Thursday, March 15, 2012

March: French Cooking Part 1-Sauces

It's only natural that from England we head south to the gastronomic mecca of France.  I can not possibly do justice to all that the French have added to the culinary arts in just one cooking class session.  Entire cooking schools are founded on the principles of French cuisine, and most chefs have spent at least some class time learning the classical techniques that are the foundation for not just French cooking, but cooking in general.  For if you learn these foundation elements, you can use that knowledge to create any type of food creation from any continent. 

I decided to start with some sauces because I realized that I use some sort of sauce every day in my food preparation, so I thought it might generate some new menu options for my class members to show them some basic sauce techniques.   I built my class around three of the main sauces in French cooking:  Bechamel, Veloute, and a homestyle version of Espagnole.  I also included several handy sauces: vinaigrette, mayonnaise, compound butter, flavored oil and chocolate dessert sauce.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Mac n Cheese has become a mainstay in the homes of American families, but it usually comes in a blue box and is made on top of the stove in a single pot.  This "from scratch" Mac n Cheese may take a bit more effort and dirty a few extra utensils, but it has the advantages of 1) tasting amazing, 2) you know exactly what's in it, and 3) you probably have all the ingredients for a batch sitting on your pantry shelf on any given day.  It's definitely worth the effort.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

While your making the cheese sauce, boil a pound of elbow macaroni according to the package directions. Don't let the macaroni get really soft or you'll end up with mushy Mac n Cheese.  Drain the cooked macaroni and run under cold water to stop the cooking process.  Set aside until ready to use in the recipe.

For the sauce you'll need:

4 Tbs. unsalted butter
4 1/2 Tbs. flour
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. powdered mustard
12 oz. medium to sharp cheddar cheese, grated (don't use cheese that comes already shredded because it contains powdered cellulose and will make your sauce very grainy)
4 cups cold milk (preferably not nonfat)
Salt, to taste

For the topping you'll need:

2 slices fresh bread made into bread crumbs in a blender or food processor
3 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. minced fresh parsley, or 1 tsp. dried parsley
1 Tbs. lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste

To make the sauce: Melt the butter over medium heat in a large heavy-bottomed skillet (that could describe more than a skillet, but let's not go there.) Add the flour and combine with the butter using a whisk. Cook the flour/butter mixture until it just starts to turn a little golden. You've just made a blond roux. While stirring the roux with the whisk, add the cold milk. Continue to stir with whisk until the milk begins to thicken. You may have to turn up the heat a bit to get the thickening started, budot urn the heat down as soon as the sauce begins to boil. At this point, the sauce you've just created is called a bechamel. Remove the bechamel from the heat and add the seasonings and cheese. Let the cheese melt and taste for the correct seasoning. The amount of salt that you need is based on personal preference and the type of cheese you use. Now you have a cheese sauce, which technically is a small sauce of bechamel.

Once your happy with the taste of the sauce, add the cooked macaroni and stir to completely combine. You can serve the macaroni and cheese at this point, but I prefer to bake the mixture with a crumb topping before serving. To bake, scrape the macaroni and cheese into a buttered 9 x 13 baking dish (if you have a glass or ceramic dish, it makes an attractive serving vessel) and sprinkle with the crumb topping.

Crumb topping: Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the lemon juice and parsley and a bit of salt and pepper. Add bread crumbs and stir to combine completely. Turn up the heat to medium-high and cook the crumb mixture for about a minute. Taste for seasoning adjustment.

Bake the macaroni and cheese, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes.

Pan-Seared Pork Steak with Pan Gravy

I developed this recipe while I was in Salem, Oregon helping my father-in-law. He had a package of pork blade steaks in the refrigerator that needed to be cooked. Pan-searing develops a wonderful caramelization of the natural sugars in meat, and it's this caramelization that is the base for the rich pan gravy. Be careful when searing the meat because it can easily go from a lovely caramelized brown to a bitter, burnt tasting, useless mess. Start with a medium-high heat and reduce the heat once you've gotten a golden brown color on both sides of the steak.

