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Eat, drink and be scary
Halloween is just around the corner. It's a day when truly the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, for the holiday is dedicated to things frightening and scary. In fact, some people are even afraid of Halloween itself, a condition called Samhainophobia, after the Celtic festival of Samhain, a medieval precursor of Halloween.
But for me, Halloween has always been more about food -- whether candy bars or caramel apples -- than anything else. I consider it a day to eat, drink and be scary.
Which got me thinking. Foods can be scary, too, and I'm not just talking about the tuna casserole my wife made the first year we were married or the threat of food-borne illness, which each year sickens almost 50 million Americans.
No, I'm talking about the fear of cooking -- not the generalized fear of cooking, called mageirocophobia, but the fear of cooking certain foods because their reputations are such that they terrify people.
Certain foods probably should inspire trepidation, like a cassoulet, which, if properly made, takes a good three days. But many foods which are famously frightening to cooks are actually easy with the right recipe. Consider these daunting dishes.
* Risotto. What the Times of London calls "the movie star of Italian dishes" has a reputation for being labor-intensive and time consuming. Typically recipes instruct cooks to stand over the risotto for a half-hour lavishing undivided attention on it and ignoring everything else, even the telephone. That's the classic method of preparation, but you can also make risotto in the microwave or the pressure cooker, or even in the oven. By far the easiest method of all is Dorie Greenspan's. In her beautiful book "Around My French Table" she has a recipe made on top of the stove that requires no stirring at all.
* Bread. Homemade bread is such an intimidating prospect to so many people that bakeries can get away with charging upward of $4 to $5 for an artisan loaf that typically contains but fifty cents worth of ingredients. After all, who has the time to repeatedly knead and punch down dough, carefully monitor it as it rises, and keep an eye on it while in the oven? And even if you do all that, if you don't have the magic touch it still may not turn out well. Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, in their revolutionary book, "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" convincingly make the case that none of that is necessary.
* Souffle. Surely there is no dish more daunting to a would-be cook than a souffle. One French chef even calculates that only one in three attempted ever succeeds. Plus the souffle is a veritable culinary prima donna. As everyone knows, they don't wait for guests, guests wait for them. It turns out that souffles aren't nearly as temperamental as you might think, as Jacques Pepin's mother discovered years ago as a newlywed when she made one without beating the eggs or even separating them. It actually worked and it's foolproof.
Try any of these easy approaches to presumably frighteningly complicated dishes and you may soon work your way up to that cassoulet.
Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.
Maman's Cheese Souffle
You'll never again be afraid to make a souffle after trying this recipe adapted from Jacques Pepin's "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen."
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 1/3 cups grated Swiss cheese
3 tablespoons minced chives
Melt butter and whisk in flour. Cook for 10 seconds and then add the milk all at once. Continue whisking until the mixture comes to a boil and is thick and smooth. Remove from heat, stir in salt and pepper, and let cool 10 minutes. Beat eggs well and add to white sauce along with cheese and chives. Mix well and pour into a buttered six-cup souffle dish. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes at 400 degrees until puffy and well browned. Serve immediately.