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!