In light of Willow Bird Baking’s Cooking Hard Stuff Challenge, I’ll be sharing some tips for tackling new or challenging recipes throughout the month of March. If you haven’t signed on for the challenge yet, make sure you read about it and join in the fun.

My first bit of advice about how to Cook Hard Stuff (or really, how to cook anything at all) is going to seem half obvious and half new agey, but it’s important enough to harp on a bit.

Cooking Hard Stuff Tip #1: Read and visualize the recipe.

Once upon a time, I treated a recipe like a labyrinth. I started at the beginning without any knowledge of what was ahead, putting one foot in front of the other and hoping I eventually reached the other side.

It was exciting, for sure. Suddenly, I’d need a cup of sugar. I’d dig around in the cabinet for a bit, do some measuring, and accomplish that task. Then, bam! I’d need a stick of butter. I’d scrounge around in the fridge to see if I had one. The pitfalls of this technique are pretty obvious: sometimes you’re out of sugar, or your butter needed to be set out to soften hours ago, or the pan you need is soaking in the sink with last night’s baked ziti caked all over it.

It only took a few such missteps to start reading recipes, but even then, I just “read” them. Skimming did the trick most of the time. Finally, a few mid-recipe trips to the grocery store made me realize that a cursory scan of a recipe wasn’t going to cut it either.

When I say you should read through your recipe, I mean you should grab a pencil, sit down with the recipe, and really read it. Make grocery lists based on the ingredients. Make a schedule for your prep work so things like softening butter don’t sneak up on you. Sketch a plan for how to set up your workspace for finicky or time sensitive recipes so you won’t have to stop and rummage through the pantry.

These things take a little time. You might sit with your recipe for 15 or 20 minutes planning. I can say from experience, though, that the time and angst you’ll save as you breeze through your recipe is worth the few minutes of preparation.

Once you’ve given a recipe a thorough reading and made any helpful notes, you need to sit down and visualize the steps of the recipe. Literally, sit there and picture yourself doing each step. Maybe this is starting to sound a little like a yoga class, but mentally walking through a recipe is one of the most important things I do to ensure my success. It’s during this exercise that I realize what order the prep work is best completed in, what techniques I’m unfamiliar with and might need to read more about, and what kitchen tools I should use in order to maximize my efficiency and minimize my workload.

Thinking through the recipe a few times also makes me feel like I’ve practiced the steps I’m about to tackle, which boosts my confidence and leads to better results in the kitchen.

These Hasselback Sweet Potatoes aren’t Hard Stuff; they’re actually pretty simple to prepare and boast a gorgeous flavor profile. But having never made Hasselback potatoes before, you better believe I was reading around online, comparing various recipes, and making a prep list for myself. After this bit of preparation, the dish practically flew together.

As I hoped, the orange rosemary butter, goat cheese, and smidge of warm orange marmalade glaze worked perfectly with the sweet potato to create a bold savory side dish. Do a little reading and a little visualization (and maybe even some yoga?) and then make yourself some sweet taters.

What tips for Cooking Hard Stuff would you offer other readers?

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes with Orange Rosemary Butter & Goat Cheese

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by A Cozy Kitchen’s Hasselback Potatoes
Yield: 2 sweet potatoes, 2-4 servings

These sweet potatoes are stuffed with delicate orange rosemary butter and goat cheese and drizzled with a touch of warm orange marmalade when they’re fresh from the oven. The result is a savory side dish with a hint of sweetness and a ton of bright flavor. Don’t fret if the butter and cheese needs to be smooshed into each slit in the potato and ends up a little messy — the finished product will be gorgeous.

2 sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon orange zest (optional)
3/4 teaspoon honey
4 ounces goat cheese
1/4 teaspoons kosher salt (plus more for salting butter to taste)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon orange marmalade

Make the Rosemary Orange Butter: Mix softened butter, orange extract, orange zest, finely chopped rosemary, and honey until well combined. Add salt to taste. Spoon butter onto a square of wax paper and gently form into a log. Wrap the log and place it in the freezer to firm up completely.