2 lbs. pork blade steak
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup diced onion
1/4 cup diced carrot
1/4 cup diced celery
3 cups low-sodium chicken stock (you can use chicken bouillon in a pinch, but it has a lot of salt in it so your pan gravy may be too salty.)
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
3 1/2 Tbs. flour
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
2 Tbs. Minced shallots
2 Tbs. sugar

For the meat: Heat butter in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until the butter is sizzling. Add the pork blade steak in a single layer and season well with salt and pepper. Leave the meat alone for about 5 minutes to caramelize. Using tongs, turn the steak over and repeat as for the first side. You may need to add a bit more butter to the pan if the pan seems dry. A dry pan can cause the meat to burn rather than caramelize. Once you've browned the meat on both sides, remove the steak to a platter and cover with foil. To the pan, add the onion, carrots, and celery. Again, you may need to add a bit of butter. Cook the vegetables (this mix of two parts onion and one part each carrot and celery is called a mirepoix [meer-a-pwah])until they are caramelized. Deglaze the pan with a bit of stock or white wine to get all the wonderful brown bits off of the pan. Put the pork steak back into the pan and cover with a lid. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the pork for 15-20 minutes, checking the pan occasionally and adding stock to make sure the pan doesn't go dry.

Remove the meat from the pan to the platter and cover with foil. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the contents of the skillet into a mesh sieve placed over a large bowl. Discard the vegetables. Measure the pan drippings and add enough stock to make 3 cups. Make a brown roux in the skillet by melting the 3 Tbs. butter and adding the 3 1/2 Tbs. flour and whisking to make a smooth paste. If the roux seems too dry, add more butter. Cook the roux, stirring constantly with the whisk, over medium heat until it is a rich brown color and smells nutty. This may take a few minutes, so don't walk away from it. It can easily burn if left unattended. Once the roux is a rich brown color, add the cooled stock and whisk to remove any lumps. Continue to cook over medium heat until the sauce thickens. If the sauce is too thick, simply add more stock until it is a consistancy that you like. I like my gravy to be a bit thinner so that it pours over the piece of meat rather than sits on top of it. Something to remember about roux is that the longer you cook the flour-butter mixture when making the roux the less the thickening capacity of the roux, so you have to use a bit more brown roux to thicken a sauce than you would have to use if it were a white or blond roux.

Once you have your pan gravy to the right consistancy, taste it and adjust the salt and pepper to your taste. Add the mustard, shallots and sugar and stir to mix completely. Taste again and adjust. Take ownership of your sauce and add seasonings that you like. Maybe you don't like mustard or shallots, so leave it out along with the sugar. These ingredients make a traditional Robert (row-bear) sauce, which goes very well with pork, but it's just an idea. You can add sauted mushrooms and onions for an equally great pork sauce, or you can leave it as a simple pan gravy with salt and pepper and the mirepoix for seasoning.

Anyway, once you have finished your sauce, spoon it over the pork steaks and sprinkle with a bit of chopped fresh parsley. This would be great served over wide egg noodles.

VARIATION: Instead of making a pan gravy, which is thickened with a roux, you can make a simple pan sauce instead. Follow the recipe as directed, but after straining the juices from the pan, return the juices to the pan but do not add any stock to it. You should have at least 4 Tbs. of pan juices remaining to make the sauce. If you have more than this, cook the juices over medium high heat to reduce them to about 4 Tbs. Divide 2 Tbs. cold unsalted butter in half. If your skillet is not hot when you return the juices to it, turn the heat on under the skillet to medium high and bring the juices to a boil. Remove from heat. Whisk a piece of butter into the juices in the pan until it is completely incorporated, then add the second piece of butter. Whisk. Pour the sauce over the steaks.


When you think of mayonnaise, I'm sure you think of the white gloppy stuff that comes in a jar and you'd be right. That is what most of us know to be mayonnaise. But that's because we haven't experienced the sublime goodness of homemade mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is so easy to make and has so many flavor possiblities. If you have an egg, vinegar, and oil, you have the ingredients for mayonnaise. Like everything, the quality of your mayonnaise is subject to the quality of your ingredients, so don't skimp on the ingredients. When I hear back from people who have tried my recipes with inferior results, I often find it to be a case of inferior substitution of ingredients.

Here's a basic mayonnaise "recipe" that can be modified using different acidic ingredients (vinegars, citrus juices) and oils (mild flavored safflower or canola, or more robust extra virgin olive oil or flavored oils), as well as seasonings. It's fun to experiment with mayonnaise because the ingredients aren't too expensive to throw out (not that we ever want to waste food) if our flavor combos don't quite taste as good as they should.

Dilly Mayonnaise

This mayo is great in tuna salad, macaroni salad, or as a dip for steamed artichokes or asparagus.

