Ambition has its place in the kitchen, but these French dishes, which have stood the test of time, might just be the downfall of any well-meaning cook. Let’s take a look.
Souffles: From the French word soufflér, this is a classic, and been around since the 1800s. You’ll need a special souffle dish, the usual eggs, butter and depending on what flavor you want, grated good cheese (like Gruyere) or spinach; for a dessert souffle some finely grated dark chocolate, and did we mention eggs? Maybe a splash of grand marnier to really drive home that French theme. They can be a thing of beauty, or a fallen disaster. Sadly, they’re not on too many menus these days. If you’ve never eaten one (Stouffer’s frozen spinach souffle doesn’t count), you have no clue what you’re missing.
Escargots de Bourgogne: A delicacy anywhere, these are snails baked in their shells with parsley butter. You’ll need a special escargot tray for each person, plus a little snail holder (kind of like pliers) which hold each shell as you dig out the snail meat with tiny forks. Shells are reusable, so if you can’t find fresh snails (good luck) you can buy canned ones and stuff them into the shells.Then bake. And slugs from your garden won’t work.
Terrine: Not to be confused with pate, although they do resemble each other; you’ll need a terrine pan, which has to be lined with strips of bacon (good quality) and then packed with mixed ground meats, pistachio nuts and vegetables to add color, herbs, chopped parsly, onions and garlic, usually an egg and breadcrumbs; fold the bacon strips over the top, then cover with something heavy to press down the mixture while cooking. Roast for 2 hours in a larger pan with 1 inch of water (your basic French meatloaf without the ketchup); served cold. It could work.
Croissants: The trick is multi-layered dough, so get out that rolling pin and pastry cloth, plus lots of butter. You won’t need to do any weight lifting at the gym for an entire week after rolling and re-rolling the dough until it’s paper thin, then stacking all the layers on top of each other, cutting it, forming the little crescents. Oh heck, where was that bakery?
Coquilles Saint-Jacques: There really was a Saint Jacques for whom this dish was named. Apparently his body was lost at sea on its way to be entombed, and well, you don’t want to know the rest. For starters you’ll need to purchase large scallop shells specifically for this dish (it just doesn’t work with paper plates), and of course good quality scallops (large), white wine, Gruyere cheese, mushrooms and heavy cream. Okay, it was a nice idea.
Gougères: They’re your basic French cheese puffs. You’ll need the standard French ingredients:lots of butter, Gruyere cheese, eggs and oh yes, a pastry bag which you will use to form walnut-size balls, much like small cream puffs. On the bright side, you bake them rather than deep-frying (that’s a relief).
Confit de canard: Nobody loves duck more than the French, not even the Chinese. The duck meat, whole or in pieces, is marinated in salt, garlic and thyme for up to 36 hours and then slow-cooked in its own fat at low temperatures (an alternative to deep-frying). Obviously not something you’d attempt when short on time. If you’re not familiar with duck, it is a very fatty fowl, so be prepared. And then there is Pressed duck. You crush the duck’s carcass in a press (hence the name) which can costs upwards of two thousand dollars. (Maybe your neighbor has one?) Enough said.
If you do by chance decide to tackle one of these rich, complex and delicious specialties, you might want to have plenty of wine on hand (for drinking), and if you are especially overwhelmed and want to go completely French, a glass of absinthe. Bright green in color, it’s a strong anise liqueur, formerly consumed by artsy folk in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. Because it had a tendency to produce hallucinations after one too many, it was banned for 100 years. Apparently there were frequent displays of unbecoming behavior among the artists. It can be costly in more ways than one, so brace yourself.
But take heart, all you aspiring cooks. Even Julia Child messed up once in awhile, so there’s no shame in attempting the challenge. But for most of us, we’re better off just going out for those special French dishes and not trying them at home.