Articles by Author
Whatever happened to white sauce? Has that wonderfully comforting creamy sauce thickened with butter and flour disappeared for good from our plates? Forty years ago white sauce was as much a staple as gravy, the foundation of fritters and soups, soufflés and fricassées, and indeed the starting point for a whole family of Southern cream sauces. There was a time when we revelled in chicken à la king and creamed oysters and onions au gratin.
The rot began with nouvelle cuisine, that short-lived French aberration which one chef called “a little bit of nothing on a big white plate.” Flour was banned from the kitchen in favor of “light” butter-mounted sauces that relied on meat reductions and glazes for flavor. Flour, it was claimed, led to heavy, sticky, lumpy sauces with a depressing resemblance to library paste. Well of course it did — if the sauce was badly made.
But the new butter emulsions proved far trickier, needing a careful hand to create them, and a constant watch to maintain just the right temperature so they did not break. In a home kitchen, few cooks had the sharp eye and quick turn of the whisk needed for such fragile constructions. Professional chefs heaved a sigh, tried a few gimmicks like vacuum flasks for keeping such sauces warm (not hot), and moved on. Cooking the finicky embellishments to order was the only realistic approach, too labor-intensive for all but the most expensive restaurants.
ZESTER DAILY CONNECTIONS
Buy the book:
By Anne Willan, Mark Cherniavsky, Kyri Clafin
More on Zester Daily:
Zester Daily giveaway:
Sauces began to disappear, revealing the naked ingredients that had been artfully hidden underneath. Poached fish fillets and boneless chicken breasts were stripped, shivering on the plate. Colorful sides of vegetables were not enough. To hide the misery, the food would be coated in a colorful rub, or topped with a fresh chutney or relish. Flavors took on a new kick with global outreach. Once-exotic fresh ginger and chili, soy, sesame oil and cilantro became commonplace. Sriracha took pride of place in front of the Worcestershire sauce in the pantry. The underlying ingredients were masked, enabling parsimonious cooks to economize on quality — who would notice a stringy bit of chicken or a bland, mushy fish beneath a blizzard of conflicting flavors? But let’s not be cynical.
I’m on a campaign to revive white sauce and its cousin velouté, made with the cooking broth from the main ingredient. When young cooks come into the kitchen, one of the first things I show them is white sauce, and invariably they look mystified. I make them whisk a butter and flour roux in a figure eight, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Quick, simple, with constant whisking the key until the sauce thickens. “But it’s easy!” they exclaim.
So I’m urging a return to homemade macaroni cheese and those vegetable gratins of chard or spinach topped with white sauce and a luscious crust of grated Gruyère. How about lobster mornay and veal blanquette and chicken divan? I yearn for a delicate fillet of sole, poached in fish stock and white wine that is used for the glistening coating of sauce suprême. Escoffier knew what he was doing!
Use white sauce to thicken soups and stews, or to bind gratins of cooked vegetables. Thin white sauce gives the creamy texture to macaroni and cheese or layered pastas such as lasagne. Thick white sauce binds fritters and forms a base for soufflés.
Makes 2 cups
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups cold whole milk
Salt and white pepper to taste
Note: For thick white sauce, use 4-5 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk. For thin white sauce, use 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour for 2 cups of milk.
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook until bubbling. Take from the heat and whisk in the milk (it should be cold), pouring it in all at once. Season with salt and white pepper if you have it (so the white sauce is not spotted with black pepper).
2. Return the pan to medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly until it thickens, just below boiling point. Lower the heat and simmer 1-2 minutes to thoroughly cook the flour. If by any chance some lumps have formed, simply work the sauce through a strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3. To store white sauce, pour it into a bowl and while still warm cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap so a skin does not form. The sauce will do fine in the refrigerator up to 2 days. It will have thickened slightly when reheated, so stir in a little more milk.
After the sauce thickens, whisk in 2-3 tablespoons crème fraîche and simmer 1-2 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Cheese (Mornay) Sauce
After white sauce has simmered, take it from the heat and whisk in 3-4 tablespoons grated Gruyère cheese or 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasoning. Do not recook the sauce as it will form strings.
After simmering, whisk 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley into the sauce, taste and adjust seasoning. Good with fish, especially salmon.