Prepare potatoes: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and cover a baking sheet with foil. Place a wooden spoon handle on either side of your potato and slice thin slices into it, allowing the spoon handles to stop your knife before you cut all the way through. Slice your cold butter into thin slices and stuff a sliver into every other slit in your potato. Stuff goat cheese into the other slits (some goat cheese will smear out onto the top of your potato and form a topping of sorts). Place the potatoes on the prepared baking sheet, drizzle each potato with 1/2 tablespoon of oil, and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Bake the potatoes at 400 degrees F for 45 minutes or until fork tender. Check halfway through and tent with foil if the goat cheese is beginning to brown too much. Remove the potatoes from the oven after baking and heat the orange marmalade in a small, microwave safe prep bowl for about 15 seconds. Drizzle half over each potato and serve immediately.

P.S. This dish will be entered in the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission‘s No More ‘Mallows Recipe Contest. I love me some sweet tater and marshmallow casserole, but I also love that sweet potatoes pack a lot of savory potential.

See all the Cooking Hard Stuff Tips:
The Cooking Hard Stuff Challenge
Tip #1: Read and visualize the recipe.
Tip #2: Mise en place.
Tip #3: Make a schedule.
Tip #4: Try, try, try again — or share your success

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29 Comments on Hasselback Sweet Potatoes with Orange Rosemary Butter & Goat Cheese

  1. Kelly
    March 11, 2012 at 5:28 am (12 years ago)

    I do the same. Read the entire recipe; research; jot notes; figure out timing etc. One thing to add to your planning is doing a mis-en-place. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t always do it but having all ingredients pre-measured makes things go a lot more quickly. If you only have one measuring cup, you don’t need to pause in the middle of mixing to wash and measure.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 11, 2012 at 5:39 am (12 years ago)

      Kelly, mise-en-place is my next post! You are so right about how it makes things move along quicker.

  2. Lauren at Keep It Sweet
    March 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm (12 years ago)

    I’ve never gotten excited over hasselback potatoes, but a sweet potato version?! Major win.

    Great series of posts, Julie. Can’t wait to read more of your tips!

  3. Merrill W
    March 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm (12 years ago)

    I always make sure my oven racks are in the proper position BEFORE I pre-heat the oven. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone to put in a pan only to realize the racks are either too high or too low to accommodate the pan. It’s a lot harder to move a hot rack than a cold one…

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 11, 2012 at 6:18 pm (12 years ago)

      So true! Good tip! And I’ll add that if you store pans in the oven (my parents always stored their cast iron in there) to make sure to pull it out BEFORE you preheat. We NEVER remembered!

  4. Sameen
    March 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm (12 years ago)

    Your blog has such beautiful recipe photos. I will definitely try this sweet potato, looks delicious!

  5. Kaitlin
    March 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm (12 years ago)

    So much great advice! I remember those days, too 😛

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm (12 years ago)

      Thanks, Kaitlin 🙂 I can’t believe things worked out even as often as they did. LOL.

  6. Peggy
    March 11, 2012 at 6:13 pm (12 years ago)

    Looks great! Did you use fresh rosemary or dry (or whatever you call the kind in spice cans)? Thanks.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 11, 2012 at 6:20 pm (12 years ago)

      Thanks, Peggy! I used fresh. You could use dry as well, but you’d just want to use a little less — maybe about half as much?

  7. Joanne
    March 12, 2012 at 12:49 am (12 years ago)

    I am SOOO bad about not reading through instructions thoroughly enough..,and then I’ll be SOOO good about it for awhile….and then I get complacent…and then the vicious cycle continues. But things really always do turn out SO much better when I read ahead!

    I think your flavor combo here is totally spot on delicious!

