Sunday, June 22, 2008


That Cookbook Thing II - Sauce au Cari

In January of this year, a group of food bloggers reviewed Norwegian chef Andreas Viestad's Where Flavor Was Born, and they all had different results. Sometimes the Round Table Review bloggers concurred that instructions were vague, some failed where others succeeded, and all of them found at least one new favourite recipe. While it is clear that subjectivity reigns when deciding on whether to integrate recipes into one's repertoire, I am wholly amenable to building on this dialogue where bloggers are working from a common space in order to understand the many ways we orient ourselves in the world by way of various texts on cooking. To work with Where Flavor Was Born, the bloggers' selection of recipes to test was decided by a complicated rubric - season, availability, cost, individual preferences. What the selection of recipes to test essentially offers is an education into what an author offers as the truth of its chosen subject. The varying results act as a cross-section of reviews for those who are thinking about purchasing the cookery book.

So, exhilerated by this experience, one of the members of the Round Table review group, Mike of Mel's Diner, decided to test some recipes as a way of illustrating some truths of French bourgeois cookery by way of the classic text Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. Personally, I jumped at the chance to join the bunch because I didn't have this landmark American book - like any interested foodie, I have come across the title many times, whether it be a reference in a bibliography or an adaptation of a recipe, but I never got around to buying it. I suppose the apprehension is because I did not grow up in a household that had had the text "since forever" and valorised it for its appropriation of American cuts of meat to French techniques, but my curiosity never waned when the book was referred to. The other members of That Cookbook Thing II are: Sara of i like to cook, Ruth of Once Upon A Feast, Mary of The Sour Dough, Kittie of Kittens in the Kitchen , Elle of Elle's New England Kitchen, Deborah of What's In My Kitchen?, and Mary of Cooking For Five.

One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking's great assets is its recipe layout. The recipes are divided into two columns - on the left-hand side are the ingredients, matched in the right-hand column with the concomitant method for the ingredients. This prevents confusion, especially when ingredient lists are long, and it forces a thorough reading of the recipe before cooking, which is what one should do, but do we all do as we should in our private lives?

Based purely on a cursory exploration, I have to say that recipe layout aside, this is an odd book. There are useful tips on food preparation peppered throughout the book (and strange ones, like illustrated hints on preparing a gigot - leg of lamb - which I know is because this cut is a fave in traditional French cookery, but what about the rest?), but there is no real historical context. And this is what poses a problem for the first recipe I am testing from the book: Sauce au Cari.

Curry in French cooking?! (Double-take.)

Why it was so necessary for the authors to choose this sauce from others in the haute bourgeousie's reportoire, I do not know. Yes, I am aware that most people don't care - a sauce is a sauce - but I'd like to know why this recipe is featured and what particular curry blend Ms. Child and gang had in mind when they prepared Sauce au Cari. I know Escoffier made it, with similar lack of detail regarding his blend du jour (and this is probably how it entered Child's lexicon), but what I want to know is what she had been exposed to that made it so good - my searches online have not been able to elucidate my inquiry.

To say that the French don't like hot spices might be stretching it, but what we know from the representations of French cuisine that cram bookshelves is that there are not a lot of piquant flavours in French cuisine - at least not without a salty kick. So, my guess is that the types of curries that were appropriated by the French during Julia Child's time in France are those that came from France's many colonies. Following this line of thought, I turned to West Africa for a curry mix, which is exciting because the fact that I find myself doing this undoes preconceptions I had of the book - whether or not that is the intention, I do not know for sure, but cooking is an intimate process, so it almost does not matter what Les Trois Gourmandes had in mind.

Ghanian curry powders typically feature 12 or more spices, herbs and seeds. I was without some ingredients - Grains of Paradise, groundnuts, tamarind, fenugreek and mace; however, I substituted peanuts for groundnuts and black pepper for Grains of Paradise. While I had no idea of the ratio of each ingredient per cup of curry blend, I used the various ingredients according to my own taste in order to produce a curry blend that made up a nuanced blend without too much heat, which I decided is what Escoffier would have liked. The following recipe makes exactly enough for the Sauce au Cari - just over three tablespooms.

Ghanian Curry Blend

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon shelled peanuts
1/2 cinnamon quill
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
5 cloves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, whole
1 teaspoon nutmeg, ground
3/4 tablespoon turmeric
1/8 teaspoon lemon zest

1) In a dry saute pan over medium heat, heat the cumin seeds, fennel seeds, peanuts, cinnamon, cardamom seeds, cloves and black pepper until fragrant, tilting the pan occassionally in order to allow oils and heat from the ingredients to intermingle. Do not allow any ingredients to burn.
2) Take off the heat and allow to cool.
3) Discard the cinnamon, and tip the rest of fragrant spices and seeds into a spice blender with the nutmeg, turmeric and lemon zest.
4) Blend until a powder is formed.

