Seasons by the Sea: Difficult Dishes

What to leave to the experts in the home kitchen
A pastry in a shop window in Paris demonstrates the professional artistry that might be out of reach for some home cooks Laura Donnelly

What is the most complicated dish you have ever made? Was it a success, was it worth it? Would you make it again?

In an interview on the “Hugh Acheson Stirs the Pot” podcast, the child prodigy chef Flynn McGarry, said that when he was really little, he was most interested in complicated cookbooks. He didn’t attempt the difficult recipes, he would turn to the back for the basics — stocks, vinaigrettes, etc. He figured these highly accomplished chef-authors would have the best methods for the fundamentals of cooking.

The problem with some of these high-end chef’s books is that they forget (or are completely unaware) that the home cook does not have a staff to help with the prep work, cleanup, and more.

First of all, why do we take on a recipe that may be way above our skill set? Some do it to challenge themselves. It’s a test, and it’s a huge achievement if successful. Forever after, you can say, “I made Peking duck once,” and your foodie friends will ooh and ahh in envy. Perhaps you have mastered said dish and made it often enough that it is no longer intimidating. Some people tackle a complicated recipe to impress or seduce. Who wouldn’t love a guy (or gal) who goes through the time and trouble to make you a salmon coulibiac? (Thank you, Tom B. circa 1976!)

If you look online, there is an oft-repeated list of “the most difficult recipes to master.” It includes macaroons, consommé, baked Alaska, soufflés, béarnaise sauce, turducken, and croissants. (Notice that most of these are French.) When I asked my Facebook buddies and others what was the most complicated dish they had attempted, only one (a chef) said consommé. It is true that this seemingly simple broth is highly complicated, and the process of making it crystal-clear can be daunting and time-consuming.

Some answers were hilarious, some heartbreaking, some full of confidence and reassurance that they would make the recipe again. Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson attempted a bûche de Noël one Christmas. It was a failure, she said, but it led to everyone at the table sharing their kitchen disaster stories and the evening ended up being an excellent therapy session. Barbara Dayton, an accomplished baker, makes a bûche de Noël every year but finds that the time and effort does lead to extra holiday stress. Debbie Conklin Geppert once had to make Paul Prudhomme’s coconut cake, which included extracting the milk and shaving the coconut meat. It was labor-intensive, but she declared it the best cake she’s ever made.

Many complicated (or at least time-consuming) French recipes were mentioned (natch!) by Kathryn Menu (Julia Child’s ratatouille), Melissa Osborne (boeuf bourguignon, Julia again); Amanda Vaill (turkey galantine, glazed in aspic), Mary Laughlin (croissants!) Lys Marigold (a Ferdinand Point recipe for Marjolaine cake that “taxed her neophyte skills”), Christian LaFrenierre (a Paris Brest that he declared “quel disaster”), and Laura Luciano, who said she’d make cassoulet again but never puff pastry. Other complicated recipes from other cultures that were mentioned were Moroccan b’stilla, by Janet Goleas (“so worth it!”), dark mole and chiles en nogada by Sheridan Sansegundo (worth it), and spanakopita by Kathleen Mulcahy.

In the category of never intimidated, highly accomplished chefs, I interviewed Ian Scollay, formerly of the Ritz and Connaught hotels in London, La Grenouille in Manhattan, and now executive chef at the Maidstone Club. He recalled (very excitedly, I might add) making “chartreuse de perdreaux a l’ancienne” with the executive chef of the Connaught, Michel Bourdin. Chef Scollay worked there as the chef saucier from 1991 to 1996.

Prepared during game season, the dish began with a pigskin-lined copper pot, into which went quartered Savoy cabbage, bouquet garni, many aromatics, grouse, partridge, and more. The pigskin is folded over, covered, then baked for six hours, creating a glorious moist concoction. From there, a “pudding bowl” is lined in a parquet-floor pattern (zigzag) with batons of carrots, kohlrabi, and green beans. To this, deboned partridge breast, thick slices of black truffle, seared and chilled foie gras, and layers of the Savoy cabbage are pressed, chilled, then steamed, unmolded, and served with Madeira sauce. 

It is very likely I got the details of this recipe wrong, as Chef Ian was cooking as he explained it. Asked if he’d make it again, he enthusiastically answered “Abso-lutely! Yes, yes, and yes again!”

Kay LeRoy, widow of Warner LeRoy, recalled in a phone conversation having cooked for Craig Claiborne. He had given Maxwell’s Plum a good review in The New York Times dining section, and the LeRoys wanted to thank him with a grand dinner at their house on Further Lane. They even bought brand-new table linens, flatware, and glasses for the occasion. Mrs. LeRoy made a boned chicken with truffles under the skin, stuffed with lobster mousse, a recipe from Raymond Oliver’s cookbook “La Cuisine.” (M. Oliver was chef/owner of Le Grand Vefour in Paris.) Mr. Claiborne showed up three sheets to the wind, proceeded to consume all the vodka and caviar served to him, and seemed to appreciate the effort taken, but never believed that Kay had made the dish herself. He had also called the LeRoys to ask for the pastry chef’s recipe for tarte Tatin that he’d sampled at Maxwell’s Plum. He was sure it was a male chef, but in fact, Kay had been working on perfecting it herself at their apartment in the Dakota, and would serve it to guinea-pig friends until it was just right. She too said she would absolutely make the chicken dish again.

I am a good cook, but not a great cook. I am self-taught and never learned sugar work or tempering chocolate or cake-decorating skills. My desserts are rustic — that’s a nice way of saying messy. The one time I made a complicated, labor-intensive dessert (although you never would have known it from the final result) was Charlie Trotter’s chocolate brioche English toffee bread pudding. It took two days, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with the time-spent-plus-final-result equation. But the head chef reassured me: “Now you can say you’ve made a Charlie Trotter dessert.” Feh. And meh. 

Another dessert I attempted for someone else’s swell dinner party was croquembouche. This is a beautiful assemblage of choux pastry puffs filled with pastry cream, dipped and drizzled with caramel, and arranged into a towering display. The good news is, the fancy gourmets at the party declared it the best they’d ever had. The bad news is, my “construction” of the tower ended up looking more like a cross between a piece of Brutalist architecture and Giacometti’s “L’Homme au doigt” (“Pointing Man”).

I have learned from my friends that attempting a recipe that is out of your comfort zone can be everything from supremely satisfying to a traumatic experience requiring therapy. For a chef like Ian and an avid cook like Kay, it can bring back wonderful memories and the desire to do it again.

This article has been modified from the print version to correct an editorial error in the title of the podcast. The correct title is  "Hugh Acheson Stirs the Pot."