Sometimes you need a break from all those stocks and sauces.
Happy Easter to all my friends!
A well-written recipe is a lovely thing. And I don’t fully appreciate them until I have to follow a recipe that raises more questions than it answers. Suffice it to say that some of Escoffier’s recipes are maddeningly vague.
In these mushroom tarts, the béchamel (white sauce) recipe spells out specific weights for each ingredient, but after that the procedures for mixing and cooking get lax. Likewise the pastry. Clearly, precise amounts in sauces and pastry dough matter. But what happened to the precision when it comes to the mixing and stirring?
And then, for the filling, you seem to be able to mix together whatever quantities of mushrooms and béchamel strike your fancy. “Garnish the pastry with mushrooms, sautéed in butter with a little chopped onion, thickened with Béchamel sauce and cooled.” How much sauce? More mushrooms than sauce? Equal proportions? Or what?! And at what temperature do you cook them and for how long?! “Cook in a hot oven and serve immediately.”
Oui, Monsieur. Whatever you say.
Sauce Béchamel (adapted from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire)
40 grams butter
50 grams flour, sifted
700 ml milk or cream (heated)
Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour, stirring continuously and cooking for only a few minutes, until the taste of raw flour disappears.
Pour hot milk or cream into the roux. Bring to a boil while stirring, season with a sprig of thyme, a pinch each of ground pepper, nutmeg, and salt. Cook gently for one hour. (Although, if you’re in a hurry, you can cheat and cook the béchamel for only a few minutes once it comes to the boil.)
Pastry dough (for special flans and fruit tarts; adapted from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire)
500 grams sifted flour
10 grams salt
50 grams powdered sugar
300 grams softened butter
1 1/2 deciliter water
Spread out the flour in a crown shape. In the middle, add the salt, sugar, egg, and butter. Mix the middle ingredients together first. Incorporate the flour little by little and knead it twice. (Escoffier’s instructions leave out the water, so I added it at the end, before the kneading, as you do in most pie crusts.) Gather the dough into a ball and keep it cold.
The pastry recipe makes much more than you need for a few mushroom tartelettes, but you can freeze the leftover dough or refrigerate it. It makes a lovely tart crust.
If I were prone to high blood pressure, the paucity of instructions in Escoffier’s recipes would have already driven me to the doctor’s office for medication. I wonder sometimes if he doesn’t have some relation to those mythic Norwegian bachelor farmers who were stingy with their words. Or maybe he wrote the cookbook, thinking in the background of his writing: if you have to ask for details, you shouldn’t even be here reading, you rookie!
I had a cauliflower in the refrigerator and thought I’d make something simple from Escoffier’s book. Surely vegetables must be somewhat simple, I naively imagined. Ha! First, I needed to understand Escoffier’s “observations on preliminary operations” for cooking vegetables. There are 10 of these operations, in case you were wondering (for example, blanching, braising, and “in the English style”–boiling). Then, the distinction between broccoli and cauliflower (color, yes, and the “disposition of the parts”), and on to choosing among the 8 types of cauliflower dishes. Another hour and a half plus another small mountain of dishes later, I had put together a small side dish of Purée de Chou-fleur dite Dubarry. (I’m hoping the French name of the dish adds some dignity and panache to my paltry-looking deliverable.)
What I can’t figure out is why we need to be told the difference between a broccoli and a cauliflower (wouldn’t that be eminently obvious to someone getting paid to cook in a restaurant?) yet the instructions for the Dubarry cauliflower are so sparse you make some guesses along the way and hope you get it right.
The dish turned out to be puréed cauliflower mixed with some mashed potatoes. Not any mashed potatoes, however. This is a recipe in its own right–sliced, cooked potatoes sautéed with hot crème fraîche until also puréed.) In the end you get a nice distinct flavor of cauliflower with a side dose of rich, creamy, slightly tangy mashed potatoes.
Purée of Cauliflower, called du Barry (from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire)
Cook the cauliflower in salted water; drain well without running under cold water, pass it through a strainer and add to the cauliflower purée one quarter of its weight of potato purée a la crème, keeping it a little firm. Heat. Off the heat, add butter and arrange in a timbale mold.
#1. Now I know why everyday cooks don’t use French cuisine techniques. It’s 8pm on a weeknight, I’ve been cooking, sautéeing, and simmering for the past hour and a half and have produced a small mountain of dirty dishes and about 3 cups of a lovely silky cream of celery soup. Enough to whet the appetites of two gracious friends, but in Escoffier’s French restaurant that would only be one of two soups before the main course. Imagine the dishes for the entire meal!
#2. If you want a soup that tastes of the essence of your main ingredient, the effort is definitely worthwhile.
#3. I’m learning that cooking by technique means there aren’t step-by-step recipes to follow. For a velouté soup, you need to know that it’s one of five distinct thick soups (as opposed to clear soups). There are purées, veloutés, thickened consommés, crèmes, and special potages. Escoffier assures us that he’s “classified rationally” all manner of soups and cleared up the confusion as to which is which. (Thank heaven for that!)
