“Parsley Pie”

2016 Food Blog February-0492Whereas last month’s blog experiment entry left me stumped for a while, not only do I know which post led this searcher to my blog; the dish I wanted to create coalesced pretty quickly in my mind. The search term “parsley pie,” with its bright green focus, seemed appropriately spring-y for this first warm week in Southern California. Though I had my own ideas already, I did a quick image search to see what other sorts of “parsley pies” turned up, and the answer is: not many. Most of what I saw were meat pies, with the addition of parsley to lighten up the filling or, in one case, add fiber. Some of these concoctions were the classic British pork pie, with high, golden sides and, sometimes, a hard boiled egg or two cunningly tucked into the filling, while some were shepherds pies, with parsley added to the ground lamb or to the mashed potato topping.

2016 Food Blog February-04372016 Food Blog February-04572016 Food Blog February-0458What I’d envisioned, quite contrary to these heavy options, was a pie where parsley dominated: something like a quiche Lorraine would be a neutral base, and allow for greater visibility for the heaping mounds of the freshly chopped herb in question. I suppose if I’m being absolutely honest I should call this a parsley quiche, but it does have a proper crust and a filling, and since that ultimate internet authority Wikipedia (hah!) classifies quiche as a “savoury pie,” I’m going to cross my fingers behind my back and declare that this counts.

2016 Food Blog February-04632016 Food Blog February-04732016 Food Blog February-0476Because there are no bulky chunks in the filling to hold it up, this must of necessity be a shallow pie. Thus it was a perfect opportunity to use the tart pan I bought myself for Christmas (though a pie pan would work fine). Along with eggs, milk, and of course the eponymous parsley, I whisked in a combination of other herbs: basil, cilantro, dill, and a few chives, to add some variety to the flavor. And because I can’t help myself, I topped the green freckled custard with crumbles of feta cheese, which admittedly adds a pleasant brininess that the pie would suffer without.

2016 Food Blog February-0500A few thoughts: if you’re going to make this, you have to like parsley. This seems a distressingly obvious revelation, but I mean it – this really, really tastes like parsley. If it’s too herbaceous for you, or you’re looking for a bit more to sink your teeth into, crumbled, crisp prosciutto, or lumps of crab, or slick slices of smoked salmon, would bulk it up nicely. Alternatively, a side salad with a thick wedge would make a perfect spring lunch. As for construction, if you use a tart pan you really have to be sure your crust forms an unbroken layer around the bottom edge of the pie. Cracks or very thin areas can lead to egg leakage in the oven. Don’t ask me how I know this.

2016 Food Blog February-0503

“Parsley Pie”
Makes a 9-inch pie
About 2 hours, including crust resting time
For crust:
6 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1¼ cups)
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces unsalted butter (1 stick or 8 tablespoons)
2-4 ounces cold buttermilk (water would be fine too)
For filling:
4 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped mixed soft green herbs (such as basil, chives, tarragon, cilantro, dill, etc)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper (I used black, but white pepper would work too)
4 ounces crumbled feta cheese

 