Top photo: White sauce over broccoli. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
What extraordinary things people eat! Just now we are being urged to switch from meat and fish to bugs to “save the planet.” How about using “fresh roasted crickets” for walnuts in your muffins, or savoring an Australian witchetty grub, grilled for two seconds over the coals and popped, still wiggling, into your mouth? I’ve never been offered a roasted sheep’s eyeball, apparently awarded to honored guests at a Bedouin feast, but an oyster on the half shell, so fresh it shivers when the lemon juice hits it, slides easily down my throat.
I’ve recently been immersed in old cookbooks and, wow, our ancestors had gastronomic guts. In 1450, the banquet in England for the enthronement of an archbishop required 104 oxen, six “wylde bulles,” 1,000 sheep, 400 swans and countless game birds such as bustards (larger than a turkey), cranes, bitterns, curlews and herons. Seals were eaten on fast days along with whale, dolphin, porpoise and thousands of other fish. I suspect carp would have been the nastiest; they were raised in ponds and castle moats that also served as drains.
Noble virgins, leaping jesters
Entertainment was the focus at these gatherings. A stuffed peacock with all its feathers was the highlight of medieval feasting, carried by a noble lady, her hair unbound to signal her virginity. In England, during the reign of Elizabeth I, an athletic display called the Alamain leap called for a jester to soar over the heads of seated guests and plunge into a custard pie “to the unspeakable amusement of those who were far enough bespattered by this active gambol,” remarked a commentator. Most popular diversion of all were the live birds served in giant pies — remember the “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”?
Food continued to be entertainment long after huge feasts with hundreds of diners became out of date. By the 17th century, the number of guests invited for grand dinners declined, but the lavish spread of offerings increased. Platters were arranged along the banquet table in front of seated guests, who were invited to help themselves to the food nearest them, or pass along a plate for a neighbor to do the honors. At the grandest affairs, guests were served by a footman posted behind their chair. Diners must have craned their heads to spot the new ingredients brought back by travelers — turkey, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, coffee, tea and chocolate, to mention just a few.
Dozens of different dishes dazzled in gold and silver platters, or in the new porcelain exported from China. By the end of the 17th century in England, it was the custom to offer a different recipe for each guest — 10 for 10 guests, 50 for 50, and so on.
As a modest example, the first course dishes of a June dinner for 10 suggested by the English cook Charles Carter in 1730 were a “pattage of ducklins with onions, an almond pudding, a turbot corbullion [court bouillon] with shrimps and lobster sawce, a fricasee of rabbits, a pottage of squabbs with sagooe [sago], umble [variety meats] pies, beans blanch’d and bacon, and trouts grilliade,” all surmounted by a “grand sallads of sorts” as a centerpiece.
Rabbits and ‘umble pie
The acknowledged king of grand banquets was the French chef Antonin Carême, who in the early 19th century cooked for the czar of Russia and the English prince regent. In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, the French Prince de Talleyrand headed the Congress of Vienna. As his chef, Carême organized official dinners laden with the likes of grilled turbot with anchovy butter sauce, truffled turkey, spit-roast pheasant with gravy and a grand gâteau called the ruin of Babylon — a menu of more than 100 dishes served to 60 to 70 people. Carême never failed to add as “extra” the hot soufflés that were his own invention, and the ultimate chic.
Today we rely on chefs themselves to provide part of a meal’s excitement. A so-called “open kitchen” is the model, though it’s all a bit of a sham, with the noise and smells hidden behind a glass window. I’m always amused the really dirty stuff goes on in the back, the blood and bones and endless peeling of potatoes. However there’s one genius who drew us into the experience of creating fine food right at the table and that was Spain’s Ferran Adrià at elBulli, which closed last year.
My own gastronomic extravaganza there was two years ago when his 37 courses included a flower of steamed rose petals dressed with an extract of artichoke, a “pond” of ice to be cracked with a spoon before the sweet, mint-flavored water beneath was drunk with a straw, and his signature “olive” that collapsed into a rich and puckery liquid essence of olive when it hit the tongue.
In theory, such amusing nonsense has nothing to do with good eating, but it does of course. From sheep’s eyes to stuffed peacocks to olives that burst on the tongue, the very best festive dishes excite the imagination as well as the senses.
Photo: Anne Willan. Credit: C. Siri Bertring
Note on the book cover below: Most famous of all Antonin Carême’s projects is this seven-tiered buffet of 103 dishes from a book written for maîtres d’hôtels. History doesn’t tell us whether the idea was ever executed, but given a minimum height of 20 feet, it seems unlikely.
This week’s Zester Soapbox contributor, Anne Willan is the co-author of “The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, the Writers, and the Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook,” published in April 2012 by the University of California Press.