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 12, 2012 at 2:15 am (12 years ago)

      Thanks, Joanne! I know what you mean about getting complacent. I still have the occasional frustrating mid-recipe grocery run…

  8. Kat
    March 12, 2012 at 2:00 am (12 years ago)

    My tips for challenging recipes are:
    1) Don’t be afraid to modify a recipe. It calls for Jack, but you’ve got mozzarella? No problem! You don’t like basil? Add parsley instead! Just remember that substitutions are generally safer than outright omissions.
    2) Cheating is okay! If a recipe is really a challenge, consider minimizing/outsourcing some of the components. If you’ve never made bread pudding before, buy your Challah instead of making it from scratch. Next time you make the recipe, you can add that step back in.
    3) Do a step a day. Prepare the sauce a few days ahead, assemble the day before, then cook it the day you want it. Or do all the prep work one day, and the final baking the next day. Spread it out and the challenge will be simplified and more fun.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 12, 2012 at 2:17 am (12 years ago)

      Great tips! I think #2 speaks to how Cooking Hard Stuff can be a process — you don’t have to climb Mt. Everest in a day, but you can work up to doing so. And I love #3 — I almost always split up recipes over several days so that I can enjoy each part of the process.

      Thanks, Kat!

  9. Jules
    March 12, 2012 at 8:19 am (12 years ago)

    For me, it’s all about understanding the food chemistry. Once you understand how gluten is formed, what the components of flour do in a sauce, how blanching works, etc, cooking is simple. The actual process of perfecting a technique may take some doing, but as long as you understand your food, even the most difficult techniques are just variations on a few basic themes.

    The most challenging recipes to me are the ones that are required to look good (i.e., frosted cakes). Though it they all taste phenomenal, I’m always a bit disappointed in my frosting efforts, though truth be told, I also don’t make such things often enough to have much practice.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm (12 years ago)

      So true — so many times knowing what was going on in the recipe has helped to troubleshoot problems! Thanks, Jules!

  10. Abigail
    March 14, 2012 at 5:54 am (12 years ago)

    Mmm, this looks amazing. Definitely used to (/still) do unplanned cooking. I think my biggest issue is that I always, ALWAYS underestimate the time its going to take. I add up the different cook times in the recipe, then maybe add in five minutes for prep… when in reality the prep usually takes a lot longer. My friends/roommates got used to dinner at least a half an hour after I said it’d be.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm (12 years ago)

      I DO THAT TOO! I do it with driving also, actually. I’ll add up the exact time it takes to get somewhere and forget to think about traffic at all. I’m always late, though I’ve tried and tried to get better about it!

      Thanks, Abigail!

  11. Jessica @ Sunny Side Up
    March 15, 2012 at 2:38 am (12 years ago)

    I know darn well that I NEED to read a recipe ahead of time (one too many times of scrounging through the cabinets and coming up 1/2 cup short of an ingredient) but wouldn’t you know I still sometimes forget to buy something at the grocery store? It’s an ever evolving process.

    These potatoes sound fantastic.

  12. annamatopoetry
    March 19, 2012 at 3:26 am (12 years ago)

    I skim the recipe first to make sure I have everything at home , that there’s no ingredients I am sensitive to, and don’t need gadgets I don’t own, but if the recipe is so complicated I still need it the third time I make something, I probably won’t make it again. I want to make thing, not read instructions.

    As for this recipe, I really liked it, but it’s a LOT harder than I thought to get the butter slices into the sweet potato! It also took a lot longer to bake than 45 minutes; I left mine in for an hour, at which point we were too hungry and ate although they were still a bit hard. It would probably have taken another 10-20 minutes for our sweet potatoes to cook through.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      March 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm (12 years ago)

      Hi Anna,

      With any baked potato recipe, the time will be inexact because you can’t predict the size of potato someone will buy (thickness, etc.) — so you should always go by tenderness to determine doneness and consider times a ballpark estimate. I had to squish my butter too, but the good news is that it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect 🙂


  13. Yammie @ Yammie's Noshery
    March 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm (12 years ago)

    This looks soooo good. Sweet potatoes are my favorite thing ever.

    p.s. I love your blog! Now following! :]

  14. Natasha
    December 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm (11 years ago)

    OMG I just made this for lunch today and it was so scrumptious!! Thank you for the recipe;)


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