On an episode of Jamie and Jimmy’s Food Fight Club they asked their guest of the week, Selma Hayek, what dish she’d like to learn from any professional chef. She mentioned a Lebanese chef and a Lebanese dish, I didn’t catch the name. But it got me thinking, if I can learn one dish from a professional chef and then forever be able to make it perfectly, what will it be?
For this purpose I will exclude the fiendish 90-step nightmare that are Masterchef pressure test challenges. Most of them are simply impractical to make at home. What if I did learn how to make Christy Tania’s Mystique? I won’t have the opportunity to make it.
There are well-known difficult dishes to master and these are contenders: baked alaska, soufflé, beef wellington. I saw paella and consommé on the list and upon reflection, they are difficult to do well. Classic French cooking is challenging with the emphasis on technique and sauces. Baking too–croissant, sacher torte, gâteau st honoré. Asian dishes such as curries, tamagoyaki, xiao long bao are also not easy to master. I don’t know much about Latin American dishes either. There’s an old mefi thread that has a lot of interesting suggestions in addition to traditional difficult dishes: follow the recipes in cookbooks such as Alinea, El Bulli, Fat Duck; trying to accurately replicate a twinkie or big mac, make your own cheese.
The most difficult recipes I’ve tried to make are all baking and desserts: croquembouche, chocolate fondant and handmade salted caramel truffles turned out really well; tart tartin and chocolate soufflé less so. The apple tart had a soggy bottom and the soufflé was more like chocolate cake. I don’t know why I’ve always classified desserts as tricky. Rack of lamb is difficult for some people, but I make as often as I make roast chicken.
In my mind, the dishes to be learned can be grouped into categories:
- time consuming — cassoulet, boeuf bourguignon, haggis, head cheese
- showstopping — baked alaska, beef wellington
- deceptively simple — sole veronique, perfect roast chicken, scrambled eggs (remember how Gordon Ramsay said it’s how they test new chefs)
- baking & desserts — bread, croissant, pastry, meringue, macaron, tempering chocolate
- needs years of practice — sushi, soba noodles, mole
- sauces — béarnaise, hollandaise, mayonnaise
It’s difficult to pick just one recipe. I’m going to cheat and pick one savoury and one sweet. For savoury the contenders are beef wellington and cassoulet. My choice of cassoulet is based on what I would like to eat again and again and again. I have better access to duck leg than filet of beef and, well, I’d pick duck over beef most days.
For the sweet recipe, I’ll go with one of the Cordon Bleu’s three most difficult recipes to make: gâteau st honoré because of the sheer number of pastry techniques needed in one single dish:
puff pastry, pâte à choux (dough for cream puffs), caramelized sugar and Creme Chiboust, a filling made from pastry cream and Italian meringue.