Depending on which way you want to swing, Sauce au Cari can be a riff on béchamel (milk based) or velouté (stock based), and it can be as thick or thin as you like. I think a few members of That Cookbook Thing II had an issue with the thickness of the sauce. Having made béchamel a million times with my angelheart Eric (many Sunday nights making lasagne with parmesan and asiago), I paid great attention to the writers' suggestion of cooking the sauce for 10-15 minutes after adding the liquid. Stopping in between the suggested duration, my sauce was just right, and I did not need to enrich and thin the sauce with more than 5 tablespoons of cream. Of course, the timing is dependent on the size of your saucepan (Mesdames Child, Bertholle and Beck suggest an 8-cup enameled saucepan), and I think that the volume capacity has a lot to do with the desired consistency within the suggested times to thicken and cook the sauce.

The following recipe makes 2 1/2 cups of sauce.

Sauce au Cari
(from Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

1/2 minced white or yellow onion
70.5 - 84.75g/5-6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
2-3 tablespoons curry powder, such as the Ghanian Curry Blend above
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups boiling milk (for a variation of a béchamel sauce)
4-6 tablespoons whipping/heavy cream
lemon juice

1) Cook onions and 56.5g/4 tablespoons of butter over low heat for approximately ten minutes. This allows to the onions to soften without colouring.
2) Stir in the curry powder and continue to cook over low heat for two minutes.
3) Add the flour in one go, stir, and cook over low heat for three minutes.
4) Take curried mixture off the heat and blend in the boiling milk.
5) Return to the heat - increasing slightly to obtain a simmer, which is to be maintained for 10-15 minutes, depending on desired thickness. Stir occasionally.
6) Remove sauce from the heat, add enough of the cream to your preference, and add salt, pepper and lemon juice for preferred seasoning.
7) Enrich the sauce by stirring in 14-28.25/1-2 tablespoons, bit by bit. Feel free to add minced parsley for colour.

Whilst fragrant and delectable with sautéed skinless chicken thighs (not my usual choice, for skinless and boneless preparations reek of hypermarket disrespect for provenance, but it seems that many things are without explanation today), I still do not understand why Sauce au Cari is included in this book, unless it is the only master class curry sauce that the French acknowledge - nowadays that would be hard to believe, but perhaps not impossible to comprehend in the 1940s-60s, the time in which Julia Child lived in France, culminating in this book co-written with her Les Trois Gourmandes partners in crime.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's tribute to La Belle France, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

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Wonderful post Shaun.

My big question was also...why curry sauce and what made her think to put it in a French cooking cookbook?...

And your wonderful explanation aside (I will be trying some of your curry powder for other dishes), I don't think I'll be making it again.

Very glad you're part of this fun event.
Yum, that looks beautiful! I love chicken thighs. How interesting you did not have to dilute the sauce. I must admit I gave no thought as to why there was a curry sauce recipe in the book, I just love curry! Have a great day Shaun!
Hi Saun - I am loving the idea of a ghanian curry powder. That will be added to the volume of things to think about once we have moved into the new apartment.
As for the pasta putanesca, I never did get a chance to make it for Neen. She ate some of the left overs and really liked it, but that will be a dish that is coming her direction as soon as we are in the same state again.
Shaun, yours looks fabulous! I'm definitely giving it a second chance, along with some coconut milk and like you, making a fresh curry powder. Those two things will make huge difference, I'm sure.
Hi Shaun,
Interesting post! i am with you with regards to the historical context or background or recipes. I google for more info when I am curious about certain recipes, but hopefully the writer of the cookbook would have explained a little bit such as in books like Home Baking by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.

Honestly, I was more interested in your Ghanian curry mix than the sauce au Cari ;-)

x Nora
Ruth ~ Thank you - I am also glad to be a member of this interesting project. It is useful to have a context, but I need to acknowledge a cookery book cannot be all things to all people. If the cookery book did give a socio-historical context regarding key or interesting dishes, the book might have been bigger, which might have defeated the purpose of being an instructional manual of sorts. The curry blend is nuanced, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sara, darling ~ I'm all for subjectivity and very much enjoy thinking about why such decisions are made and the impact they have on others. Look, I have no idea that I would begin cursory research into curry blends in former French colonies!! As for the thickness of the sauce, I think I have made bechamel enough times to know that the time between steps are to guide us, but you should always look at the visual clues and taste as you go to make it perfect for you. It is the "brown sauces" that interest me the most, though they require much more work.

Do ~ Thanks for stopping by! I hope all goes well with the move out to Berkeley. The volume of things to think about is constantly building, becoming "tomes" in my mental library. I am now very curious about curry blends of the various African continents and how they influenced colonisers meal-times.
I'm glad Need liked the leftovers, even with all the chilli!

Elle ~ Welcome! I definitely agree that this deserves another chance. It seems like a much faster way to fake murgh makhani, too. The addition of coconut milk is intriguing.

Nora B. ~ One of the best cookery book writers, to my mind, is Elizabeth David. Even though her books were largely printed before photgraphs were deemed necessary in cookery books, her content is so very rich. She provides such a great platform from which to spring into various directions of investigative work. I enjoy Alford and Duguid's Home Baking - in fact, I almost know their challah recipe by heart.
Really interesting post Shaun! I especially like your scientific approach to the thickness (re. pan, volume and duration). I have a contrary approach to following recipes, and hadn't thought to consider these points as perhaps I should. I will bear this in mind for the next round!!
Kittie ~ Welcome! I'm so glad to be part of That Cookbook Thing II with you. I'm sure we can all learn from each other's experiences. It is really interesting that we all draw such different aspects from the same recipe!





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