The Cooking Hard Stuff Showcase

by Julie Ruble on April 4, 2012 · 14 comments

One month ago, I posted a challenging but incredibly worthwhile Tres Leches Coconut Cake Trifle on Willow Bird Baking. It frustrated me to think of all the folks who would love the flavors and textures but might never attempt the recipe — not because they couldn’t, or even because they wouldn’t enjoy the process if they did, but because they were intimidated by Cooking Hard Stuff.

No one wants to Cook Hard Stuff just for the sake of difficulty, but I know there’s so much to be gained in the process (and result). For this reason, I issued the Cooking Hard Stuff Challenge. During the month of March, I asked you to pick one “hard” recipe to try. Maybe it had a list of ingredients that would normally send you running for the ramen noodles. Maybe it had a technique you’d never tried before. Maybe it required days of work to complete. Whatever the reason, the recipe had to present some sort of challenge to you.

The brave souls below stepped out of their comfort zone to take on the challenge. There were some hiccups in their respective journeys, some altered plans, lots of lessons learned, and even a fire alarm for good measure. But just look at their marvelous results and the fun they had!


Kelly the Courageous

Kelly Made: Sweet Potato Braided Challah and Whiskey Chocolate Mousse Pie (with a homemade crust!)

Comments:“I make a loaf of bread almost every weekend and I pretty much do the same thing. It was time to venture outside my comfort zone. I settled on a braided loaf – a challah. I did some research and decided it would be a Sweet Potato Sourdough Challah – I LOVE potato bread. It was surprising that I hadn’t made one yet. So here’s my Sweet Potato Sourdough Challah. The braid wasn’t perfect but I loved this so much that I can’t wait to make it again. [...] And apparently, that wasn’t enough. I decided to tackle something else which I usually avoid – pie crust.”




Crystal the Conqueror

Crystal Made: Mole Skillet Pie with Greens (see more at her blog, TriFoodieMD

Comments: “I came across this recipe for a mole sauce that sounded intriguing. The ingredient list, however, was quite lengthy and included many spices that I didn’t have in my cabinet. I kept flipping the pages and soon found myself tempted by a Mole Skillet Pie with Greens that featured this sauce. [...] I just finished enjoying a plate of this ‘Cooking Hard Stuff Challenge’ recipe, and I declare it a success!”



Rhyann the Radiant

Rhyann Made: Braided Challah

Comments: “Turns out, baking challah is wayyyy easier than I thought. I even did the ‘hard’ 6 stranded braid! I think I was most intimidated about the whole yeasty aspect of the recipe, but really it was no different than any other quick bread recipe that I’ve tried, I just had to wait a few hours in between steps. I would have to say the most challenging part was the braid, but I did find some super helpful tutorials on youtube which made it so much easier. Thanks for this idea, it really encouraged me to move outside of my comfort zone.”



Abby the Able

Abby Made: Chinese BBQ Pork Steamed Buns (Char Siu Bao) (see more at her blog, Seaweed & Sassafras)

Comments: “I just loved this post! It’s one of the top reasons I got into food blogging, to try new things, which is usually borderline terrifying. I find the more I do – the more I challenge myself in the kitchen and other areas of my life as well.

“I took on Chinese BBQ Pork Steamed Buns {Char Siu Bao} which my husband and I fell in love with while stationed on Guam (although it’s originally a Chinese dish). I wanted to learn how to recreate these so that we could have them no matter where we lived. They are that good :) It was hard for me well because I’ve never steamed dough before. And anything involving yeast results in me holding my breath until the very end. I could go on about how it was new flavors, etc. But I really, really enjoyed cooking these. I found myself lost in the moment making these, just love that feeling. The dough was a little dry but they still came out fluffy and the filling was spicy and rich. Now I’m coming up with all kinds of filling ideas for these!! So excited!”



Jeremy the Jumpstarter

Jeremy Made: An entire feast! Cocktail potato samosas with spicy mango chutney, tandoori chicken with sweet peppers and onions, raita, and onion relish, Basmati rice pilaf, garlic naan, and for the grand finale, brown butter pumpkin cake with white chocolate chai mousse!

Comments: “Every year for Christmas my gift to my parents is a menu of six meals that I’ll cook for them over the course of the year. [...] I had planned on the full croquemcake, but that was before I discovered how involved making the samosa skins would be. The recipe came from a guest post at Indian Food Rocks written by Jen Yu, author of my other favorite food blog, Use Real Butter.

“I’ve made many kinds of dumplings and pastries, but rolling out circles of dough, stacking them, then rolling out the stack, par-cooking, and peeling it apart was a process that took me a long time to grasp. The finished product was worth the effort, though!

“I was unsure about creating a tunnel in the cake for the mousse, so I made use of two Pampered Chef torte pans that bake up with wells in the center for a layer of filling. I piled the first cake layer high with mousse and then carefully flipped the second layer upside down on top. It worked like a charm.

“Other than setting off the smoke alarm baking the naan in a hot cast-iron pan, it came off without a hitch. My father raved about the white chocolate chai mousse!”



Nina the Nimble

Nina Made: A towering fondant birthday cake!

Comments: “My son turned 6 this month and I went all out for this birthday cake! This was my first fondant covered cake and my first stacked cake. I will admit, the top cake is from a mix, the birthday boy asked for Strawberry and it was just easier to use a box mix. The bottom cake is Smitten Kitchen’s Best Birthday Cake Recipe. In the week before making this cake I made lists, thought out a schedule for assembly and went shopping.

