2014: Project Sauce

It feels inauspicious to publish a New Year’s post almost a week after the eponymous day. It feels like I’m already behind, or like I’ve squandered the moment. But upon reflection, I suppose it might actually be a positive thing. What it means is that I didn’t spend New Year’s Day in front of the computer. In fact, I spent it at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where N. and I were visiting my parents. I spent it thinking about stars and planets and discovery and the amazing achievements humankind has made. And then a glass of wine, and a delicious dinner, and a small, smiling toast to the fellow I’ve been with now for ten whole years.

Not a bad way to spend the first day of 2014.

But now I’m back. Back to my kitchen, back to my desk, back to my bookshelves screaming under the weight of new and old friends, bound in paper and string and glue and cardboard and leather, and some still to be added, and back to thinking about food, and how to put it into words.

I’ve discovered that I like a project. An eternal academic, I like the solidity and consistency of due dates. I like knowing that I post on Mondays. I like having a photo ready to share with you on Fridays. But I also like having a topic to work with. Set me loose in a kitchen with no plan, and I’m a bit of a mess; it’s just like going into a library and not knowing which volume you’re looking for. There are so many choices, I can’t limit myself. Give me some parameters to work with, though, and I feel ready to play. It’s a curious kind of freedom, a bit like Mrs. Whatsit’s consideration of life as a sonnet: strict rules, relentless form, but within that structure, the play of words to choose, the storm of emotions to depict or messages to send, is all your doing as the author, as the cook, as the creator.

So I’ve now done three projects in this little virtual kitchen. In the summer of 2012 I made a wedding cake for some of our dearest friends. This, as you might expect, necessitated a number of trial runs (I may never make buttercream again), which I’ve collected links for here. On the very last day of 2012 I completed my Bittman Project, a multi-year attempt to cook everything almost everything most things on Mark Bittman’s 101 Thanksgiving Side Dishes collection. Last year’s resolution/project was centered around learning about dough. Though I’ll admit to still needing practice with pie crust (honestly, how can flour, butter, salt, and water be so challenging?), I have gained incredible confidence working with bread dough. The inexorable certainty that yes, yeast will rise, even if the water is a little cold, or you leave it a little long, or you forget it in the fridge overnight, is a comfort. The feeling of knowing, just knowing, when a dough has been kneaded long enough by its feel and its look, is something I didn’t expect to understand, but I do. I read about protein structures and gluten development and types of fat. I made biscuits and bagels and shortbread and sweet rolls. I teamed myself up with the Twelve Loaves project to inspire new ideas, and surprised myself with experiments I never thought would work. It was a good year.

But now I need a new project. I’ve thought about this for a while, and I want to continue my exploration of fundamentals that build good, solid dishes. Therefore I propose, once a month, here, together, let’s get sauced.

Now wait a minute, wait. I’m not talking booze here (though I suppose the occasional saucing of that sort wouldn’t hurt). I’m talking sauces. Mother sauces. French sauces. The liquid magic that pulls a dish together, whether it be laced with butter, or cream, or broth, or carefully tempered eggs. Every month, once a month, for the year of 2014, I will make and detail the procedure for a classic sauce. The plan is to show you how I made it, explain the process, and then include some ideas for how to serve it. This will entail at least one recipe in which I’ve used it, so we can all put our newly minted sauce skills to work immediately. I have a few ideas for what I will make, but I’m not up to the twelve I will need to round out the year, so I’d welcome input from you, friends out there in internet-space. What kind(s) of sauce(s) would you like to learn how to make? What kind(s) should I not leave the year without attempting? I’d love to “hear” your thoughts. Of course I always welcome comments, but you can also email me! I’m at blackberryeating@gmail.com. If you’re more of the Twitter or Facebook type, let’s do that. You can find me on Twitter at @blackberryeater, and there’s a link to the “blackberry eating in late september” Facebook page on the right of this very homepage. Come visit!

Now that we’re through with that shameless self-promotion (how embarrassing!), all that’s left is for me to give you a preview. The first sauce we tackle will be béchamel, a true classic. No, it’s perhaps not the fat-free, guilt-free representation of that most typical, most quickly broken New Year’s resolution too many of us make, but what fun would that be? Think of it instead as a food representation of that warm, comforting winter blanket you’ll still need for a month or two (unless you’re in Southern California, where apparently winter never happened).

Happy new year, and see you next week!

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