  • To make the crust, combine the flour and ½ teaspoon salt in a food processor. Cut the stick of butter into 12-16 slices, then add these to the processor as well and pulse at 1 second intervals until the butter is mostly broken up into blueberry or cherry-sized chunks. With the processor running, dribble in the buttermilk just until the mixture starts to come together into a dry ball. You may not need all of the buttermilk. Turn the mixture out onto a large piece of plastic wrap and use the plastic wrap to help you quickly and decisively form the mixture into a flat disc about 6 inches in diameter. Wrap it up and stow it in the fridge for at least half an hour. Not only does this chill the butter, making for a flakier end result, but it allows the buttermilk to hydrate the flour.
  • While you wait for the dough to chill, preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle position, oil or butter a 9-inch tart pan or pie plate, and prep the filling ingredients. Whisk the eggs with the cup of milk and add in the chopped herbs, the ½ teaspoon of salt, and the ¼ teaspoon of pepper. Note: 1 cup chopped parsley means you chop before you measure, so you do need a rather large bouquet of herbs to meet the required amount.
  • You can whisk the feta in with the herb and egg mixture, or you can crumble it over the top of the custard when it’s poured into the crust. Or, of you prefer, you can do a little of both, mixing some in and saving some to sprinkle on top. You do you.
  • After at least half an hour in the fridge, remove the dough disc and unwrap it onto a floured board. Now, this is crucial: let it sit about ten minutes to warm up just a tad before you try to roll it out. When it has had a chance to shake the chill off, sprinkle its surface with a little flour and, with a floured rolling pin, roll it out into a circle about 11 inches in diameter. I like to start in the middle of the disc and push away from me first, then bring the rolling pin back all the way towards me. Then I turn the disc of dough 90 degrees and repeat, flipping it over if needed, until I have a rough circle.
  • Use the rolling pin to help you transport the circle of dough into the prepared pan. Drape the dough gently down into the edges and, if you are using a tart pan, be sure to press it lightly into the grooves on the side of the pan, and carefully patch any thin areas or cracks along the bottom. For extra insurance, place the tart pan on a cookie sheet – this makes for easier transport to and from the oven and, if you do suffer some leakage, keeps the mess contained, not on your oven floor.
  • Whisk up your filling mixture again to ensure even distribution, then gently pour it into the crust. Sprinkle some or all of the crumbled feta over the top, if desired, and carefully transport to the oven.
  • Bake 45-60 minutes until the crust is pale gold and the filling is set and has puffed slightly in the center. Remove to a wire rack and let cool at least fifteen minutes before you carefully remove the tart pan (if using) and center the pie on a serving platter. I used a cake stand because I like to be fancy for you. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Bourbon vanilla pastry cream over pan-roasted stone fruit

2015 Blog August-0309After a few scrapped drafts of this post, both on the computer and in the kitchen, I’ve decided it’s basically a food representation of “To a Mouse” by Scottish poet Robert Burns. Though the title may not ring familiar, it contains perhaps the most famous – or at least well-known – line of his whole oeuvre: “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” or, if you’re not adept in 18th century Scottish diction, “often go awry.”

2015 Blog August-0265Things go awry. They just do. In this case, the inspiration, the trial run, the ingredient acquisition, and even the writing itself (there are two previous drafts of this post in my trash can that I never want to see again), all caused enough problems that this post almost didn’t happen.

2015 Blog August-0274But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to bourbon. Through a conversation with a friend and former colleague on Facebook, I assigned myself a project: she said she’s been experimenting with bourbon dessert sauces, and wanted tips. In particular, she’s interested in a bourbon vanilla sauce that would be good served over ice cream and peaches. There had been texture and thickness and sweetness imbalances along the way, and I was immediately hooked on the challenge.

2015 Blog August-0278For the next month I took this sauce through a ridiculous number of mental transformations – at first it was going to be a riff on this nutmeg sauce, then it was going to be more like a caramel, and then it was going to be akin to a crème anglaise, thickened with egg and carefully tempered. Never mind that pouring what is essentially unfrozen, unchurned ice cream over a bowl of ice cream seems excessive.

2015 Blog August-0282The crème anglaise plan, though, went awry, as you might have suspected. I crawled out of the kitchen leaving behind a bowl of curdled weirdness that had used up the last few tablespoons of bourbon in the house and refused to think about it for a few days. It wasn’t an eggs scrambling problem. It was a two-fold issue, I think, of poorly managed temperature differences, and the fat in the sauce not getting along with the quantity of alcohol I added.

2015 Blog August-0285When I tried again, the sauce had, again, transformed. Now, in a house with limited air movement, during a patch of quite warm weather, as the sun slowly dripped across our roof, sauce seemed too fast-moving. As if echoing my own sluggishness in my appetites, I wanted something thick and smooth to dollop atop a piece of fruit. And I wanted it to be ice cold.

2015 Blog August-0307So I ended up with a pastry cream. This is not a sauce, B., even though that’s what you were after. It’s not particularly easy or quick, and it’s almost not even pourable. What it is, though, is rich, and cold, and thick, and strongly bourbon-y (so make sure you choose one you like!), and magnificent draped thickly over whatever stone fruit you happen to have. It’s also a good option for entertaining, because once it has been cooked it needs to chill for a few hours, which makes it very easy to casually slide it out of the fridge, spoon it thickly over a row of grilled or pan-roasted plums, or peaches, or apricots, and sit back down again before your guests really registered you were “making” dessert.

