Easy dishes that make you seem like a professional chef

The trick to hosting a successful dinner party is never letting them see you sweat. You want to serve dishes that are easy, delicious, beautiful, satisfying, and (most importantly) make your friends think you went to culinary school during your most recent vacation. The way to pull this off? Arm yourself with some amazing simpler-than-they-look recipes.

Fondue

Fondue is so revered that entire restaurants are dedicated it, and people throw parties in its honor. It's actually surprising just how easy it is to make fondue, both savory and sweet. Ideally, you'll serve your fondue in a proper fondue pot fitted with a heat source at the bottom, but it's also entirely possible to make a fondue right on your stovetop with low heat and eat it right from the pan. To make a quintessentially classic cheese fondue, rub the inside of a fondue pot with a clove of garlic. Meanwhile, heat white wine over low heat, adding Gruyere and Emmentaler cheese you've coated in cornstarch. Allow to melt, then stir in some kirsch or brandy, along with salt and pepper. Serve with bread cubes, cornichons, and salami. For super-simple chocolate fondue, use your microwave to melt bittersweet chocolate with heavy cream, butter, and sugar, and maybe a touch of red wine. Transfer to your fondue pot, and serve with berries, pretzel rods, cookies, and cubes of pound cake.

Duchess potatoes

I was watching an episode of The Pioneer Woman recently, and I was reminded of a favorite from a childhood restaurant — duchess potatoes. Duchess potatoes are mashed potatoes that got all dolled up for a fancy occasion. They'd be an impressive accompaniment on any dinner plate, but I was amazed to see that the process wasn't all that crazy. Ree adds egg yolks to her mashed potato recipe of russet potatoes, butter, nutmeg, and heavy cream. She then pipes the potatoes through a pastry bag into beautiful flower-like shapes, lets them chill a bit on a baking sheet, gives them a quick egg wash, and then bakes them at 375 degrees until they're golden brown. This recipe is definitely earmarked for my next dinner party.

Beef bourguignon

You gotta admit, saying you made beef bourguignon for dinner sounds a heck of a lot more fancy-schmancy than beef stew. This classic French recipe, a stew of lean beef, onions, and mushrooms in an herbed red wine sauce, was introduced to America by Julia Child. Julia's recipe involves a number of steps that, while not exactly difficult on their own, can seem daunting in sheer number to a beginner home cook. The Barefoot Contessa offers a recipe that simplifies the method a tad, without sacrificing flavor. The beauty of either recipe, however, is not only the fabulous dish itself, but the make-ahead friendliness that makes beef bourguignon the ideal choice for serving at a dinner party. Make it in the morning, or make it two days before — it will only get more delicious. Reheat when you need it, and enjoy your party rather than slaving in the kitchen. Ooh la la.

Chocolate mousse

When I was a little girl, I thought it didn't get much more sophisticated than chocolate mousse. Reserved for those few times of year my family went out for a really special occasion, I was certain there couldn't possibly be a food in the world as fancy and delicious. Lucky me, that fancy and delicious recipe is actually pretty easy to whip up. Essentially, you make a homemade chocolate pudding and fold fresh whipped cream into it. Using an electric mixer, beat egg yolks with sugar. Meanwhile, heat heavy cream, slowly incorporating the egg yolk mixture. Add chocolate chips, melt, and stir. Refrigerate until completely chilled. Use your electric mixer again to prepare fresh whipped cream, and fold the chocolate mixture in. Now transfer it to your favorite fancy serving dish and eat up!

Butternut squash lasagna

I've made a lot of lasagnas in my day, but for some reason, people are most impressed when I make a butternut squash lasagna. Take it from me, though, if you've made a lasagna before, there's no reason you can't make a butternut squash version. I'm particularly fond of Giada De Laurentiis's recipe, in which you puree the butternut squash with amaretti cookies that give the dish a sweet and savory combination that's hard to beat. The puree is layered with a basil-tinged bechamel sauce, lasagna noodles, and mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. This recipe is even easier if you use no-bake lasagna noodles (I like Barilla the best), and score a butternut squash from the store that's already been seeded and chunked.

