Hail Caesar!

You may be wondering what a Caesar salad has to do with French cooking. Very little, but I want to feel free with this blog to veer off message every now and then when I get the urge to cook something outside of Julia Child’s culinary canon. I’ve always been a fan of the humble Caesar salad, but have never attempted to make the dressing myself. The shop bought bottles seem perfectly serviceable, but having seen Tom Kerridge make the real deal on TV this week, I felt inspired to give it a go.

The story goes that the salad was created in 1924 by Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini at his eponymous Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, south of San Diego in Baja California. Having been inundated with guests in a Fourth of July stampede, Cardini is said to have rustled up the salad from the ingredients he had left in his kitchen, assembling the dish tableside for added flair. In a happy twist of fate given the subject matter of my blog, Pasadena-born Julia Child is said to have travelled to Mexico and enjoyed a Caesar salad at Caesar’s in 1925, when she was just thirteen.

Caesar salad has nothing to do with Roman general Julius Caesar, depicted here by Rubens

Caesar’s original recipe was made with romaine lettuce, croutons, and the all-important dressing, featuring Worcestershire sauce, coddled eggs, Parmesan, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, Dijon mustard and a few twists of black pepper. The salad has since evolved, and rather than being a background ingredient within the Worcestershire sauce, anchovies now play a starring role. So much so, that the presence of chicken seems entirely redundant in an authentic Caesar salad.

Going with Tom Kerridge’s recipe, in place of olive oil I used rapeseed oil, which gave the dressing a wonderfully vivid yellow hue. While the original recipe called for romaine lettuce, cos also works a treat. I cheated with the croutons, using ones from a packet from M&S, as the recipe required stale white bread, which I didn’t have to hand. Everything hangs on the dressing, which is full of punchy flavours, so the key to getting it right is making sure all of the elements are in balance.

The salty sensation that is the Caesar salad

For the dressing I chopped up six anchovies and whacked them in the blender along with two egg yolks, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a finely grated small garlic clove, and a dash of white wine vinegar. Then, like making a mayo, I added the rapeseed oil while the blender was running, keeping the flow of the oil slow but steady, so as not to overwhelm the egg yolks. It soon turned into a gloriously thick sauce to which I added a mound of grated Parmesan and a squeeze of lemon.

Staying true to Tom’s recipe, I finished the salad by layering it with anchovies, but in hindsight the dish really didn’t need them. The dressing is so punchy, from the tang of the vinegar and the heat of the mustard to the saltiness of the anchovies, it worked best as a solo act without any additional anchovies to ramp up the saltiness to 11. As long as all the elements are in balance, then the bigger the flavour hit the better in my book, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a bolder dressing than this.

The only downside to learning how to make so many store cupboard staples is that once you’ve had the homemade versions and you know how good they taste, it’s hard to go back to the shop-bought bottles. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but I worry that this experience may change me irrevocably – the more I learn, the less I’ll be inclined to make do with the readymade versions, and yet in these frenetic times it’s hard to find the time to make things properly from scratch. Therein lies the rub.

In praise of mayonnaise

After last week’s hollandaise disaster, I approached the challenge of mastering the art of mayo with trepidation. Luckily, the sauce is served cold, which makes it significantly easier to create than its creamy cousin. As with hollandaise, egg yolks are used as emulsifiers, only this time rather than melted butter, the sauce is made with oil. While mayo can easily be made in a food processor, Julia Child advocates doing it by hand with a whisk “as part of your general mastery of the egg yolk”.

A life without mayonnaise would be infinitely duller, and mealtimes significantly less joyful. I have no shame in asking for it at restaurants, even those garlanded with Michelin stars, and am equally happy with a miniature pot of Hellmann’s or Heinz as I am when some poor sous chef has been asked to whip it up behind the scenes at warp speed. For me there is no finer accompaniment to roast potatoes, and the Dutch have long celebrated the glorious union of chips and mayo.

Mayonnaise could be named after Charles de Lorraine, duke of Mayenne

The origins of the sauce are unclear. A recipe for ‘poulets en mayonnaise’ appears in André Viards culinary encyclopaedia, Le Cuisiner Impérial, in 1806. This early incarnation was a velouté made with gelatin, vinegar and egg yolks, and was more akin to an aspic than the silky sauce we know today. In 1808, France’s first food critic, Alexandre Laurent Grimond de la Reynière, published a recipe for ‘bayonnaise’ (named after the French city of Bayonne – better known for its ham), which was also an aspic of sorts. Flamboyant gourmand de la Reynière described the sauce as “the most worthy ornament of poultry and fish salads”.

