Anyone who volunteers to make cheese at home is either outrageously brave or incredibly foolish. When I signed up to review Artisan Cheese Making at Home, by Mary Karlin, I envisioned an obnoxiously pretentious party with friends, nice wine, many laughs and the fawning praise of guests swooning over the result of my craftsmanship: a stylishly distressed wooden cutting board overflowing with handmade Roquefort, cheddar and chèvre, and, of course, a small cluster of ruby-red grapes as the casual counterpoint to all my hard work.
In the end, I conscripted myself into a nerve-wracking week of scrupulously heated milk and maddeningly misbehaving cheese wax. Making soft cheeses, such as ricotta, is a joy: heat milk, add acidifier, strain, enjoy. When it comes to aged cheeses, however, there's almost no room for error. The day-long cheese-making process is less about combining ingredients, and more about holding those ingredients within a narrow temperature range, on and off, for hours. The lowlight was flipping a slab of hot, squishy curd every 15 minutes for one hour, but I didn't truly resent the process until four days later, when I went to inspect the creation I'd waxed. Instead of a smooth puck of delicious curd, I found a pocked disc that looked like it had lost an acid fight.
After failing to rescue my Franken-fromage, I threw up my hands in surrender (and composted my cheese in disgust), and asked myself a basic question: Why do home cooks increasingly put themselves through such insane ordeals? Check out a cookbook or a food blog, and you'll see the evidence: From Manchego to macarons, we amateurs are undertaking strenuous, insanely complex cooking projects. I know because I'm more guilty than most. I learned the hard way that I wasn't supposed to be trudging around my kitchen at 3 a.m. enrobing raw quail eggs in gold-dusted sugar candy – that cookbooks from three-star restaurants like El Bulli, The Fat Duck and Eleven Madison Park are really meant for the coffee table not the kitchen.
We try to rationalize our reckless culinary projects any number of ways. For some, it's about economizing; for others, it's about the integrity of the process (whatever that means). These reasons are, of course, exercises in self-deception. It's really about one thing: hubris. Deep down, we all crave the bragging rights that come from pulling off a seriously difficult culinary manoeuvre. The cult of the celebrity chef blinds us, and we all want to bask in its reflected glory. Julie Powell, of Julie & Julia fame, popularized the trend when she took on the year-long suicide mission of cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Others followed suit. One blogger, Carol Blymire, cooked every recipe in Thomas Keller's, The French Laundry Cookbook, then began plowing through the cookbook from Chicago's Michelin-starred Alinea restaurant for her encore. We like to think that, deep down inside, there's a little bit of Thomas Keller in each of us, and that we can find that inner chef by attempting to cook like them. Newsflash: We cannot. Some food is best left to professionals.
The list of potential DIY dishes is endless, and I've tried many of them. Most of them should be avoided. Charcuterie requires as much patience as cheese, but includes the bonus pitfall of botulism if done improperly. This is more stylishly distressed cutting-board fare that's best left to the professionals. Some items, like ketchup and cola, have been perfected by industrial food processors. There is no point trying to fly too close to the twin suns of Heinz and Coca-Cola. You will not soar. Then there are the preparations that are good, perhaps even better, when made at home, but become prohibitively more expensive in the process, like butter.
Others are trickier to judge. Those macarons – pillowy meringue sandwich cookies – are tricky, even for professional pastry chefs. They're also dirt cheap to make and ridiculously expensive to buy; just be prepared to futz with finicky egg whites. (Half of every batch I make tends to collapse.) I encourage experienced bakers to look for recipes that use Italian meringue (egg whites whipped with heated sugar); it tends to be a little more forgiving.
There's an equally long list of preparations that are worth tackling at home. Novice show-offs should start with no-knead bread. Developed by Jim Lahey of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery, this recipe produces the best bread I've ever made, and all it takes is flour, water, salt and yeast stirred together with a wooden spoon. Homemade pasta (as long as you have access to a roller) and gnocchi are sublime, and why not dress those noodles with tender strands of meat braised sous-vide. The technique of cooking vacuum-sealed food in low-temperature water baths is favoured by most of the world's best kitchens, and it's so easy to do that even a child could unleash her inner Thomas Keller so long as she had access to the equipment. (The prices keep dropping and it now costs less than $500.)
My favourite homespun task is croissants. Laminated doughs (the base for puff pastries like croissants and danishes) demand a little patience, at least for yeasted varieties, which require an overnight repose to allow the yeast to rise, but I found the approximately two-hour process of rolling and folding the dough the next day to be borderline hypnotic. Oh, and there's the euphoria of devouring piping hot, buttery croissants.
That sense of satisfaction is what it's all about. A little swagger goes a long way when it comes to impressing dinner guests (or oneself). I discussed the homemade phenomenon with Jennifer Reese, author of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, a wonderful cookbook that offers countless insights into which recipes to make at home and which to leave for the pros. She offers a handy rule of thumb: "There are things that are worth doing, but you can't do them all," she told me. "You should just do what you enjoy doing, and you're probably going to save money by doing it, and it's probably going to be better. And if you don't enjoy it, you shouldn't do it. You should just buy it."
My advice? Buy a food scale. Advanced recipes are finicky; precision is crucial. And, ignore cost or, at the very least, only undertake such a project for the rewards, not the savings. Homemade croissants cost a mere 80 cents apiece, but my foray into formaggio made a considerable dent in my pocket. Despite not producing a single morsel, all of that equipment – moulds, cultures, mats and an aging box (read: giant Rubbermaid container) – cost more than $200. Now that's some serious cheddar.