2015 Blog August-0308This, then, seems an apropos message for the week before the semester starts up again: things go wrong. They are going to go wrong. And then you have to decide what you’re going to do about it and work it out. So if you’re expecting hiccups, and imperfections, and requisite second takes, you’ll likely be calmer and cooler in the long run. Not a bad state of being in a heat wave or a first week of school. And if we’re being absolutely honest, having a new bottle of bourbon in the house during that week is not a bad state of being either. Just in case.

2015 Blog August-0318

Bourbon Vanilla Pastry Cream over Pan-Roasted Stone Fruit
Makes 2 – 2½ cups of cream
For the pastry cream:
2 cups half and half or 1 cup cream and 1 cup milk
¼ cup + 2 tablespoons bourbon, divided
Pinch of salt
½ cup sugar, divided
4 egg yolks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 tablespoons cold butter
For the roasted stone fruit:
1 whole plum OR ½ a peach OR 2-3 apricots per diner
1 tablespoon raw sugar per diner
Pinch ground black pepper, optional (best on plums, I think)
2 tablespoons butter

 

  • To make the pastry cream, heat the half and half (or milk and cream mixture), ¼ cup of the bourbon, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, and the pinch of salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a bare simmer. We don’t want it to reach a full boil.
  • While the liquid mixture warms, whisk the egg yolks together with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar in a small bowl. Beat well until you can no longer feel any graininess from the sugar.
  • Whisk the cornstarch into the yolk and sugar mixture until all powder is gone and the mixture becomes thick and pale. It will take on a texture like melted ice cream.
  • When the milk mixture has come to a simmer, remove it from the heat and dribble about 2 tablespoons of it into the yolks, whisking furiously and continuously. This tempers the egg yolks – that is, heats them up just enough so that when they are added to the pot, they will be less likely to scramble.
  • Now, take a breath and a firm hold on your whisk, and pour the yolk mixture into the pot of milk, whisking continuously. Place the pot back over medium heat and continue to whisk until the mixture returns to a simmer. It will quickly become very thick – a bit like slightly diluted mayonnaise in texture – and take on a glossy sheen. The occasional big, sluggish bubble might emerge.
  • Once the mixture simmers, remove it from the heat and add in the vanilla, the remaining 2 tablespoons of bourbon, and the cold butter. Whisk continuously until the butter has melted in and everything is combined.
  • Pour the hot pastry cream through a fine sieve or mesh strainer into a bowl. Stir and push through with a spatula to catch any solid bits of egg or other unwelcome textural imperfections.
  • Place a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the hot pastry cream (this prevents it from developing a “skin” across the top) and deposit it in the refrigerator until well chilled. The finished product will be approximately the thickness of mayonnaise.
  • When dessert looms near, prepare the fruit. Cut each fruit in half and twist or cut out the pit. Set halves cut-side up and sprinkle the exposed flesh with the raw sugar, using about 1 tablespoon per serving (so if you’re serving peaches, you might want less fruit per person than if you’re serving apricots. Either way, evenly distribute 1 tablespoon of sugar per serving over the halves of fruit). Sprinkle on the pinch of black pepper, if using.
  • Heat the butter over medium-high heat in a skillet large enough to accommodate all of the fruit halves. When it sizzles, add the fruit, cut-side down, and let it cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes, until the sugar is well melted and has caramelized into the fruit.
  • Flip the fruit over so it is cut-side up and cook another 2 minutes, until the skin wrinkles and tears a bit. This will result in fruit that is warmed through, but still firm to the bite. If you like your fruit softer, cook a few minutes longer or cut into smaller pieces.
  • To serve, position the fruit cut-side up on a plate, and dollop on a few spoonfuls of the pastry cream. If you go back for seconds, consider letting a friend drive you home.

 

Trying-to-be-patient Brown Butter Brioche

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0297It’s always interesting to see what the Twelve Loaves baking group decides on as a January theme. This is a time of renewal, of fresh beginnings, of starting again or trying again or reestablishing. Last year they asked for simplicity, prompting me to try my hand at sourdough, made by weight rather than volume measurements. This year, they asked for something a little more poetic but just as abstract: bake a loaf inspired by a New Year’s resolution.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0292I knew immediately I would make brioche. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 is to be more patient. While this would be a good goal in any area of life (or perhaps all of them), for me, it’s very specific. I want to be more patient with Lucy when we take our daily walk. My dog-daughter will be twelve years old in the spring, and though she’s still very energetic and quite healthy, she has slowed down over the years. Some of this is age, but some is insistence on getting what she wants. For her, our outing is not a walk. It’s an extended sniff. She wants to stop at every bush, at every bench, at every blade of grass, it sometimes seems. This can easily push a two mile walk into an hour-long endeavor.

