Lies My Cookbook Told Me
The claim of this post is simple but facetious. Cookbooks lie to you.
Cookbooks lie about big, important things. I suspect that they do it so that you will not know how to cook. That way you will continue to buy more and more cookbooks. It’s a total racket. I know it sounds paranoid. But I have no other explanation for what follows.
Consider my first exhibit, the recipe for Béchamel sauce given by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol I. This book is a landmark in American culinary history. It launched Julia Child’s career and changed the way a generation thought about food.
All of which I find incomprehensible. Consider:
This basic sauce takes about 5 minutes to make, and is then ready for the addition of flavours or enrichments…
For 3/4 pint (medium thickness)
A 3-pt heavy-bottomed enamelled, stainless steel or lined copper saucepan
1 oz butter
1 oz flour
A wooden spatula or spoon
In the saucepan melt the butter over low heat. Blend in the flour, and cook slowly, stirring, until the butter and flour froth together for 2 minutes without colouring. This is now a white roux.
3/4 pint of milk and 1/4 tsp. salt heated to the boil in a small saucepan
A wire whisk
Remove roux from heat. As soon as roux has stopped bubbling, pour in all the hot liquid at once. Immediately beat vigorously with a wire whisk to blend liquid and roux gathering in all bits of roux from the inside edges of the pan. Set saucepan over moderately high heat and stir with the wire whisk until the sauce comes to the boil. Boil for 1 minute, stirring.
Following this recipe will not give you Béchamel sauce. It will give you a saucepan of warm, oily, slightly salty milk, full of nasty lumps of suspended gluten. In a word, disgusting.
Worse, there will be absolutely no way to convert this saucepan of warm, oily, slightly salty milk into Béchamel sauce, short of chucking it into the nearest pasture, waiting a while, then milking the cows that graze there.
The proper way to make Béchamel sauce isn’t so far off, as it turns out. But rather than adding the milk all at once, you must — absolutely must — add it a few tablespoons at a time, blending thoroughly with a whisk at every addition, until the butter/flour mixture gradually thins and then liquefies. This procedure prevents it from forming any lumps.
Once you’ve added all the milk, heat as directed. The mixture thickens, and voilà, Béchamel sauce.
Botching Béchamel is no small matter, because Béchamel is one of the “mother sauces” in French cuisine. It’s found in literally dozens of other recipes. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you can’t cook Béchamel, you can’t cook French food.
The same is true of mayonnaise. Most Americans just buy mayonnaise in a jar, but this doesn’t taste nearly as good as the homemade stuff, and its texture is more like a grease custard than a sauce. Not French at all. Yet making the real stuff at home is very, very easy.
It’s not easy, however, if you follow the late, legendary James Beard, who in The New James Beard gives the following recipe for making mayonnaise in a blender. It’s almost right, but it has a big, big problem:
Put 2 whole eggs, 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard, and 1 tablespoon lemon juice in the blender and mix for just 5 seconds at the blend or high setting, then, with the machine still running, remove the cover insert and dribble 1 1/2 cups of olive oil in very slowly until the mayonnaise starts to thicken….
The problem again is the technique, which Beard certainly should have known. He says to blend the egg and lemon mixture for five seconds, which is totally inadequate. If you do, then no matter how slowly you add the olive oil, what you are left with is a very liquid, very eggy, slightly salty blender full of expensive — and wasted — olive oil.
I had this problem so often that my husband had a name for it. He called it “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Mayonnaise.” Nothing known to culinary science will turn this stuff into mayonnaise, and unless you happen to like olive oil soup, you’ve got no choice but to throw it out.
Finally I found the trick — you have to blend the egg and lemon for a full, solid minute. Nothing less will do. After that, you can be totally slipshod about your technique, and the mayonnaise still turns out okay.
Add all the oil at once if you feel like. Tamper madly with the recipe. Other oils work just fine, too. Throw in fistfuls of herbs, whole anchovies, capers, pine nuts, walnuts, sun dried tomatoes, fresh rosebuds, cheese. Use anything really, and you’re totally fine.
The point is that it’s relatively hard to break the suspension once you’ve established it, but actually establishing it is the key, and for that you must blend for a full minute, as noted correctly here, but not correctly here or here.
The Joy of Cooking repeats the error — it says to blend the ingredients “until thoroughly combined” — and adds a bizarre admonition: “Don’t try to make mayonnaise if a thunderstorm threatens or is in progress, as it simply will not bind.” This is false; I’ve tried it. (Really, with thunder.) To her credit, Julia Child gets it all right.
This Béchamel recipe from Mario Batali is a little closer, but I’d still not want to risk it. The only way I’ve found to get a smooth Béchamel is to go a very little at a time, at least until the mixture becomes runny enough that it won’t lump up with the addition of more liquid.