1 yolk of a large or extra large egg
2 Tbs. white wine vinegar
1 Tbs. dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. dried dill (I use Pampered Chef's Herb Dill Blend)
1 cup mild flavored oil, such as canola or safflower

Place the egg yolk in a bowl that will hold at least 4 cups. You need room to whisk. If you have a rubber-bottomed mixing bowl, that's ideal. It will help steady the bowl while you whisk in the oil. Add the vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and dill. Whisk until it's completely combined. Now whisk in the oil just a very quick drizzle at a time to begin the emulsification process, which is what mayonnaise is all about. After you've added about a quarter cup of the oil a little at a time, you can start adding the oil in a steady stream to the egg yolk mixture as you continually whisk. Whisking is very important to the emulsion process. Since you'll have one hand busy whisking and the other hand busy pouring in the oil, you can see why having a bowl that won't move around the counter is important. If you don't have a rubber-bottomed bowl, you can put a damp towel under the bowl to help hold it in place or you can call on a helper to hold the bowl in place.

Now making mayonnaise takes a bit of practice to get the feel of just how much oil you can add. A large egg yolk can usually emulsify a cup of oil, but it all depends on how much lecithin is in the yolk and we can't tell just by looking at the yolk. If your mayonnaise starts to look curdled, stop adding oil and whisk like crazy to smooth it out. Don't add any more oil if this happens.

Freshly made mayonnaise will be more like a sauce than the thick mayonnaise from the jar. The homemade mayo will thicken up once it sits in the fridge for a few hours. Personally, I like to use my mayonnaise for salad dressings and dips before it thickens up. Store in a covered container in the fridge.

VARITIONS: Add minced sour pickles to the mayo for tartar sauce; Remove the dill and add some ketchup and sweet pickle relish for Thousand Island dressing; replce dill and mustard with curry powder; replace the white wine vinegar, canola oil and dill with red wine vinegar and EVOO along with one pressed clove garlic and 1 tsp. Italian seasoning for a fantastic aoli spread for sandwiches or thin it down with a bit more vinegar and use it as a dressing. Try fresh squeezed lemon juice in place of the vinegar for a seafood sauce. The possibilities go on and on!

Springtime Pasta Salad:

8 oz. pasta of choice (I used elbow macaroni), cooked according to package directions
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
2 Tbs. minced red onion
2 oz. cheddar cheese cut into small cubes
Dill Mayonnaise

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Taste salad and add salt and pepper, if necessary.


A vinaigrette is similar to a mayonnaise without the egg yolk. The basic ratio is 1 part acid to 1 1/2-2 parts oil. Again, you can change up the flavor profile simply by changing the acid and oil that you use. This recipe uses tangelo/tangerine juice as the acid and sunflower oil to create a light dressing for strawberry and spinach salad.

Tangerine Vinaigrette:

3 Tbs. freshly squeezed tangerine juice
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
dash of pepper
1/2 tsp. minced fresh mint, or 1/4 tsp. dried mint
1/4 cup canola, safflower, or light olive oil

Whish together juice, sugar, salt, pepper and mint. Drizzle in the oil while whisking. Taste and correct seasoning as desired. The dressing will not remain emulsified for long, so whisk the dressing again before using.

Strawberry Spinach Salad:

Wash, hull, and slice one quart fresh strawberries and place in a bowl with 8 oz. washed baby spinach. Add 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese and toss. Slice half of a red onion very thin and toss the onion with the other salad ingredients. Drizzle salad with Tangerine Vinaigrette.
Add a feww grinds of pepper, if desired, before serving.

Chocolate Dessert Sauce (like Hershey's Syrup, but darker and better)

Let's face it. The bottle of Hershey's syrup lasts about as long as the gallon of milk, which isn't very long around my house. No worries though if you know how to whip up a batch of homemade chocolate sauce that's so good and so easy. I always have the ingredients on hand to make this sauce, so it's my go-to recipe.

2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
2 oz. cocoa powder, pressed through a sieve to remove lumps
1 oz. heavy cream
3 oz. unsalted butter
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tsp. salt

Stir together the cocoa powder and some of the measured water to make a smooth paste. Set aside. Place the sugar and remaining water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar while heating over medium high heat. Once the sugar has completely dissolved (there shouldn't be any sugar crystals on the side of the pan) quit stirring. Leave the sugar mixture alone and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and add the chocolate paste. Whisk together. Boil the chocolate mixture over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring often. Remove from the heat and add the cream and butter. Stir. Taste the sauce and add some vanilla extract and salt, if desired. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Extra Recipes

Butter Cake: adjusted for high-altitude

Place oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Stir together in a bowl: 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder and 1/2 tsp. salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together 1 1/2 sticks (12 Tbs) soft unsalted butter and 3 large eggs. Add 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 tsp. pure almond extract.

