, with the exact right kind of flour, etc. Endless variation: perfect potato bread, cheese bread, whole wheat bread, Christmas bread, challah...

2. Make Japanese noodles, like udon and ramen, from scratch. This one is ALL about technique if you want them to be perfect. Then learn to make traditional Japanese soups to go with your noodles.

3. Make whole traditional feasts from cultures not my own.

4. Make a perfect scrambled egg. It takes a long time because you have to remove the egg from the heat constantly so it stays smooth and soft.

5. Make candies: salted caramels, little mints, fruit jellies, fudge. These are unbelievably easy to screw up; if you let your mixture boil 10 seconds too long it will harden in to a rock and be inedible and also impossible to clean up.

6. Make your own cheese: mozzarella and ricotta are the best ones to start with. Again, incredibly easy to screw up if you over- or under-cook by a few seconds, but extremely rewarding.

7. Make your own pizza. Perfect the dough, find the right pizza stone, make sure your oven is hot enough, make your own perfect tomato sauce (a project by itself - I have a great recipe if you want one), make your own pesto, use the mozzarella you made, cook mushrooms and make preserved lemons... the options are endless and the results are pretty much universally delicious.
posted by Cygnet at 2:23 PM on August 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Chinese hand pulled noodles! I'm dying to try these, but they have the reputation of needing years and years of experience to perfect. Also Pho. I'm not sure if that fits your requirement of 'one false move & it's over' but the balance of flavors is complex and time consuming to achieve.

Have fun, this sounds awesome!
posted by Space Kitty at 2:31 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Making a gingerbread house is a fancy, delicate dance on the edge of a knife... one slip in this direction and you end up with inedible cardboard; one slip in the other direction, and you have a spongy substance that is, ahem, structurally unsound.

And you have the bonus round: royal icing. There are a number of royal icing recipes out there but very few of them are "industrial grade" and useful for building structures. (For example, Martha Stewart's is really nice for frosting cupcakes as she suggests, and it gives them a nifty hard top shell that seals in moisture. But it's rubbish for building a house. Too thin.)

Finally, assuming you've even actually made the gingerbread and royal icing properly, using the decorating bag to assemble and decorate the house is a complex skill in itself requiring multiple icing techniques!

And now I'm going to do something that might get me disowned by my mother and aunt. I'm going to share with you the recipe that they spend long hours perfecting, toiling together in an industrial kitchen by night, while sugarplum faeries danced in our heads...


Preheat oven to 350
Before you begin:
Cover 2 cookie sheets with foil and spray them with Pam.

Prepare in a bowl:
(Sift everything together)
4 c. All purpose flour
2 tsp. Ginger
3 tsp. Cinnamon
1 tsp. Cardamom
1 tsp. Clove

Combine in pot on stove over medium heat:
(tip: spray measuring cups so sticky ingredients come out easily)

1 c. Honey
1/3 c. Molasses
¾ c. Sugar
3 tbl. Butter
Continually stir mixture until mixed evenly.

After everything in the pot has dissolved, add:

¾ tsp. Baking soda
1 ½ tsp. Baking powder

After mixture begins to rise (mad science! work quickly now!) add in the sifted powder ingredients.
Keep stirring, it will get very thick. Scrape bowls with spatula and divide dough into two parts. Mixture will be very hot, spread it evenly over the cookie sheets.

Put both cookie sheets in the preheated oven on separate shelves. Bake for 15 minutes, but after 7 minutes flip flop the trays on the shelves (top to bottom, bottom to top).
posted by jph at 2:37 PM on August 5, 2011 [15 favorites]

Nthing the suggestion of bread. Making truly great bread takes time and practice, and you can get way into the special equipment (e.g., baking stones, proofing cloths/baskets, an accurate scale, or if you want to go way out there, a special tile-lined oven) as well as books and ingredients.

If you haven't already, check out Cook's Illustrated magazine, too. They break down all sorts of recipes and tweak them for the best results, explaining the science behind what works.
posted by elizard at 2:39 PM on August 5, 2011

Bastila (or pastilla, bastilla, etc) might be a good candidate. A Morroccan pigeon pie and their national dish, it is time-consuming (the filling is at least a day to make), challenging (there is a real trick to making the pastry) and very tasty.
posted by N-stoff at 2:41 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Anything that requires beating cream, tempering eggs, or whipping egg whites seem to be very finicky. Overbeat cream and you get butter, temper eggs incorrectly and you get scrambled eggs, improperly whipped egg whites cause fallen souffles and nasty meringues.