“I broke down making the cake over two days. On Thursday I baked the cakes, made the frosting and crumb coated the cakes leaving them to sit in the fridge overnight. I also cut out most of the fondant details and wrapped them well in plastic on cake boards to keep them soft so I could shape them to the cake. On Friday I gave both cakes a final coat of frosting and covered them in fondant. Friday night I stacked the cakes and put on the finishing details and added the figurines which I found on Amazon.

“Being able to do the work over two days really made it manageable, as did making a list and knowing exactly what colors of fondant I would need and going through my cake decorating supplies beforehand to decide what to use and put aside what I would need. I hit a small snag when the fondant on the the top cake started to tear, but I took a deep breath and decided I could find a way to cover it instead of starting over! The top cake had a large group of clouds over the back! I didn’t feel as overwhelmed by this process as I thought I would, it was really fun to do and the cake was a huge hit at the party!”




LeAndra the Lovely

LeAndra Made: Lemon Gratins (see more at her blog, Love & Flour)

Comments: “Not only did I make a gratin, but I also gained grace. Since the gratins did not turn out looking exactly as I had imagined, I might have ordinarily gotten frustrated. Fortunately, the cooking hard stuff post helped put in the mindset to give the gratins my best go and to be open to the experience and the outcome, no matter what each might be. I’m definitely glad I tried this recipe sooner rather than later!”



Amanda the Artful

Amanda Made: Rick Bayless’s Red Mole

Comments: “I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but seeing your posts [...] motivated me to try it this weekend. It was an ordeal, but it made a lot, which makes cooking something this effort-intensive worth it.

“Tips: The recipe calls for a medium mesh strainer. Don’t use a fine mesh strainer for straining or you will be straining for hours and possibly crying in frustration. Medium mesh is perfectly capable for this task. Also, if your mole is still looking a little thin after two hours of simmering, throw in 1-2 very darkly toasted slices of bread (half a slice at a time) and take a stick blender to it. It doesn’t seem to effect the taste much and will go a long way towards thickening up the sauce. Thanks for the challenge and thanks for all the innovative recipes you post.”



Abigail the Ambitious

Abigail Made: Clementine Mousse Cheesecake (see more at her blog, Lab Notes from Abby’s Kitchen)

Comments: “Again, this is an incredible recipe. The clementine mousse was out-of-this-world! [...] I started making this around 5:30 pm and finally finished up at 1:30 am. The great part is, I went to the gym while the cheesecake was cooling and stayed on the treadmill long enough to watch an entire movie (great way to make up for some of the calories I was about to eat)! I suggest whoever makes it starts early in the day or has better planning skills than I do! For people who aren’t up for the whole recipe, I suggest just trying the clementine mousse. That eliminates the crust, cheesecake and candied clementines. Plus, it’s the most incredible citrus dessert I’ve ever had!”




Congratulations to all of the participants on their fantastic work! What hard stuff will you cook up?

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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby April 4, 2012 at 1:00 pm

It’s amazing what we can do when we just try! Love your idea on all of this. {And the Mario cake is just crazy good!! WOW. }

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking April 5, 2012 at 2:53 am

Thanks, Abby! You did a fantastic job!

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Mariah April 4, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I love the adventure of cooking/baking hard stuff! Thanks for sharing all these stories, it gives me inspiration!

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking April 5, 2012 at 2:53 am

Me too, Mariah! Thanks!

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LeAndra April 5, 2012 at 1:29 am

Great minds think alike with the Mole and the Challah! Everyone’s dishes look and sound delicious, and they’ve definitely renewed my inspiration to keep trying new things.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking April 5, 2012 at 2:54 am

I know; isn’t that funny?! I couldn’t believe we had multiple moles AND challahs!

Thanks, LeAndra — you did a beautiful job!

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Rhyann @ Cooking College Chick April 5, 2012 at 5:13 am

Thanks so much for featuring my challah and all of the other “hard stuff”. It all looks so delicious. I hope that I can continue to cook a few more difficult recipes more often :)

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking April 5, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Absolutely! You did a lovely job! I definitely hope you’ll continue to tackle challenging recipes! Thanks, Rhyann!

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Erin April 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Love this post! Very inspiring! Some of those things are on my list to try sometime, but I definitely classify them as the hard stuff. I love seeing other people trying all kinds of things!

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking April 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Me too! It’s so fun to see what folks come up with. Thanks, Erin!

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Jeremy April 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm

It is great to see everyone’s efforts! That sweet potato sourdough challah looks divine.

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Megan April 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm

This is great! I was really inspired and really related to your sentiments on Cooking Hard Stuff. I didn’t apply, because I didn’t think I’d have time, but last week I actually made a challah too! It was also easier than I thought and the most frustrating part was the braiding. My real baking Everest is a pie. Particularly a cherry pie. (I’m a Twin Peaks fan.) I’m soooo intimidated by the crust making… I will do it eventually, I just need the time and maybe a positive helper in the kitchen to keep me sane!

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Kelsey April 26, 2012 at 1:44 am

What a lovely idea! I hope you’ll repeat the challenge. I’d love to join in.

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Julie @ Willow Bird Baking April 26, 2012 at 1:44 am

Kelsey, you can bet there’ll be another!

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