filling the empty nest with food
Since I started my Escoffier project, I’ve been reacting with disbelief when Escoffier writes that a dish or sauce is simple. Yeah, right, I scoff. This is going to take me hours, produce a mountain of dirty dishes, and inexplicable ruin is around every corner. Brown stock is supposedly simple, as is mayonnaise and the crème caramel I made last week. Really?!
But, in all fairness to M. Escoffier, I’m learning that these basic dishes and sauces really are, in some ways, vey simple.
They just (just!) take practice plus an attention to some basic principles. That’s when I scoff and slam the cookbook shut. If I make a brown stock, I’m not likely to be making one every day for weeks on end. Or a mayonnaise. The practice of making something many times over to get the hang of what matters and where you can cut corners and then learn from your mistakes–well, that’s not typically how a home cook functions.
But, then I relent and reluctantly admit that, in order to improve your technique (how you execute your recipes), you really do need to make something more than once. That’s how you get good at most things in life, right? Sam Sifton, in last week’s New York Times recipe for béarnaise sauce, wrote that making béarnaise sauce “is an exercise that favors repetition.” In other words, you need to make it again and again to get good at it and to get it right.
That’s easy to say for someone in the food business, making béarnaise for a living, over and over. But, what’s a home cook to do? I’ve made béarnaise only once in my life, and ended up making it twice in the same evening as the first batch got too hot and curdled. I also splattered butter all over myself. Of course it was New Year’s Eve, I had just put a one-year-old baby to bed, and had four friends at my house waiting for dinner. I am not one for much drama, but it did take me 27 years before I could go near that recipe again.
Sam Sifton tries to assuage the fear he knows lurks in us home cook’s hearts about such delicate mixtures. And, he is probably right. Given that I’m not going to be making béarnaise every night of the week, what I need is to slow down–take it slow and pay attention. Good advice for lots of things in life, but particularly beneficial for Escoffier-type recipes.
Take it slow, pay careful attention to what you’re doing at each moment, and put away your temptation to multi-task. In some ways, the advice is surprisingly simple, yet, in other ways, oh so challenging.
Happy Mother’s Day, mes amis.
Sauce Béarnaise (1/3 recipe adapted from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire)
200 ml white wine
200 ml white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons minced shallots
6.5 grams minced tarragon
3.3 grams minced chervil
1 gram ground pepper
pinch of salt
2 egg yolks
167 grams melted butter (cooled)
I would seriously suggest following the NYT recipe for the sauce, but in case you don’t, here are Escoffier’s instructions:
Reduce the wine, vinegar, shallots, tarragon, chervil, pepper, and salt to 2/3 of its original volume. Let the reduction cool for a few minutes. Add the egg yolks and whisk the sauce over low heat, with the butter and whisk lightly. The bonding of the sauce occurs from the progressive cooking of the yolks; from which the absolute necessity of cooking the sauce Béarnaise over a low heat. When the butter is incorporated, strain the sauce; adjust the seasonings with a bit of cayenne. Finish it with a spoonful of chopped tarragon and a half-spoonful of chopped chervil.
Note: It is useless to thing about serving this sauce hot, which is, in sum, a Mayonnaise made of butter. It is sufficient for it to be lukewarm, and, anyway, if it is heated too much, it will separate.