filling the empty nest with food

Mother Sauces

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’.

IMG_2161So, 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.

Sauce Velouté (adapted from Velouté 101 at the cooking school Escoffier Online)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups white stock (Velouté is traditionally made with veal stock. However, any light stock such as chicken or fish stock is acceptable. The key is that the stock must be made with unroasted bones to keep the light color of the sauce.)
salt and white pepper to taste
Melt the butter until it is frothy. Add the flour and whisk to create a roux. Whisking constantly, allow the roux to cook for a few minutes until the flour loses its raw taste and the roux develops a light golden color. Whisk in the hot stock all at once and stir until the mixture is smooth. Then, add the desired amount of salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for around 20 minutes.

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.


IMG_2135Mayonnaise 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:


  • Avoid canola oil as it tends to give mayonnaise a fishy flavor. Yuck.
  • You can make as much or as little as you like; start with one egg yolk and about 1/2 cup oil. Julia Child says one large American egg yolk can absorb no more than 3/4 cup oil.
  • Warm your bowl and have your egg and oil at room temperature. That will increase your odds of success.

Petits Gateaux (Small Cookies)

IMG_2111My sweet tooth got the better of me, and I skipped already from the foundational sauces straight to the back of the book, to the desserts. (I’ll be back to the sauces, but I needed a break from all the bones and meat in my kitchen.)

I am a cookie baker at heart, but, sadly, cookies aren’t all that important in classic French cuisine. There seems to be only one cookie recipe in Escoffier’s Le Guide. And it’s a recipe for simple dough you can cut into shapes for tea-time or to accompany other desserts. They’re more of a less important sideline to the main event, rather than something you make for its own sake.

Although Escoffier understands us Americans and our greedy sweet tooths (teeth?). In his introduction to the dessert section, he advocates for what seems a thoroughly modern multicultural sensitivity in the dessert arena: “Only exceptionally must you serve to Americans or to the English such light desserts as we serve in France; they always prefer the substantial desserts to which they’re accustomed.” Is he being sensitive, or is there a little tongue-in-cheek dig at our unrefined Anglo/American propensity to stuff ourselves at the end of a meal? I have a guess, but, either way, Escoffier knows on which side his bread is buttered and who is paying the restaurant bills.

However, that doesn’t mean his cookie recipe is not delicious! Fortunately, even the peripheral foods in Escoffier will make your mouth water.

The cookies are simple to make, rich, buttery and crisp. I sandwiched them with some leftover chocolate ganache. Délicieux! Even by themselves.

Happy (day after) Valentine’s Day!

Pate à Petits Gâteaux (translated and adapted from Le Guide Culinaire, with thanks to Julia Child for help with instructions)

500 grams of flour, sifted
300 grams butter
300 grams sugar
1 egg plus 4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of orange water (I used vanilla flavoring.)

Cut the butter into the flour with a food processor or stand mixer, until the mixture resembles course meal.  Mix together sugar, egg, egg yolks, and flavoring. Beat the liquid mixture into flour/butter mixture until just combined, just a few seconds. Gather up dough and knead two times. Chill for at least one hour. Roll out dough to 1 cm thick (between 1/4 inch and 1/2 inch thick). Bake on a greased cookie sheet or parchment paper at 375º for 12-15 minutes.



Brown Stock

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 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.IMG_2086




Learning Fundamentals and Finesse from Escoffier

640px-Auguste_Escoffier_01 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?

Apparently not.

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

Skimming Scum with Escoffier

IMG_2061So, 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!

Dinosaur Caramel Corn

Well, not real dinosaurs. Just me here feeling like one. It’s one thing to marvel at how someone else’s past is so far removed from present realities (as was my grandmother’s youth in the roaring 1920s), but my age becomes real when it’s my actual past that includes something no-one does anymore. And hardly seems possible that anyone ever considered doing–at least in the past century.

When I was a kid, we used to make popcorn balls to hang on our Christmas tree. Gooey, sticky caramel popcorn that we shaped into balls, usually forgetting to tuck the ribbon into the popcorn before it hardened. That came after stringing popcorn and cranberry garlands. And that was after we had made popcorn balls to hand out to trick-or-treaters at Halloween.

IMG_1895That’s where the dinosaur feeling comes in. Who even makes homemade treats to give out at Halloween anymore?! I guess that was before the razor blade scare, which seems so many lifetimes ago.

But, I was feeling nostalgic for caramel corn and popcorn balls the other day. So, I got out my Betty Crocker cookbook from 1972 and found a familiar recipe.

It turned out not to be all that difficult or time-consuming to make, and is quite delicious. As you will be able to predict from the prodigious amount of butter in the recipe! I highly recommend a batch to accompany your next movie night–or when you want to show your kids what life was like back in the days when Mom was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth. I don’t, however, miss stringing those garlands, which involved more needle sticks to the finger than I could count. Those can definitely become extinct!