What about candy making? That requires a constant attention to the temperature of the sugar mixture. Messing that up will ruin your candy.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:47 PM on August 5, 2011

I think tempering and making your own filled chocolates would be killer tough.

Poor tempering is immediately apparent - lack of gloss and snap in the chocolate, poor coloring, coco butter bloom - all give aways of bad techinique.

Then you need to build fillings that pack flavor, but are light on the tongue - avoiding too much sugar so that it does not deaden the chocolate. And then they have to be well constructed - thin shelled, snappy finish, but sturdy enough to withstand handling.

And finally the flavors need to spot on and complex - mouth filling and heady.

That Lucille Ball sketch with her working in a chocolate factory is my idea of hell.
posted by helmutdog at 2:47 PM on August 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

"... I'd rather it be obvious when I make a mistake so I can learn to not make mistakes. Ever. ..."

Written like a true Catholic. Eh, then, your dish supreme must be ortolan, a dish that requires two months of "preparation" (if you start by catching your own songbirds, as any good ortolan cook would), is now illegal in France, and is traditionally eaten with the diner's head under a large napkin (some say to keep in the aroma, others say to hide the diner's shame from God).
posted by paulsc at 2:47 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

with that clarification you may want to look to texture-focused things, esp. with eggs/egg whites. zabaglione, cream sauces that can curdle/break.
posted by ifjuly at 2:48 PM on August 5, 2011

Oh, and of course, once you've mastered one kind of bread, there are a bajillion others to learn.

If you have outdoor space, you might also want to try learning Southern-style barbeque. Holy dinah, can you geek out on that, plus you can branch out into the world of smoked meat, fish, etc.
posted by elizard at 2:50 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Somehow it hasn't been brought up already: fugu.
posted by Su at 3:16 PM on August 5, 2011

A common "test" of skill for Japanese home cooks is to make a perfect tamagoyaki, a sweet layered-egg omelette. The process is simple, yet very fiddly and deceptively easy to screw up. Getting the perfect flavor from your egg mix (sweet, but not so sweet that it eliminates the savory egginess from the omelette) also takes practice.
posted by vorfeed at 3:50 PM on August 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by sexyrobot at 3:56 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon. And I seem to remember a Thanksgiving thing: Morton Thompson's turkey, from a cookbook by Richard Gehman, decades ago. Don't have time to look it up just now but you might.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 4:07 PM on August 5, 2011

As far as books go, check out Jacques Pepin's Art of Cooking Vol 1 & Vol 2.

It covers mostly French classics that are complex and require many different techniques. It's really more instructional than a casual cookbook, and you will really learn how to cook the dish. For example, a cassoulet recipe would include the steps to make the sausage that goes in the cassoulet, etc. There are color photos for each step of the process, too. The dishes are also beautifully presented, and the garnishing techniques are covered.

(As a matter of fact, I just ordered them both from Amazon for under $13 because I gave my mom her copies back.)

Maybe also flip through Cook's Illustrated for inspiration and reverse-reverse-engineer some of their recipes; instead of simplifying the steps look for the original, more complicated version!
posted by Room 641-A at 4:15 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

...oh, also, croquembouche has the funnest standard serving method: greased bare hands!
posted by sexyrobot at 4:24 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm so jealous! How about Puerto Rican pasteles? They are very labor intensive. I've been making them with my grandmother for years. I recently made them this year by myself and ruined them somehow. It still haunts me. Seriously.
posted by mokeydraws at 4:28 PM on August 5, 2011

Xiao long bao?
posted by kickingtheground at 4:44 PM on August 5, 2011

I remember coming across a blog where the guy was working his way through the text for some culinary school, making each dish. Something like that might be right up your alley.
posted by catatethebird at 4:55 PM on August 5, 2011

Boeuf bourguignon is dead easy - it just has many steps. (Every one of which, especially the flaming brandy and the seemingly-superfluous separate cooking of the onions and mushrooms, are worth it.)

Things I've tried to master and given up grumbling: sushi, macarons, fancy decorated cookies. I would never even attempt a baguette or croissants, but I'm just not a confident baker.