Fall and Winter 2014-0915Like most of us, though, I’m a busy person. At least I feel like I am. When I get home from work, after a brief decompression (read: Facebook and a snack), I want to walk Lucy, do a final check of my email inbox, and get on with cooking dinner. Ultimately, I want to get these things done so I can changed into pajamas and deposit myself on the couch. Sniffing every blade of grass impinges on this plan, so over the past year or so I found myself getting frustrated, and even quite angry when Lucy stopped, and stopped, and stopped again.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0265Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0266Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0267Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0268In November I was getting ready to snap at her about such a stop, and instead I stopped. Chelsea, she’s a dog. This is her daily chance to get outside and experience the world. She doesn’t understand what I’m even asking, let alone why I’m asking, and all my impatience is doing is making us both feel bad. And really, what’s the damage to my schedule if I do let her have an extended nasal examination of the things she’s most interested in? All told, three, maybe five minutes.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0269I can handle that.

So I am trying to be more patient with her, gently encouraging her to hustle along rather than snapping at her. I’m delivering commands in a calmer voice, and letting the sniff session go on an extra few seconds before delivering that command at all. I’m not at total karmic peace with the extra time spent yet, but I’m working on it.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0275Brioche is my bread project, then, because it’s a loaf that requires patience. Rich with eggs and loaded with butter, brioche is the “cake” from the famous quote misattributed to Marie Antoinette. To integrate the massive quantities of butter the loaf requires, most recipes detail a process of bringing the fat to just the right temperature and incorporating it into the dough a maddening single tablespoon at a time. Too cold, and the butter won’t mix in. Too warm, and it will collapse the dough into a soupy mess. Too much at once, and the dough will get greasy and separate unpleasantly. It takes, typically, a 20-30 minute knead time to get the gluten chains in the flour tangling nicely and then incorporate all of that butter. After this, a long, slow, cool rise time is required, in part to build flavor, in part to develop structure, and in part just to make it easier to handle – that butter has to chill down before the dough can be manipulated successfully.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0270Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0271Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0272By the time you are finally ready to bake the thing, a brioche has usually been under construction for the better part of a day, if not two (sponges and overnight refrigerated rises are common). But the result – a spongy tender, light-as-air crumb inside a deeply browned crunchy crust – is remarkable. It reminds me of challah, another egg-laden loaf requiring multiple rises, but is more finely textured and even a bit richer. If your gourmet burger arrives on a deeply, perfectly rounded bun so shiny it looks lacquered and leaves a sheen of fat on your fingertips when you set it back down on the plate with a sigh, you’ve had brioche. It’s a frequent choice for a truly decadent french toast, and I was prepared, with a cringe, to sink myself into making it.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0273When I looked around at recipes for points of comparison, I came back, as I often do, to Cooks Illustrated, which featured a practically fool-proof take on brioche. To combat the frequent problems associated with the quantity and temperature of the butter, recipe developer Andrew Janjigian opts for a no-knead approach, relying on a combination of gentle folding of the dough (see photo series above), and time, to stimulate gluten production. The very wet dough brioche requires works well for this method, because the moister the dough, the better the enzymes in there activate the gluten. Janjigian explains that this no-knead method leads to another benefit: since we aren’t kneading the dough, we can’t spend 20 minutes mixing in all the butter. Melting it and stirring it in all at once works just fine.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0277As I read his explanation of the changes he’d made from the original and recognized the ease involved compared to the traditional procedure, I was almost sold. A small part of me protested that this might be cheating – that if I was really making something to represent the resolve to be more patient, I should go with the typical long knead, slow-and-steady incorporation of butter, and force myself to avoid shortcuts. But in reading the recipe again, I realized this was still going to be a long process. Even before chilling the dough overnight, I would need to perform a series of folds on the sticky, wet mass I’d created to help activate the gluten. Using large chunks of my Friday and Saturday to put this together, attend to timers, coordinate myself through the rising and proofing process, and get through the agonizing final two hours of waiting for the baked loaves to cool enough for slicing, was going to take plenty of patience. I’m only human, and it’s only January. If I’m going to be successful in this resolution, baby steps might be the way to go.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0278Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0279Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0280Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0281The nail in the coffin, though, was when I checked Joe Pastry’s version of brioche. He suggests pumping up the flavor by using brown butter. Since I was already going to be melting the butter, this was clearly the right thing to do. Tiny speckles of toasted nuttiness running through my dough? Yes, thanks. Now, please.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0282Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0283Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0284Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0285Well, not now. Two long, patient days from now. But at the conclusion of those days, slicing through a softly shattering crust into a pillowy yellow interior laced with bits of brown butter, it was all I could do to eat each slice in more than one bite. Because, you know, patience.

Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0288Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0289Serving suggestions: there’s not much you shouldn’t do with brioche. It can be a bit soft for a sandwich, but makes glorious toast and french toast. My recipe is for one regular loaf and 8 small or 6 large buns, and we used the bun shape for veggie burgers. Because they are more compact, the buns hold up to rough handling a bit better than the slices, so feel free to load them with pulled pork, or crab cakes, or egg salad, or whatever moves your taste buds most deeply.
Food Blog Jaunary 2015-0296

Trying-to-be-Patient Brown Butter Brioche
barely adapted from Cooks Illustrated
makes 1 loaf and 8 small or 6 large buns
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
½ cup room temperature or slightly warm water
⅓ cup sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
7 large eggs, divided (but not separated!)
3 ¼ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons salt + a pinch
  • Day one: melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan, preferably not with a dark bottom (it makes it easier to see the butter browning). As it melts, it will sputter and foam up. The foam will eventually subside, but shortly thereafter it will get foamy again. At this point, tilt the pan a little bit (carefully) to see the bottom – little specks of solids should be getting golden-brown. Let them get golden and then chestnut brown, then turn off the heat and set the pan aside to cool. These little dark bits are what makes it brown butter.
  • While the brown butter cools (pop it in the fridge for a few minutes if you are nervous about the temperature), combine the water, sugar, and yeast in a large glass measuring cup or a medium bowl. Stir well, then set aside for 10 minutes to allow the yeast to activate.
  • Meanwhile, whisk together the flour and salt in one bowl (a large one), and 6 of the eggs in another (a small one will do). When the yeast mixture is bubbly and smells like warm bread, add the whisked eggs and stir to combine. Whisk in the cooled brown butter, then dump the whole wet mess into the bowl with the flour and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until no flour streaks remain. It will be a damp lump that looks more like thick cake batter than like dough.
  • Cover the bowl of dubious dough with plastic wrap and let it sit for 10 minutes.
  • Uncover the dough and pull up one edge with your fingertips (sprayed with non-stick spray or lightly coated with oil, if you’re concerned about stickiness), then fold that edge over the middle of the dough ball (see photo series above). Turn the bowl 45 degree and fold again. Repeat the process until you have made 8 folds.
  • Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat this folding and rising process every 30 minutes for 3 more times (so you’ll do this folding process 4 times over the course of 2 hours). This helps activate the gluten without the labor intensive kneading process. After the fourth and final folding circuit, replace the plastic wrap and stow the bowl in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Day two: remove the dough from the refrigerator and relocate it to a well-floured board. Divide it into four pieces. Working one at a time, pat two of the pieces of dough into about a 4-inch round. Around the circumference of the dough, fold in the edges toward the center to form a clumpy ball (see photo series above). Turn the dough ball over and form your hand around it like a cage, then roll gently with very little pressure in light circles on the board to form a smooth, taut round (see Joe Pastry’s excellent tutorial if you need help with this). Repeat with the second piece of dough.
  • The remaining two pieces are for the buns. Divide each of them into equal thirds or quarters, depending upon whether you want 6 or 8 buns. Repeat the flattening, folding, and shaping process with each of these smaller dough pieces, then cover all dough rounds with plastic wrap and let them rest for 5 minutes.
  • Grease one loaf pan and one baking tray (or line it with parchment paper). After the dough balls have rested for 5 minutes, flip them to expose the seam side and repeat the flattening, folding, and shaping process with each one. This creates a finer, more uniform texture in the final product – a step worth doing.
  • Place the two larger balls into the loaf pan, pressing them gently into the corners. They will rise and merge into each other while baking. Place the 6 or 8 smaller rounds on the prepared cookie sheet. Cover both loosely with plastic wrap and leave to rise until almost doubled in size – this should take 1½ – 2 hours. Even after this rise, the loaf may look a bit puny. Don’t worry; it rises quite impressively in the oven.
  • Half an hour before baking, be sure your oven rack is in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350F. Cooks Illustrated suggests placing a baking stone on the rack to preheat along with the oven, perhaps to create a more even shot of heat.
  • When the loaf and the buns have nearly doubled, beat the final egg with the pinch of salt. Remove the plastic wrap and brush the loaves with the egg mixture. Set the pans in the oven (on the stone, if you’re using one), and bake until the tops are golden brown and the internal temperature registers 190F. This will take 18-20 minutes for the buns, and 35-45 minutes for the loaf. If you can remember, rotate the pans halfway through baking.
  • Once cooked through and shiny golden on top, transfer pans to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Then remove from pans, return to wire rack, and cool at least 2 hours before slicing and serving.