Nutty Caramel Corn (from 1972 edition of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)

8 cups popped popcorn (1/2 cup unpopped)
*You can easily double the amount of popcorn and still have plenty of caramel to coat.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter
1 cup pecan halves
1/2 cup blanched almonds

Butter a 15 1/2″ x 12 ” baking sheet (or two if making 16 cups popcorn)

Measure popped corn and nuts into a very large bowl. Mix together.

Combine sugars, corn syrup, water, vinegar, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Cook, stirring occasionally, to 260 degrees on a candy thermometer (or until small amount of mixture dropped into very cold water forms a hard ball).

Reduce heat to low; stir in butter until melted. Pour syrup in a thin stream over popcorn/nut mixture, stirring until popcorn and nuts are well coated.

Spread mixture on baking sheet. Cool. Break into pieces.

Liking Brussels Sprouts

I haven’t quite decided if eating brussels sprouts is enjoyable or merely tolerable. Do they actually taste good, or am I trying to like them because I think I should like them? Are they an acquired taste enjoyed by adults with sophisticated palates? Or was the child in me right when she rejected them for their overly strong cabbage-y flavor? For me, the jury is still out. Which probably indicates I’m trying to argue myself into liking them.


I grew my own brussels sprouts this summer, which means I will make myself eat them and try really hard to like them. Fortunately, there are glazed brussels sprouts, where butter and sugar come to the rescue to impart a little buttery-sweet coating that raises them above their merely tolerable state.

Here is an old recipe from Cook’s Illustrated from the mid-1990s. (The recipe normally includes chestnuts, but I wanted to eat my brussels sprouts all by their lonesome–considering with each bite, do I love you, do I love you not?)

Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts  (from Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe)

1 pound small Brussels sprouts, stem end trimmed with a knife and discolored leaves removed by hand
1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 16-ounce can peeled chestnuts in water, drained (about 1 1/2 cups)
Salt and ground black pepper

Bring the sprouts, 1/2 c water, and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cover and simmer (shaking the pan once or twice to redistribute the sprouts) until a knife tip inserted into the center of a sprout meets no resistance, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter and the sugar in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Stir in the chestnuts. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chestnuts are glazed, about 3 minutes.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and the sprouts and cook, stirring occasionally, to heat through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.





Wine and Cheese, Red and Blue

Back years ago, before I was born, my great-grandmother used to get the blues. She’d sit in a dark room in her flowered house dress, sigh about feeling “so blue,” sing sad Irish ballads in her slow and easy off-key voice, and have herself a can of beer.

Though we would now call her feelings depression, I wonder if she would see our Prozac and psychotherapies as improvements over sad songs and a good taste in your mouth. When you’re needing to lighten a heavy heart, she might say that medications only postpone the low feelings to a future time, and therapy is more work than the comfort your melancholy is searching for.

I know it is currently unpopular to use food as a treatment for life’s tribulations. But when you’re looking for pleasure, what better way to find it than by putting something in your mouth that compels you to exclaim, “Oh, that’s so good!” And if the pleasure is only fleeting? Well, what treatment for emotional distress isn’t temporary? Plus, we get to eat three times a day; three opportunities each day to find some joy.


When I feel blue, cans of beer and Irish ballads don’t soothe my low spirits, but a glass of complex and silky red wine accompanied by a slice of salty-sharp blue cheese or oozy camembert most certainly do. They taste so rich and delicious my world turns instantly brighter and right side up in short order.

What’s your go-to food cure for the blues?


French Potato Salad – plus a little masochism

IMG_1034I have a couple of favorite recipes where it’s required that you hurt yourself to complete the recipe successfully and deliciously. Really.

In the French version of potato salad, you carefully fold oil and vinegar into extremely hot potatoes so the potatoes absorb the vinaigrette into their very pores and become one with each other. It’s a sublime potato salad unlike any combination of  dressing and spuds I’ve ever tasted.

Yes, you can use a spoon for the stirring, so that’s not where the masochism comes in.

First, you boil potatoes with the skins on until they’re slightly tender (I think that would be the French version of al dente.). Next remove the potatoes from the pan, peel them immediately and slice them carefully. If any of you have done this, you understand how blazing hot just-boiled potatoes are! How long it can take to peel and slice one potato that’s burning your hands. And how sensitive to heat your fingers are!

Is the pain necessary? Or possibly only an old tradition you do because it’s always been done that way? I’m not sure, although I happen to believe the burned fingers are worth it. It’s a heavenly salad, especially when made with new potatoes and your oil is extra virgin olive oil. Be sure to get the children out of the house so they don’t hear you swearing as you peel and slice. They’ll thank you later.

Potato Salad (from Gourmet’s Basic French Cookbook, 1961)

Boil 5 or 6 medium potatoes, unpeeled, in salted water to cover until they are tender. Drain, peel, and cut them into thin slices. While the potatoes are still hot, season them with 1 teaspoon salt and a little pepper and sprinkle them with 2 or 3 tablespoons vinegar and 6 to 7 tablespoons olive oil. Add 4 tablespoons [chicken] stock or hot water and chopped parsley, chives, chervil, and tarragon to taste. Chopped spring onions may also be added. Let the salad stand at room temperature until most of the liquid is absorbed. Serve it without chilling.

Bon appétit!

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