Growing up, the Holy Grail of Impossible Cooking was strudel. You are supposed to be able to read the newspaper through proper strudel dough.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:58 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Somehow it hasn't been brought up already: fugu.
posted by Su at 6:16 PM on August 5

Ooooh, Su. I've eaten fugu sashimi in a licensed restaurant in Tokyo, and this suggestion definitely passes the OP's "obvious when I make a mistake" test! And prompts me to suggest the OP spend some time perfecting collecting and cooking to perfection chanterelles and morels. Deliscious-to-die-for-but-you-don't when selected and cooked perfectly, as well. Otherwise, well, other wise...
posted by paulsc at 5:01 PM on August 5, 2011

Nthing that croissants and cassoulet are ridiculously easy to make.

I did, however, spend 12 years trying to master the traditional recipe technique for Tarte Tatin. It's getting the pastry, the apples, and the caramel to finish and be perfect at the same moment during the cooking process, while accounting for the carry-over heat in a cast iron pan, that is really really fucking hard.

I culled together some different recipes to finally nail this. Like a dumb ass, I did not write it down, but I think I could retrace my steps. I think the secret was to (a) make the caramel and then add the apples (some recipes have you do this step together), (b) use in-season non-mealy apples (I used organic lady apples for the first time (previously using Braeburn and others) and MAN were these the right apple for the cooking process!), and (c) I used a regular pate sucre instead of pate brissee. There was something different about the pate sucre recipe I used... But I can't remember what the twist was there...Holy Shit! That's Right! It was lemon zest in the pate sucre!!!

Thanks so much for asking this question.

(I can make decent sushi rice (which you must apprentice in Japan for something like 8 years to learn to do correctly) yet I can not make regular rice to save my life. If you know how to make regular fluffy rice with grains that don't explode or get mushy - enlighten me!

Similar to my Tarte Tatin quest, it took me about a year of serious study to nail authentic Pad Thai - it's the technique + palm sugar + tamarind + the right fish sauce + the right shrimp paste + something called fermented vegetable that makes it the way it should be and not a bastardized American version. I found a Thai restauranteur that started his career at Tavern on the Green to take me into his kitchen and show me what I was doing wrong.

My 10 year quest to master the technique for Indian Cuisine (it's the order and techniques applied in the spices during a single recipe - not easy because recipes in English tell you all wrong!!) is here.
posted by jbenben at 5:23 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, you are looking for a terrine.
posted by Scram at 5:24 PM on August 5, 2011

If it hasn't been mentioned, you should learn to pull sugar!
posted by jbenben at 5:46 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think that the only things that I have ever done that crosses into both territories involve bread baking. Going for the perfect pain Poilâne may take up a lot of time and sanity

Ooh, salt rising bread. The salient (heh) point from the linked article: "The starter distinguishes itself from a sourdough starter by working best with an incubation period of 6–16 hours at temperatures ranging from 38-45°C (98-113°F)"
posted by LionIndex at 5:57 PM on August 5, 2011

I noticed you mentioned the French Laundry recipes, and they are pretty involved. Check out the lobster foie gras with 5 spice powder for extra points if you haven't already done that.

Speaking of foie, go ahead and get yourself a c grade lobe (the cheapest quality) learn how to devein it, soak it in milk, and then flavor it up (cognac) and make a terrine with it.

In fact, along with suggestions to master raw food techniques thanks for the links!!) the suggestion for tempering chocolate (so fucking hard) pulled sugar and other pastry... I think terrines and other CHARCUTERIE really fit your need to learn technique coupled with the acquirement of awesome machines and gadgets!

Wow. Can I come play? Because this is literally my dream. In fact, I've been think about offering my professions services to these guys a few days a week for free just because it can be so expensive and involved to do charcuterie right, and they do it all from scratch.
posted by jbenben at 6:00 PM on August 5, 2011

And forgive me cygnet, for your list is near perfect, but it is not a pizza stone you want. It is a $3 pizza screen in a screaming hot oven that produces the very best crust.


This question was delicious! I learned a lot of new stuff and it brought back fond memories of culinary mountains conquered in the past...