Project Sauce Conclusion: Classic Béarnaise

As the culminating entry in this sauce project, where else could we end up but drowning in butter? I realize it’s after Christmas, which means you might balk at this, but it’s not January just yet, which I think means it’s safe to endure one more indulgence before we resign ourselves to a month or three of crisp winter salads, pickled vegetables, and herb soups (actually, all of that sounds pretty good… maybe I’m just hungry).

Food Blog December 2014-0989But before we get to all that, reflections are in order. As the Parson in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales promises in introducing his sermon, it is time to “knit up all this feast and make an end.” This is a meal of endings. The month is almost over, and the year is fast on its way out after that. Even my camera battery decided to go with the theme, running out of juice mere moments after I snapped the top photo.

Food Blog December 2014-0978I chose sauce as the subject for this year’s project because I knew only basics about it. It struck me as mysterious – puddled round or gently but surely emulsified over various restaurant and food-TV displayed dishes, deeply flavored and succulent, providing a link between the otherwise fractured components on the plate. I was acquainted with some – the kind of softly thickened, creamy concoctions resulting from a roux – but terrified of others – hollandaise and mayonnaise and this final entry, béarnaise, seemed outside the arsenal of an ordinary home kitchen. Why else would eggs benedict always cost so much on a brunch menu? Yet they weren’t as frightening as I’d expected. In fact, despite being prepared to make multiple versions of each and frantically fix broken or greasy sauces, I had little trouble. And as I wound my way through the project, some lessons became clear:

1.) Butter is king. Though there are some recipes that rely on simple reduction as their method for producing thick, glossy pours, most require fat to add shine and to help emulsify, and because so many of these classic sauces are French in origin, there is no other fat even under consideration besides butter. It makes sense, too. Bringing a sauce together frequently requires emulsification, which means suspending together insoluble droplets together to thicken the liquid. Whole butter is a combination of fat and water, which means as it sits there all innocent and golden in that paper-wrapped stick, it is already an emulsion all on its own. If you’re going to work with sauces, be prepared to go through a lot of butter. Just remember you’re usually making enough sauce for a crowd, so it’s not quite like you’re chowing down on that whole stick all by yourself…

Food Blog December 2014-09822.) There are three main methods of thickening: eggs, flour or starch, or reducing. The eggs help thicken the sauce because they cook, transforming from a viscous goop into supernatural, temperamental velvet. The flour and starch work by expanding as they heat in the liquid you whisk them fervently into – they swell and absorb and, if you’re assiduous in your stirring, result in an evenly thickened mixture, not a soup full of doughy clumps. Saving these, however, the simplest method of thickening is reducing. Since in most cases a sauce is a pot of liquid suspended over heat, enough simmering is going to result in loss of water, and the more water evaporates from the pot, the less there is left in the sauce. Evaporation, though, takes time, which leads me to lesson three.

3.) Don’t rush. While these sauces are not particularly difficult to make, they do take time. Bringing a pot full of liquid even to a light simmer takes a while, and if you want a thick, glossy reduction in less than five minutes, you’re going to be disappointed. Much of the rich savoriness achieved by something like a veloute or a barbecue sauce comes from simmering away the water in your mixture to concentrate the flavors. As for the egg-based incarnations, mayonnaise just doesn’t come together in an instant. Be prepared for the long haul before you can spread it on that sandwich.

Food Blog December 2014-09854.) Get ready to stir. While we’re considering the long haul, it’s not enough to just throw a pot of sauce on the stove and walk away for a while. In almost every case, a successful sauce is the result of determined and consistent whisking for long minutes at a time. Eggs scramble, flour lumps, and milk curdles if left unattended. Since the objective of sauce is a smooth texture, be prepared for the stirring this requires. Relatedly, this also means having your ingredients pretty much prepped before starting the process – there’s just not time to finely mince a shallot at the same time you’re vigorously stirring a pot of slowly expanding egg yolks.

