Okey donkey, that’s enough babbling about oddball dreams.  Let’s get back to what brought us here in the first place, shall we?

Yes, we shall.

I’ve hesitated to bring up the subject of classic French sauces, because I didn’t want to commit to something that I didn’t have the stamina to see through.  Initially, it’s pretty simple, but after a little while you find yourself getting bogged down in taxonomic nomenclature and family trees, and nobody likes getting bogged down.

I have, however, finally accepted that this blog would be even worse than it already is if I failed to say something about classic French sauces.  It gets complicated, but I’ll try to keep it as quick and simple as possible.

There are five “mother sauces.”  Solo, most of them aren’t good for much.  They function mainly as bases for “small sauces,” which are sauces derived from or based on mother sauces.

Confusing already, isn’t it?

Maybe this’ll help clarify:  There are, as I said, five mother sauces.  They are hollandaise, brown (a/k/a “espagnole”), béchamel, tomato, and velouté.

Let’s say you start with a béchamel–a mother sauce–but decide that it’s a little dull for your purposes, so you add some Parmesan and Gruyère.  Voila!  You no longer have a béchamel; you have a small sauce known as “Mornay.”  Congrats.

If you add o.j. (from a blood orange, ideally–mostly for the color) to a hollandaise, you don’t have hollandaise any more.  You have a sauce called “maltaise.”

Starting to get the picture?

There are five mother sauces, which are rarely seen on their own.  Descended from them, by additions of this and that, are innumerable small sauces.  Small sauces are generally the ones that wind up on your dinner plate.

Mother sauces are all some kind of tasty liquid, thickened.  Thickening agents vary.  There’s roux, which is flour and butter cooked together.  There’s also slurry (cornstarch mixed with water), plain ol’ egg yolks, and the process of reduction.

I’m not going to go into excruciating details about every sauce.  I’m just going to tell you what the tasty liquid is, and what the thickening agent is.  All of them involve seasonings–salt and pepper, for instance–but if I got into all the specifics, we’d never end.  I just want to give you a general idea of what’s going on.

Béchamel

is pretty much just hot milk thickened with roux.  The small sauces descended from it are:

  • Cream.  Add some some cream and a tad of lemon juice, and there y’are.
  • Cheddar.  Mostly self-explanatory, but I will point out that it benefits from a splash of Worcestershire and a pinch of mustard powder.
  • Mornay.  Told you about this one earlier, although I left out the fact that you should add a little cream.
  • Soubise.  Add a tremendous amount of onions and then strain them out.  An excellent sauce.
  • Nantua.  Unreasonably complicated.  Let’s just say that it involves crawfish compound butter and leave it at that.  If you wanna know more, gimme a holler.

Velouté

is one of those brain-busting sauces.  You can make it with fish stock, or you can make it with white stock (made with chicken or unroasted veal bones).  Consequently, there’s fish velouté and then there’s chicken/veal velouté, and they have different small sauces.  They’re all thickened with roux.

Small fish veloutés:

  • Bercy.  Add a reduction of shallots and white wine.
  • Cardinal.  More fish stock, reduce it, then cream, cayenne, and lobster compound butter.  Yowza!
  • Normandy.  Mushroom scraps, a bit more fish stock, reduce it, and finish it with an egg yolk and a cream liaison (we’ll get to that soon).  Done.

That’s pretty much all there is to the fish family.  The chicken/veal side of it gets quite a bit more complicated.

Nobody ever really does anything with a straight chicken/veal velouté.  You have to turn it into an allemande or a suprême first.

You make an allemande by adding lemon juice and a liaison to the velouté, and you make a suprême by adding cream to a chicken velouté.

“But wait a minute,” you may protest, “what the hell’s a liaison?”

Fair question, and one that I am happy to answer.

A liaison is a combination of egg yolks and heavy cream.  You have to be careful with it, lest you wind up with scrambled eggs.  We want to thicken a sauce here, not just dump scrambled eggs into it.  A monkey could do that.

So off we go with making a proper liaison.  It ain’t hard–trust me; if I can do it, so can you–and it’s a very good thing to know.

Liaison

One part egg yolk and three parts whipping cream, for starters.  Pretending to measure an egg yolk is a total waste of time, so let’s just reasonably assume that one of them equals a tablespoon (on a good day, maybe one and a half).  Whisk your yolk and cream together.  The science behind it, in case you’re curious, is that the addition of cream increases the coagulation point of the yolks (yolks are largely proteins, and proteins coagulate for a living).  This way, it’s a lot easier to incorporate them with the sauce and not have to worry about getting lumpy.

Okay, now temper the yolk/cream mix with the hot velouté.  In this case, “temper” just means that you ladle a very little bit of the hot sauce into the yolk/cream mix and whisk it around.  Add a little more and whisk.  Keep doing that until the yolk/cream mix starts to get warm, and then whisk it all back into the original velouté.  Yank it off the heat so that it doesn’t get too hot.

Sounds crazy, don’t it?  Well, it isn’t.

The proteins in yolks start binding up around 150F.  Whapping some cream in with the yolks raises the coagulation point to 180F or so (please don’t quiz me on the science behind it; I ain’t no Stephen Hawking.  All I know is that it works).  The yolks start getting curdly and nasty around 185F, so be sure to keep it all somewhere between 140F and 185F.

Whew!  Science is a workout, isn’t it?  Quick review:

  • Fish stock + roux = velouté
  • Chicken stock + roux = velouté + cream = suprême
  • Chicken stock + roux = velouté + liaison and lemon juice = allemande
  • Veal stock + roux = velouté + liaison and lemon juice = allemande

All right, that being said, there are some small allemandes and some small suprêmes.

Small allemandes

  • Aurora.  Add tomato paste and a little butter.
  • Horseradish.  Heavy cream and a little mustard powder.  Add the fresh horseradish at the last minute.
  • Mushroom.  Sliced mushrooms, butter, and lemon juice.  Don’t strain it.
  • Poulette.  Mushrooms, shallots, and butter.  Then add some heavy cream, and finish it with lemon juice and parsley.

Small suprêmes

  • Albufera.  Awkward name, but one of my all-time favorite sauces.  Add some glace de volaille (chicken stock reduced to a Jell-O™ consistency) and red pepper compound butter.
  • Hungarian.  Onion, butter, and–guess what–loads of paprika.  Good Hungarian paprika.
  • Ivory.  Another of my favorites, and pretty simple–just add some glace de volaille.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty well exhausted.  We’ll start up next time with brown sauce.

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