Alternately add the flour and 1 cup plus 2 Tbs. buttermilk to the butter/sugar/egg mixture, beating well after each addition.

Scrape batter into a loaf pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray and lined with parchment paper (at least on the bottom). Bake for 50-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the pan with a knife before trying to invert the cake onto the cooling rack. Cool completely before slicing.

Compound Butter: to 1/2 pound unsalted butter, add 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice, 2 Tbs. minced fresh parsley, 1 tsp. sea salt, and 1/8 tsp. white pepper. Mix together thoroughly. Spoon the butter onto a piece of plastic wrap and roll into a log about 1" in diameter. Chill butter until it's firm before using. Use on meats or add to steamed vegetables or pan sauce.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

February: A Bit of English Cookery

Beef Pasties
From Mexico to England, we're taking a leap across the ocean with our February lineup of recipes.  In Mexican cooking, the piquant flavor of chili underscores the feisty nature of the country.  In English cooking, the subtle flavors and nods to classic French techniques underscore the reserved yet determined nature of the English. 

English Scones

Scones, those light and fluffy mainstays of a proper English Tea, are often made by Americans to be more full-bodied than intended by our English friends.  This recipe will produce a scone worthy of the slightly tart clotted cream and berry jam topping that is the hallmark of a great English Cream Tea.  Or, do like we Americans do and give it a good slather of butter and a healthy dollop of fruit preserves.  Yum!

(Recipe adapted from Pie in the Sky by Susan G. Purdy)

Move a baking rack to center level of oven.  Preheat to 425 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together 2 cups flour, 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/3 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt.  Cut in 7 tablespoons cold butter using a pastry blender or your fingers.

Beat together 1 egg and 3/4 cup milk.  Pour this into the bowl with the flour and stir just until the mixture is moist, but don't beat the dough.  The dough should be fairly moist with no dry spots.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently for a few turns.  Pat or roll dough to about 1/2" thick.  Using a biscuit cutter or other round cutting tool, cut out as many rounds as can be cut from the dough.  Place the scones onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing the scones about an inch apart.  Gently gather together the scraps of dough and knead together.  Pat or roll out as before and cut more scones.  Continue until all the dough is formed into scones.

Brush the tops of the scones with milk or cream and sprinkle with sugar (preferably a coarse type sugar such as turbinado).  Bake in preheated oven for 20-22 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown.  Remove from the baking sheet to a cooling rack.

Mock Clotted Cream

Whip 1/2 cup heavy cream with 3 Tbs. sugar until stiff peaks form.  Fold in 1/4 cup plain yogurt.

Cornish-style Meat Pasties

Traditional meat pies were made to be transported in the pocket of miners in the Cornwall area of England.  This necessitated the use of a sturdy pastry and a rather dry filling.  Luckily, we don't have to carry our lunch in our pockets, so we can make our meat pies a little more tender and moist than the traditional Cornish variety but still hold true to their homey nature.

Makes 16

16 ounces  flour (about 3+ cups)
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces unsalted butter
3 ounces lard
1 teaspoon dry mustard (optional)
6-8 tablespoons cold water, or as needed

In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour, dry mustard (if using) and salt.   Cut in butter and lard using a pastry blender or your fingers.  Start by adding 6 Tbls. of cold water and stir with a fork.  Dough should come together to form a ball with no dryness.  Add more water, a tablespoon at a time, as necessary.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator until ready to use.

Filling (main ingredients should be uniform in size):
1 lb. top sirloin beef, trimmed of fat and cut into small dice
4 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into small dice
1 large onion, peeled and cut into small dice
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small dice
4 teaspoons dried parsley or 8 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons English Mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
OR substitute the parsley, thyme and mustard with Penzey’s Bavarian seasoning blend, to taste, and season with salt and pepper

Combine all filling ingredients in a large bowl.  Refrigerate until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 360 degrees F.

Beat an egg with a little water and set aside for use in making the pasties.