#4. What makes it velouté is the porportion of main ingredient to sauce and thickener. Veloutés consist of one half puréed main ingredient (vegetable, poultry, or fish), one half velouté sauce, plus a liaison (aka thickener) of egg yolk and cream.
#5. Don’t skip any of the steps. The mountain of dishes comes from sautéeing the celery–in butter, of course–mixing in the velouté sauce, puréeing the mixture, then straining the purée through a strainer, and whisking in a mixture of egg yolk and cream. I almost skipped the step of straining the mixture, but am glad I didn’t. There’s something about a smooth, creamy, silky soup that tastes of your main ingredient and has no distractions.
In Escoffier’s world there are sauces, there are small sauces, and then there are Mother Sauces. Everyone knows how important sauces are to French cuisine. The Mother Sauces are those from which all other sauces are derived–and there are endless variations on only 4 mother sauces (some say 5 depending on which century you start from). In fact, there seem to be at least 250 sauce recipes in the Escoffier cookbook!
I love that image of a sauce being a mother. The mother sauces are not the sauces you actually eat or pour over your steak, not the ones that make it to the table. They’re a bit in the background but without them, you got, basically, nothin’. Just like with mothers anywhere. Without them, we’re nothin’.
So, I started with a Sauce Velouté. Professional chefs don’t translate it into English, but if you did, it would be called “velvet or velvety” sauce. You could (boringly) call it a white sauce, which technically it is, but it’s like calling a Christian Dior evening gown a dress. It just doesn’t do the Velouté justice.
I made a larger quantity than this recipe, using 125 grams of butter, 150 grams of flour, and 2.4 liters of my ordinary white stock. (I hope I did the math correctly, as Escoffier’s restaurant recipe calls for 625 grams of roux and 5.5 liters of stock.)
Escoffier actually instructs you to simmer the Velouté for 1 1/2 hours to rid the sauce of raw flour taste and to concentrate the flavors. So I did. That long simmering time might put you off. But before you nix the idea of trying this sauce, listen to Julia Child, who said you don’t have to simmer your Velouté for more than a few minutes.
Unless, of course, you want a sauce with finesse.
Mayonnaise is one of the foundational cold sauces in classic French cuisine. It’s actually very simple (yeah, right, you scoff) and involves an emulsion, or combining two unlike components. The key is to avoid having the components, egg and oil, separate back into their original states. The reward is that once you master the technique of a homemade mayonnaise, you then have at your fingertips a multitude of flavor variations.
But my big question here is: does it matter if you make your Escoffier mayonnaise by hand, sweating through the whisking of multiple hundreds of drops of oil into your egg yolk flavored with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, anxiously hoping you drop the oil in slowly enough and keep whisking quickly enough to keep the mixture emulsified and avoiding the dreaded separation that results in a “turned” mayonnaise and shows without a doubt that you have FAILED? Or do you just say, screw all that unpredictability, put your ingredients in the blender and, voila, in 30 seconds you’ve got a rich, creamy homemade mayonnaise that tastes just like the one you slaved over? Is it still authentic?
Help me out, my friends. Where do you come down on this?
See this helpful video for Escoffier’s mayonnaise made with an immersion blender: http://escoffierathome.com/2012/11/202-sauce-mayonnaise/
This week I transitioned from white stock to brown stock: fonds brun or estouffade–Escoffier’s term for simple (really?!!) brown stock. And I’m realizing it’s not so straightforward to replicate recipes written nearly 100 years ago. (The first Escoffier cookbook was published in 1902 and the fourth edition in 1921.) Simple brown stock, which is used as the base for many sauces, for flavoring soups and vegetables, deglazing roasting pans, and reduced to make demi-glace, calls for a couple of key ingredients you can’t find in your basic city butcher shop or grocery store.
You can read the original recipe at http://escoffierathome.com/2012/07/1-estouffade-brown-stock/ from the website Escoffier at Home, written by another brave (crazy?) soul cooking his way through Escoffier.
Mainly is the issue of veal bones. From what I’ve read veal bones add a delicacy and body to your stock that can’t be achieved with only beef bones. My butcher says you can’t buy them in the city (at least not in my city), so I’ll have to search them out, maybe going straight to someone who raises veal. Then there is the innocent baby calf factor, and the growing aversion to eating veal because of the unethical way the calves are raised. I’ll have to do some serious thinking about this before I search out veal bones. Any help will be appreciated. . .
Not being able to find ingredients easily helped me decide I won’t be tearing my hair out trying to make “authentic” Escoffier recipes. I won’t be aiming for a perfect replication of Escoffier’s stock, but rather a stock that follows his principles.