Bon Apetit!
posted by jbenben at 6:08 PM on August 5, 2011 is a blog where a lady cooks through each recipe in the French Laundry book. some of them are unbelievably complex. check it out if you want to get an idea before you splash the cash.

you may want to check out some molecular gastronomy blogs, e.g.:
posted by wayofthedodo at 6:37 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

you and my husband are cast in the same mold. in the 10 years I've known him he's worked hard to perfect his pizza dough (which we think he has) in the meanwhile always searching for wonderful new topping/sauce combos....

also CHARCUTERIE!! for the yes. I have assisted in the seasoning of the meat, the curing, the grinding, the stuffing. its belabored and cumulative and very (yum) rewarding. of course you will want this book the current bible of meat curing....bacon is also a fun and rewarding adventure...and thats just for starts...

we are fantasizing about attempting our own Calabrian 'Nduja next!!
posted by supermedusa at 6:40 PM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Coq au vin.
Risotto (a good one, not an adequate one)
I've never actually attempted it, but Thomas Keller's potato pave recipe seems pretty challenging, or at least pretty fussy.
posted by Gilbert at 6:43 PM on August 5, 2011

Mole is a traditional Mexican special-occasion dish that is sublime when made properly and bitter and greasy when it's not.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:43 PM on August 5, 2011

Matzo balls!

1) there are countless recipes and "secrets" for you to compare and contrast,

2) it will be painfully obvious when you've failed,

3) and if you do fail they can be both subjectively and literally inedible.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:01 PM on August 5, 2011

The Holy Grail of the sourdough bread baker: Three stage Detmolder Method 90% Rye Bread.

If you do that, my child, you can do anything.
posted by smoke at 7:09 PM on August 5, 2011

If you want challenges, just pick something and master it.

Anything--as said above, it can be as simple as a perfect omelet. Just pick a dish and stick with it until you've mastered it--not until you're consistently competent (this is usually the point where i lose interest), but until it's perfect every time, even when you're half-awake, or at somebody else's house, or cooking over a campfire or whatever.
posted by box at 7:13 PM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

The single most difficult item to cook properly is an egg. If you want to develop skill, than be humble enough to start with the perfect preparation of a single ingredient. Fish (especially small fish) are next on the list of skill-making items.
posted by CCBC at 7:35 PM on August 5, 2011

Thank you!

I'll be buying some more cookbooks thanks to the gourmet recommendations here (and sighing wistfully at Modernist Cuisine!)

There were too many awesome answers - I probably missed some in my haste to look up every new food. I skipped some I've already spent ages working on (simple eggs, matzo balls) or I know I definitely wouldn't like (rye). I collected a smaller list that I have added to my goals:

Tarte Tatin or Strudels
Spun/Pulled/Stretched/Blown Sugar
Tempered Chocolate, & Filled Chocolates

Pommes Souffle
Sausages & then Cassoulet
Tamales & Pasteles
Sourdough Bread
French Bread
Pizza Dough
Hand-Pulled Noodles

I will start with macarons this week, and very slowly add in others from the list as I become more comfortable with them. Feel free to add more as you think of them - my list isn't finished yet! And thanks again for the wonderful suggestions.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 9:57 PM on August 5, 2011

I know you've already gone through, but I'd add curing your own meats to the list. It's time intensive and different curing and smoking methods offer tons of room for correction and variation.

Making a pizza with your own dough, sauce, cheese, with homemade bacon and garden-grown basil on top.

That's rewarding.
posted by Muttoneer at 6:47 AM on August 6, 2011

If I had the time and money, I would definitely look in charcuterie and making my own sausages. I would also be making pasta and breads from scratch. Pizzas would definitely be something to master, and if you have the money, think about building your own outdoor brick oven. If you master pressure cookers, there's all kinds of things you can do. Also, I would buy a legit tagine and play around with those, as well as making a lot of terrines.

For inspiration, I would watch a lot of Iron Chef! :-)
posted by xammerboy at 10:49 AM on August 6, 2011

Something that *seems* easy but is really quite difficult for a lot of people to master - blueberry pie. One wrong step and you have soup, mush, or just a bit ol' mess. And that's not even counting making a perfect pie crust.
posted by patheral at 12:42 PM on August 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hot dogs from scratch. I can't remember which book this was in, but to paraphrase: "A well-seasoned sausage will generally be met with praise, but even a five-year-old will know it when you fuck up a hot dog."
posted by sanko at 9:20 PM on August 11, 2011

Do you like beer? Have you ever tried brewing your own?

Also, Charcuterie!
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 9:13 AM on August 12, 2011

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