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La Technique: I Love the Base

Session three was all about stocks and emulsified sauces and probably the first class I was really excited about. What’s so exciting about stocks? The book says they are “indispensable in the classic French kitchen”. They are used to make the mother sauces and their correct preparation can have a dramatic effect on your final dishes.

The thing about these basics is that their preparation is hard to understand from a book. I’ve made stocks before, notably from leftover chicken both cooked and uncooked, but I was hoping this class would help me make those stocks better as well as learn about beef and veal stocks. It did, though we didn’t talk much about chicken stock, more about the veal and marmite.

Here’s something interesting, milk is considered a stock. Bet ya didn’t know that…

So, guidelines for a proper stock? According to the book they are:

1. Use quality ingredients – duh. This seems obvious but a lot of people put their leftover junk in here. Yes, leftover carrots are great, but not the carrot peel.

2. Start stocks in cold water

3. Simmer stocks slowly and uncovered

4. Don’t allow stocks to come to a boil or stir the bottom – both will cause the stock to be cloudy. You’re going to use these stocks in sauces later, so they need to be as clear as possible.

5. Skim often.

There are others, but I think you get the idea.

Because the class was so big, we broke into three groups. My group was in charge of making the marmite, lucky for me because I was most unfamiliar with marmite.

Marmite is a white stock with the addition of burned onion halves. Ours was made from beef bones. We had 40 lbs, which we threw into four different stockpots and covered with cold water and then heated. While heating, you skim the top, though this hardly seems important because as soon as the water comes to a boil you dump the water, drain the bones and wash away all the blood and impurities (a process called degorging). At the same time, you split a few onions in half – keeping the peel on, rub the exposed section with oil and throw on a hot griddle and burn the hell out of it – until it is black.

Taking the bones, the onions, a few pounds of chopped carrots and celery and some parsley & thyme stems and enough water to cover, we brought the whole thing to a simmer. The school has these giant, self-contained stockpots that sit in the corner of each room which allow you to set the temperature and then leave for 8-12 hours. We skimmed our stock a few times and then left it to simmer until the morning class came in, strained and cooled it for us to use later in the class. The rest of the class did a similar thing with the brown veal (where you roast the bones first and brown some mirepoix and deglaze the pan before simmering – hence the “brown”) and some white chicken stock (no roasting of bones and you only need to cook for a couple hours). And that was about it. Pretty simple stuff, but interesting nonetheless. All in all we made tens of gallons of stock to use later.

Chef mentioned that for the home it was probably better to just BUY veal and beef brown stocks from a reputable source instead of doing this at home as roasting these bones tend to overpower all smells in your house for several days. Chicken stock is probably the only one worth making at home.

With the stocks cooking, it was time to get our first emulsified sauces down, starting with mayo. Mayo is seriously the easiest thing in the world to make and how much better it tastes than the store bought stuff. I’d made mayo before but even I still buy it. I shouldn’t. It’s super easy. Take an egg yolk, a teaspoon of mustard (dijon or something good – generally not chunky) and a pinch of salt and whisk for about 20 seconds. Then, slowly incorporate 1/2 cup of vegetable oil. Start with just a few drops, slowly work it in, add a few more drops and continue. Once you get 10-20% of it in, you can just add by slow pour. yes, you can break it, but it’s pretty unlikely. Add a bit of lemon to flavor and there you go… mayo.

A little trick we learned: When you get done, whisk in a few drops of water and your yellowish mayo (because of the mustard) will turn dramatically whiter.

Now the thing about mayo is that it is highly prone to spoiling, so you should use it right away. The stuff in the store has all kinds of stabilizers to keep it fresh for five years, but really, do you want to eat stuff that last for five years?

After our mayo, I started to learn more about Elle’s distaste for most things culinary. She looked at the mayo and mentioned that she didn’t like mayo. Never ate it. She went on to say she really only ate pasta. I’m not sure why she’s taking a cooking class…

After mayo it was hollandaise. Hollandaise I’ve made several times and pretty much, I break it every time. It’s caused domestic disputes at home when I’ve tried to make crab cake eggs benedict at home, trying to get the eggs to poach, english muffins to brown, crab cakes to cook and hollandaise to finish all at the same time. If anybody gets in my way during this, they get yelled at. Sorry K! And in the end, it very rarely works. Usually the hollandaise is what kills me. I will finish it, let it sit just for a few minutes, look back and see that the emulsification of butter in egg yolk and water has broken down into a chunky, buttery mess.

It still tastes OK, but it looks like hell.

I’ve tried many different recipes for this, but nothing has felt too comfortable. Most start out the same, whisk some egg yolks in a little water. Move bowl over a water bath. It’s important to get this sabayon really frothy before moving on. Then, you need to incorporate the butter. Tyler from the Food Network recommends using melted butter. Alton Brown recommends using just one pat of butter at a time to whisk in. We would use clarified butter. Maybe that is the difference as my hollandaise came out awesome this time. Even Elle, whose sauce looked thin in the early stages, probably due to her weak whisking, ended up looking and tasting great. The whole thing takes about 7-10 minutes and you feel pretty good when it is done.

Now with Hollandaise, you can make a derivative. Separate from the hollandaise, we reduced some white wine vinegar, shallots, peppercorn and taragon and water until left with a very thick syrup. Once cool, you fold that into the hollandaise and viola – Bearnise, a classic steak house sauce. The saddest part of the day was tasting and then composting all the sauces we had made. Everything was thrown away…

This was the first step in learning about the mother sauces, or bases of french cooking and sauces and while I had done many of these things before, seeing and learning in the class and from the chef was super helpful. We learned a bunch of things, like ho w to fix a broken hollandaise, how frothy you should make the sabayon, how dark your roasted bones should get – all stuff hard to convey in a book. Class seems to be getting better and better.

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