Feeling saucy

*This is my second journal entry. I will be posting subsequent journal entries with photos from my Culinary Arts class (please excuse the crappy photos taken with my phone).

Day 2: Sauces
07.08.2011

Whenever you start anything, you should always start with the basics.  Establish a foundation, if you will.  That way, you can improve your skills and expand your abilities by building on that foundation.  The same goes for cooking, especially with French techniques.  And the French love their sauces.  So today’s lesson was on the five leading or mother sauces – béchamel, velouté, espagnole (brown sauce), hollandaise, and tomato.  In class, we only covered the first four, as we will cover tomato sauce on Italian food day.  However, the espagnole was a demonstration, as it is a bit more involved and takes much longer.  We did, however, make béchamel, velouté, hollandaise, and cream beurre blanc (white butter sauce with cream).

The first one made was béchamel, which was made individually.  The idea with “mother sauces” is that more elaborate sauces (named “small sauces”) can be made from them.  For example, I had made a sauce derived from béchamel just the night before.  I had made pasta with a variation of a cheese sauce – béchamel with cheddar cheese added (but without the customary Worcestershire and dry mustard).  So even though I have essentially made béchamel numerous times, I was still nervous – I kept thinking that I’ve been making it incorrectly somehow all this time.  It turns out that I haven’t.  Béchamel is basically a milk sauce thickened with a roux and seasoned with salt, white pepper, and a tiny bit of nutmeg.  I remembered not to be afraid of salt this time around, learning from the first day of class.  My béchamel was seasoned nicely and had the right consistency.  I was very happy with it.  Although we all followed the same recipe, each person’s béchamel was different – some was slightly more bland, some very salty, and some were distinctly nutmeggy.  Robyn combined all of our béchamels and made a cheese sauce with random cheeses and made a slightly spicy, amazingly delicious baked mac-and-cheese topped with seasoned toasted panko for us to have at the end of class.

Velouté is a sauce I have not made before, so I was even more nervous about making it.  It is basically béchamel with reduced chicken or fish stock instead of milk, and no nutmeg.  This sauce was a group effort.  One thing they say when making a sauce that involves a reduction is to hold off on seasoning until the liquid is reduced.  However, emboldened by my béchamel seasoning success, I took a chance and added some salt to the chicken stock while it was reducing – not too much, just a pinch or two.  It was a good decision.  Once the sauce was done and had the consistency of cream of chicken soup, Kate (my “group”) and I tasted it, and it was ready to go – great texture, seasoned well. When we brought our finished sauce to the table to compare with the other groups, I asked Robyn what kind of dishes velouté is used with.  Depending on what kind of small sauce is made from the velouté, the possibilities are innumerable.  For example, a cardinal sauce is made with fish stock, cream, cayenne pepper and lobster butter.  I would imagine this type of sauce would go well with any shellfish dish.

The next sauce was also a group effort – cream beurre blanc.  This is made with shallots, white wine deglaze, heavy cream, and whole (versus clarified) butter.  It was relatively simple to make, though it took slightly more time than the previous two sauces.  The most time was waiting for it to reduce.  In fact, it was supposed to take more time than we had thought.  Our wine and cream hadn’t reduced as much as it could have and was slightly thinner than the other groups’.  Before we realized this, we had already started adding the cold butter to smooth out the sauce, and Kevin said that it is very difficult to reduce further once butter has been added.  So we just went with it and it still tasted great, and the texture was good, too.  The taste was smooth, creamy and with a tanginess that was unexpected, especially since there was no additional acid that had been added – the tartness was from the white wine.  I liked it.  This sauce can be made with red wine as well, which would make it beurre rouge.

Of all of the sauces we made today, the most intimidating was the hollandaise.  Throughout the class, Kevin offered warnings and tips about the best way to make the sauce without it breaking (the emulsion separating).  So, when it came time to make the sauce, all of us were on edge, and I felt my adrenaline pumping.  Because I had never made hollandaise before, I read the recipe over and over to make sure I was comfortable with the order in which to do things – whisk together egg yolks and the prepared strained reduction in a stainless steel bowl; wait for the water to boil/simmer in a sauce pan for the double boiler; warm the clarified butter and place in a container that will be easy to pour from.

My arm didn’t ache from whisking the egg/reduction mixture over the double boiler – it only started aching when I took the bowl off of the heat and started to add the warm clarified butter – slowly and steadily, being careful not to add too much before it was completely incorporated.  When I was done with the butter and it had reached its satisfactory texture, I added salt and some cayenne pepper.

Although the recipe we were given called for 1½ tsp of salt and 1/8 tsp of cayenne, I only used about ¾ of what was measured out.  I understand that some people put all of it in, which I realized when I tasted some.  Too salty for my taste, but could be perfect for others.

When I brought my bowl to the table for comparison, I felt pretty good about what I had made.  Mine looked like everyone else’s, which meant we all either succeeded or we all failed – though I’m inclined to believe it was the former.  No one’s sauce broke, which is remarkable in itself.  In fact, Robyn took a random bowl and did as many wrong things as she could – the water level in the bottom of the double boiler was too high and it was boiling too rapidly, she added the butter too quickly – with the intent of breaking it so that we as a class could see what it meant to break a sauce (and hoped to try to fix it).  It was like watching the hollandaise process in reverse.  The sauce went from a perfectly thickened sauce to quickly loosening and ended up looking as it did before I placed the bowl on the heat.  She tried different tricks – added water, whole butter – but to no avail.  Apparently the “fixes” work best when it appears that the sauce is about to break, not when it is too far gone.  It was definitely interesting to watch, and now I know exactly what to look for when I make the sauce again in the future.

We made the hollandaise last so that we could eat it immediately with some roasted asparagus prepared by Kevin and Robyn.  I took some of my own hollandaise in addition to a dollop of Priya’s, whose was favored by Kevin.  I also took a generous helping of the mac-and-cheese that Robyn made.  I couldn’t even finish it.

It was definitely a rich, yet satisfying, dinner.  After having successfully made my first hollandaise, I feel much more confident in my ability to make nearly anything else that will be thrown at us for the rest of the semester.  Bring it on, MET ML 699!

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