Another theory is that the sauce is named after Mahón, the capital of Menorca, which explains why it has historically been called ‘mahonnaise’. Yet another belief is that it is named in honour of Charles de Lorraine, duke of Mayenne, who ate a plate of chicken and mayo before being defeated in the Battle of Arques. As last meals go he could have done a lot worse… Spanish aïoli, which includes an indecent amount of garlic, predates the French version, while the fish-friendly tartare sauce is simply mayo with hard boiled egg yolks, gherkins, capers and parsley.

Homemade mayo is much sunnier in colour than the shop-bought versions

The first difference you notice about homemade mayo compared to shop-bought jars is the striking contrast in colour. While the latter tends to be swan white, homemade versions are much deeper in hue – mine was sunshine yellow. The more golden the egg yolks, the brighter yellow the mayo. The oil you use plays a vital role in the taste of the sauce. Julia advocates using olive oil, but the flavour is so assertive it can end up overpowering the mayo. The milder sunflower oil acts as an ideal neutral base that can be topped up with extra virgin olive oil at the end.

As with hollandaise, you’ll need a strong arm and a steely reserve to see the sauce through. It’s relatively simple to make – all you need to do is whisk three egg yolks until frothy then add in the oil drop by drop until it begins to thicken. Once the sauce starts to take shape, the oil can be added more liberally. When you’re happy with the consistency, all that’s needed to finish it off is a tablespoon of white wine vinegar or lemon juice, a teaspoon of mustard powder and a generous pinch of salt.

I added a touch too much mustard powder, and ended up with a punchier mayo than anticipated, but the heat helped balance out the richness of the sauce. To pair with it, I made some double-cooked French fries, which I devoured disconcertingly quickly. Having failed so dismally in my attempt to make hollandaise, I now feel somewhat redeemed. That’s the joy of cooking – there’s always another chance to turn things around, you’ve just got to pick yourself up, put your apron back on and get the hell back in the kitchen.

Jolly hollandaise

Hollandaise and I have a rocky relationship. It’s not that I don’t like the sunshine yellow sauce – I adore it. It’s just that it’s so damn difficult to make. I remember trying to impress a boyfriend once by cooking him eggs Benedict for brunch and nearly weeping in the kitchen from the stress of it all. After half an hour of vigorous whisking the sauce stubbornly refused to thicken and I eventually had to admit defeat. Then I discovered that French sauce maker Maille has a delicious version with a hint of lemon, which has saved my brunches (and blushes) ever since.

Maille hero: If you have to cheat, cheat with this

The painful memory of my eggs Benedict blunder has put me off tackling hollandaise until now. Having bossed my béchamel last week, I was feeling confident. The sauce was thought to have been brought to France in 1667 by the French Huguenots after escaping from exile in Holland, though it was in fact first created by Burgundian chef Françoise Pierre de la Varenne, who dubbed it ‘fragrant’ sauce in his seminal 1651 book, Le Cuisinier François. In his recipe, la Varenne used a dash of vinegar and nutmeg in addition to the holy trinity of egg yolks, melted butter and lemon juice.

Culinary legend Auguste Escoffier named hollandaise, which was known as ‘Dutch’ sauce during the 19th century, as one of the five mother sauces of French cuisine. It’s a marvellous accompaniment to asparagus and white fish, and is essential to eggs Benedict. The trick to nailing the sauce is encouraging the whipped egg yolks to work their magic and hold the butter “in creamy suspension”, as Julia Child elegantly put it. Hollandaise is the Pinot Noir of the sauce world – infuriatingly finicky and hard to make, but incredibly rewarding when done well.

This is why French food tastes so good!

I figured if I followed Child’s recipe with military precision, then I might be in with a chance of creating a little magic of my own. The first alarming discovery about hollandaise is the quantity of butter needed to make it. Half a pint of sauce requires an entire packet of butter, cut into cubes and melted over a low heat. To give the sauce a sunny shade, I used British blue eggs, which have gorgeous golden yolks. Following Child’s recipe religiously, I added the melted butter to the egg yolks drop by drop, then beat the sauce with such ferocity, I thought my whisk might catch fire.