5.) Carnivore-friendly. Vinaigrettes and dessert offerings excepted, most of these sauces to seem to be intended for consumption with flesh of some sort, whether that be fowl, fish, or four-footed. Some are based around meat broths or stocks, while others just classically pair with specific cuts. This month’s offering, for example, is a classic steak-house luxury. I suppose this is reflective of an era in which meat is the focal point of a meal. But we found that, far from a necessity, many of these sauces are just as enjoyable puddled over a pile of lightly steamed vegetables or roasty starches. Because really, a thick emulsion of butter and egg yolks should be poured over almost anything, as far as I’m concerned.

So let’s get to that whole butter and egg yolks thing, shall we? As sauces go, béarnaise is not so different from last month’s beurre blanc. In fact, as restaurant legend goes, beurre blanc was an accident, created by a chef who was intending to make béarnaise, but forgot to add the egg yolks. That tells you much of what you need to know about this fluffy, decadent concoction. Reduced wine and vinegar, some aromatics, egg yolks tenderly and assiduously whisked like a hollandaise, and then an embarrassing amount of melted butter carefully dribbled in. It emulsifies into a pale, almost foamy lemon-colored sauce that is a bit strong on its own, but utterly lovely enrobing everything from red meat to barely blanched green beans.

Food Blog December 2014-0986I wasn’t sure I would love béarnaise sauce at first, because in order to be a classic béarnaise, it has to be flavored with a hefty note of tarragon, an herb with lush, pointed leaves redolent of that most repulsive of flavors: black licorice. The anise-y taste it imparts in its dried form exiles it from my spice cabinet, and I was worried that stirring a whopping three tablespoons of it into my sauce would render it inedible. Surprisingly though, despite the strong aroma, the final flavor is delicate and inoffensive. It’s noticeable, yes, but in the final product it’s just an herby freshness not so different from basil.

Because this was sort of an occasion, being the final sauce and all that, we decided to make it celebratory and eat béarnaise with its classic pairing. In addition to the crisp-tender green beans and smashed potatoes, we inhaled thick slices of seared chateaubriand, a thick cut from the tenderloin similar to filet mignon. Over this, the béarnaise dribbles and foams and mixes, and the richness is decadent and heroic, and we didn’t lay our forks down until every molecule of food was gone from those plates.
I hope you are enjoying the holiday season. Project Sauce may be over, but with New Year’s Eve just around the corner, there is one more sort of sauce I think you should consider. And in this case, you don’t even have to make it. You just have to hit it. And then let someone else take you home and tuck you in. Happy New Year, friends. I can’t wait to tell you about the project for 2015.

Food Blog December 2014-0989

Pretty Classic Sauce Béarnaise
Makes a little over 1 cup
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick; 4 ounces)
1 shallot, minced (1/4 cup?)
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon leaves, divided
1 teaspoon crushed peppercorns
3 egg yolks
salt to taste
  • In a small pot, melt the butter, skimming off and discarding the bubbly scum that forms at the surface.
  • Meanwhile, simmer the wine, vinegar, peppercorns, shallots, and 2 tablespoons of the tarragon leaves until only a tablespoon of the liquid remains. Strain into a glass or metal bowl and let cool for a minute or two.
  • Set the bowl over a pot half full of water and begin warming it up over medium heat. Before it has a chance to heat up much, add the three egg yolks to the bowl with the wine mixture and whisk vigorously. Continue to whisk as the water comes to a bare simmer.
  • Continue whisking the yolk mixture until it is doubled – about 5 minutes. It will become pale and fluffy.
  • When yolk mixture has doubled, turn the heat down to low and begin dribbling in the melted butter a few drops at a time. If the mixture begins to look curdled or really shiny, remove from the heat for a minute, whisking constantly. This will slow down the speed at which the eggs cook. If you’re really nervous about it, add about a teaspoon of water and whisk vigorously to bring things back together.
  • Continue whisking and dribbling in the melted butter, on and off the heat, until all the butter is added and the sauce is thick. Add the final tablespoon of chopped tarragon, season to taste with salt, and set aside in a warm spot until ready to serve – a thermos works very nicely.