Risotto

Here's the thing about risotto — it isn't necessarily a tricky dish to master. The tricky part is getting the timing just right, so you can enjoy your labors when the finished risotto is at its oozy and creamy finest. If you think you'd like to add risotto to your recipe repertoire, take these bits of advice from me. (I've made more risottos than I could ever count.) First, have all your ingredients prepped and in place and your liquids hot and ready before you begin to cook. This is not a time you want to be scrambling in the cupboard looking for the saffron. Second, don't rush the liquids. Adding the hot liquid a bit at a time and allowing the rice to soak it up as you stir is what gives risotto that unmistakable texture. Third, just like with your ingredients, have everything else in place — your salad, your plates, your wine — so that as soon as it's done, everyone can sit and enjoy. Last but not least: make a huge serving. The leftovers are divine when you transform them into fried arancini rice balls the next day. A basic risotto recipe like this one from Jamie Oliver provides you with a base that you can eat as is, or get creative with your own meats and veggies. For risotto tips from the master, check out Lidia Bastianich's recommendations for risotto success.

Braised lamb shanks

Braised lamb shanks are, without a doubt, my absolute favorite dinner party dish to cook in the fall and winter months. They're a delightfully cheap cut of lamb, but when slow-cooked, they transform into a lush, tender, and meaty treat that seems more decadent than it really is. I also love the presentation, whether they're served on a platter or atop a bed of mashed potatoes or whipped polenta. Each guest getting his or her very own little lamb "drumstick" makes it a special meal. When buying lamb shanks, try to find shanks that are comparable in size for even cooking and portions. My go-to recipe is Jamie Oliver's spice-rubbed lamb shanks. The shanks are coated with a rub of crushed coriander seeds, red chili, oregano, and rosemary, then dusted lightly with flour and browned in a Dutch oven. Aromatics, wine, vinegar, anchovies, and canned tomatoes are added to the pan, and then the shanks go in the 350 degree oven for at least 90 minutes. Dinner party perfection.

Pots de creme

Doesn't the name just scream "fancy"? Pots de creme are those adorable little single-serving custards that make you happy you have that set of matching ramekins. A truly classic pot de creme recipe involves cooking each serving in a water bath, but I prefer an easier version of the recipe that just requires a good amount of whisking before you add the sweet custard to the ramekins and chill. For an amazing chocolate and espresso pot de creme, whisk half-and-half, sugar, eggs, brandy, instant espresso powder, cocoa powder, and good-quality baking chocolate in a double boiler for 20 or so minutes until nicely thickened. Add to your ramekins, and chill at least 3 hours. Excellent with or without fresh whipped cream.

Palmiers

I always make sure to keep frozen puff pastry sheets in my freezer. They're super versatile for making all sorts of appetizers, main courses, and desserts, just like palmiers. The most classic palmier is a French cookie, made with puff pastry that's been rolled and dusted with sugar, and baked to a crisp. Palmiers, however, can also be made savory. That's my preferred way to get really creative with them as an hors d'oeuvre or served alongside a nice salad as a main dish. You can roll up almost anything that sounds tasty to you in a palmier. My favorite combos include pesto and mozzarella, ham and Swiss with mustard, or brie with caramelized onions. The presentation of palmiers never fails to wow a crowd, and it definitely makes it seem like you spent much more time laboring over them than you really did.

Gnudi and gnocchi

No, I'm not trying to trick you into thinking that making pasta is easy, but gnocchi and gnudi aren't really pasta. They're more like delectable little dumplings, and they're both pretty easy to whip up. But your guests may not know that, and you don't have to be the one to tell them. A super-basic gnocchi recipe includes potato, egg, and flour. That's it. The ingredients are kneaded together into a ball of dough that you then roll out into long, snake-like strings and cut into bite-sized pieces. The classic indentations are made easily with the tines of a fork. Drop your little potato dumplings in boiling water to cook, and serve with your favorite sauce. Gnudi follows the same general idea, but with ricotta cheese instead of potato. Add in some chopped cooked spinach and onion for a plump and creamy weeknight treat.