To assemble pasties, divide pastry dough into 16 pieces.  Roll each piece into a circle on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8” thickness (circle should be about 6” across).  Check that the dough has not stuck to the rolling surface.  If it has, gently work a metal spatula under the dough and sprinkle the surface with a little flour.  Spoon a large mound of filling onto one side of the pastry circle, leaving about a 1/2 “ space along the edge.  Brush some of the beaten egg along the edge of one half of the circle.  Lift the opposite side of the pastry from the filling  and fold over the filling.  Crimp the pastry together using the tines of a fork, or press together with your fingers and roll the edge up and crimp the roll by gently pinching with your thumb and pointer finger to create a scalloped edge.

Place the filled pasties on a parchment-lined baking sheet about and inch apart.  Brush each pasty with the beaten egg.

Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the crust is very golden brown.  Serve with gravy, if desired.

Brown Sugar Steamed Pudding (Cake) with Syrup and Vanilla Cream Sauce

Before the modern kitchen arrived with its temperature controlled oven, steamed puddings (pudding is the generic term used in England for what we Americans call dessert) were the go-to treat for the English because they could be steamed in a pot on the stove top.  The Christmas pudding was often loaded with expensive fruits and nuts, but this more humble pudding is just simple goodness.  I give it an American flavor by using maple syrup instead of the traditional treacle (light molasses) syrup, but you can use any one of the three choices given in the recipe with equally good results.  A bite of this cake floods my mind with many comfortable memories of my grandma's kitchen, and when served with the cream sauce, it is very reminiscent of Mexican Tres Leches Cake.  This recipe makes use of the oven to steam the pudding instead of the cumbersome stove top steaming method.

Golden Syrup (1 part molasses to 2 parts corn syrup), or Pure Maple Syrup, or Amber Agave Nectar
2 cups flour
1 rounded teaspoon baking powder
12 Tbs. soft unsalted butter
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup Soft Light Brown Sugar

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and brown sugar.  Add the butter and eggs and beat until the batter is smooth and lump-free.

Spray a 4-cup capacity oven-proof bowl or vessel with cooking spray.  Pour enough syrup of choice over the bottom of the cooking vessel to get a depth of about 1/8".  Spoon batter over the top of the syrup.

Make a cover for your steamed pudding by layering together a piece of foil and a piece of equal sized parchment paper.  Fold the layers together, foil side out, in half lengthwise.  Open up the fold to create a V-shaped cover for the pudding.   Place the cover, parchment side down, over the cooking vessel and carefully push down around the edges of the cover, but keeping the V as much as possible over the middle of the pudding.  This allows for the rising of the pudding in the oven without sticking to the cover.

Place a pan in the oven large enough to accommodate your cooking vessel.  Add enough water to the pan to get a depth of about 1".  Heat oven to 360 degrees F with the pan of water in the oven.  When the oven is heated, place the pudding into the hot water bath.  Bake the pudding for 1 1/2-2 hours.  Check progress after 1 1/2 hours by carefully lifting a corner of the cover just enough to check the middle of the cake for doneness.  Continue to bake for as long as necessary to cook the pudding all the way through.

Remove the entire baking assembly from the oven, being careful not to spill the hot water.  Remove the pudding from the water bath and discard the water.  Carefully remove the cover from the pudding.  Loosen the pudding all round using a palette knife. Place a large plate on top of the pudding and invert. Shake gently if necessary to release the pudding. Lift off the baking vessel with a cloth.  Pour over about 1/4 cup of warm syrup of choice.  Enjoy with vanilla cream sauce.

Vanilla Cream Sauce
Smooth and creamy with a light vanilla taste, this sauce is mandatory for a great English trifle or in this case, a bit of moisture (especially on day two of cake eating) and a nice finishing touch to the steamed pudding.

2 cups (480 ml) table cream or half and half (12 - 18% butterfat)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (don't use imitation vanilla!)
1/3 cup (66 grams) granulated white sugar
5 large egg yolks

In a large bowl, whisk together yolks and sugar until light yellow.  In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat cream to just below a boil. Remove from the heat.  Pour a little of the hot cream into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly.  Continue to add hot cream to the egg yolks, a little at a time, until you have added about half of the hot cream.  Pour the tempered egg yolk mixture into the hot cream in the sauce pan, whisking continually.  Add the vanilla.  Cook the mixture over medium-low heat until the sauce coats the back of a cold metal spoon.  Remove from the heat immediately and cool in a cold water bath (plug the sink and fill with very cold water to a depth sufficient to come half-way up the side of the sauce pan).   Stir cream sauce as is cools to lukewarm.  Serve.