Much to my delight, after some serious whisking it started to thicken, and once the final drop of melted butter had been added, I was left with a glossy swirl of sauce. All that was needed was a pinch of salt and a few drops of lemon juice. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I started poaching the eggs for my victory brunch, halving, toasting and buttering a muffin, then layering it with ham in anticipation of the eggs. I thought back to my younger self struggling to get the butter to play ball and felt smug about how well my second attempt had gone.

My glorious glossy hollandaise before disaster struck…

Eggs made, it was time to add the finishing touch. Dipping a spoon into the pan to sample the sauce, it tasted great but had gone cold while I made the eggs. Figuring all it needed was a quick lick of heat, I placed it on the hob on the lowest level possible. To my horror, the gloriously glossy hollandaise unravelled before my eyes, turning back to melted butter in seconds. I looked on in amazement as the sauce got the better of me a second time.

I tried to salvage it by whipping it into a frenzy in an attempt to thicken it up, but the damage had been done. There was no going back. Utterly deflated and exhausted from all the whisking, I was tempted to reach for the jar of Maille in my cupboard but soldiered on, eating the worst incarnation of eggs Benedict I’d ever created, the muffin soaking up the melted butter like a sponge. It looks like hollandaise and I are yet to work out our differences. I’ll be faking it from now on…

Béchamel mucho

One of the mother sauces of French cuisine, béchamel forms the base of a number of classic French sauces and can be made even more marvellous with the addition of butter, egg yolks and cream. While the white sauce has been celebrated in France since the 17th century, its roots like in Renaissance Tuscany, where is was known as ‘salsa colla’ due to its thick, gluey texture. The sauce was brought to France in 1553 by Catherine de Medici’s talented troop of chefs.

King Louis XIV giving Brian May some serious competition on the big hair front

Béchamel is named after Louis de Béchamel, Marquis de Nointel, a French financier with a side hustle as Louis XIV’s chef, who weaved the white sauce into the king’s dishes. Back then it was a more elaborate affair, made with milk, veal velouté and cream. Its modern incarnation is easy to make – the tricky part is nailing the consistency. First you have to make a roux by mixing melted butter with flour on a low heat until it becomes frothy. Once it’s bubbling away you have to take it off the heat, pour in just boiled milk then whisk the sauce to within an inch of its life.

Béchamel was known as glue sauce in Renaissance Tuscany due to its thick texture

The magic happens when you put the sauce back on the heat and continue to whisk – as it comes to the boil the flour within the sauce helps it to thicken into a creamy canvas upon which to add an array of flavours depending on where the sauce is destined to end up. A simple béchamel just needs a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Add an indecent amount of Swiss cheese and you’ve got sauce Mornay – the base for soufflés. If you make it in advance, you’ll need to give it a good whisk when bringing it back to the boil as it has a tendency to go lumpy when left to cool.

What to do with the sauce? Béchamel is used in all sorts of dishes, from lasagna to the glorious gooey filling of croquettes. With limited supplies in my kitchen, I decided to whip up a potato gratin dotted with garlic and topped with emmantal and Panko breadcrumbs. Try not to lose the will to live when peeling and finely chopping the potatoes – it’s tediously repetitive but well worth the effort.

After 40 minutes in the oven the golden gratin bubbled away like a freshly popped glass of Champagne. Impossibly creamy with a crunchy coating, food doesn’t get more comforting than this – I devoured half the dish in a matter of moments. With the amount of butter and cream used in Julia Child’s dishes, I fear I may be the size of a house by the end of the year, but butter makes everything better.

Unleashing my inner Child

After watching Nora Ephron’s supremely comforting Julie & Julia on Boxing Day, which sees New York food blogger Julie Powell attempting to work her way through culinary maven Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I felt inspired to unleash my inner Child. While I’ve long been a food lover, my approach to cooking is somewhat scattergun and could do with a little refinement, so what better place to start than by beginning with the country that wrote the culinary rulebook.

Having snapped up the solitary copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking at my local bookshop, and admired its elegant red fleur-de-lis motif, I hunted down some equipment to prepare me for battle, beginning with a balloon whisk for beating egg whites into submission. Keen to share my tragedies and triumphs, on a whim I set up this blog at a time when blogs have probably never been more unfashionable.

I may be writing into a void, but I hope this site may attract a follower or two who will join me on my culinary journey. Without realising it, my domain name, Return to Blender, tips its hat to another Ephron classic – You Got Mail. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t already been taken, but there seems to be a distinct lack of irony in the food blogging sphere. I plan to tackle one recipe or technique per week and am hoping to blog about my endeavours every Sunday. My first challenge… sauces. Bon appétit!