I think he would approve. He wrote that what he set out to do was to create “an instrument rather than a book, . . . leaving to each her freedom to establish her way of performing according to her personal views. His job, as he saw it was to determine “the traditional foundations of the work.”
Some recipes call for exacting attention to detail. Stock isn’t one of them. There are a few foundational things, however, that you want to make sure you do: use a tall, narrow pot; roast the bones before putting them in water; start with cold water; simmer–do not let the stock boil, as boiling makes the stock cloudy; don’t add salt to your stock; skim the scum and at the end degrease; strain your stock through cheesecloth.
Whew! Got all that?
My brown stock turned out pretty well for a first try. It became gelatinous once it cooled which is a good sign, and acceptably clear. As a bonus it provided a lovely rich base for winter vegetable soup.
Auguste Escoffier. French haute cuisine. Words to make any cook tremble in fear who considers herself pretty good but has never been trained. I have been lucky to be able to turn out decent food from my kitchen over the years–thanks to watching my talented mother cook and then having the fortune of cooking for a family with big appetites and a generous willingness to try anything. But, after several decades in the kitchen, I have got it in my head that I need some professional help. It’s time I learned about French classical technique.
Georges Auguste Escoffier is commonly acknowledged as the central figure in the modernization of haute cuisine and one of the creators of what we now call classical French cooking. He organized and codified for home cooks the foundations of classical French cooking in his famous book, Le Guide Culinaire, first published in 1902. (There is an English translation and an American version called The Escoffier Cookbook.)*
I wasn’t sure, at first, what cooks, or chefs, mean when they talk about technique. Does it mean knowing how to chop fast and fancy with those scary chef’s knives and melt butter over leaping gas flames until it foams, or other tricks like that? And don’t we all have our own individual techniques when it comes to chopping or roasting or sifting? And, if your dish turns out all right, doesn’t that mean your technique must be okay?
Although Monsieur Escoffier doesn’t talk about “technique” but rather about the fundamental elements of cooking, what he meant by French classical fundamentals is “the perfection of preparation–in other words, the best ingredients cooked with the utmost finesse.”*
Ah, that’s why I love the French. They elevate what can be daily drudgery to an elegant art form. Who wouldn’t want their soup cooked with the utmost finesse? Which makes you want to put on your starched white apron and spend the next 12 hours boiling beef bones to create the most delicious clear beef consommé you’ve ever tasted in your life. At least, it makes me want that.
I know cooking philosophy is trending in the opposite direction, what with the new New York Times cooking newsletter encouraging people to just get in the kitchen and cook. Plus our restaurants and TV shows are replete with all sorts of fusions and experimentations. And given America’s multicultural essence, there’s no way we’re ever going to aspire to the French version of purity in the kitchen. But sometimes I’m of the mind to learn some rules before I veer off and break them. So, here I go in an attempt to learn from the great Escoffier. (He looks kindly enough, doesn’t he? He won’t bite my head off if I make some mistakes or burn the butter?)
*From NYT articles of 1956 and 1994
So, I started at the beginning, which in haute cuisine, starts with stocks. For Escoffier, sauces and stocks are the fundamental elements of cooking. He wrote that they are “the elements of first necessity without which nothing serious can be undertaken.”
Wow, so if you don’t get your stocks right, nothing else will be worth doing. It’s that simple–and that weighty! I don’t imagine he ever was in such a hurry that he sent his kid out to the grocery store to buy a quart of Swanson’s.
I made Fonds Blanc Ordinaire, or, in other words, ordinary white stock. It feels so much more elegant to spend hours skimming beef bone scum when you call it a fonds blanc, even if it is ordinaire. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as white stock.
So, if you want to learn along with me–I’ve now been instructed that there is brown stock (made with beef and veal); white stock, made with beef, veal (although veal bones are hard to find so I left them out), and a chicken carcass. After that there are veal, game, chicken, and two kinds of fish stock (made with red or white wine). Whew! Each one will form the base of sauces, essences, and glaces later on, those being the other fundamental elements we’re going to take very seriously.
I followed Escoffier’s notes and made sure to skim the scum that rises to the top of the pot as the liquid comes to its first boil. (It’s kind of a gross task, so I’ll spare you the photos.) I boiled the bones, meat, and vegetables gently (also key) for about 5 hours, let it cool overnight, and scraped off the fat that accumulated on top. One last important job before I could taste my homemade stock: strain the stock through cheesecloth. Check.
I was hoping for a broth that knocked my socks off with its delicious meaty flavor. It didn’t really do that, but then I wasn’t sure what to compare it to. I’ve eaten so much soup made from terrible salty cubes of “bouillon” and containers of Swanson’s broth that I don’t even know what homemade stock should taste like. It did taste flavorful and real and turned out mostly clear after I strained it. Clarity is prized highly and indicates that you’ve carried out your skimming properly.
I have other stocks to test out, but I’m looking forward to using my fonds blanc ordinaire in a future dish. Stay tuned!