My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beurre Blanc

While re-reading Julia’s autobiography, My Life in France, I found myself captivated by her discovery of the classic sauce, beurre blanc. “Captivated” meant that I had to make it.

The origins of beurre blanc (meaning “white butter”) appear somewhat obscure but most sources claim it was derived by an inconspicuous chef in the Loire Valley during the early 20th century. By the time Julia was on the Parisian scene in the early 1950s, beurre blanc seemed to have become a culinary urban legend.

Snooping it out, Julia and her friends found a tiny restaurant in Paris whose chef had mastered the sauce. After sampling it and sweet-talking the chef, Julia was invited into the kitchen and the technique was demonstrated.

Rushing home, Julia practiced and perfected the sauce which consists of a reduction of white wine, wine vinegar, shallots, into which a vast amount of chilled butter is incorporated. The acid reacts with the fat in the butter, suspends it almost by magic, which results in a tangy, complex, extremely appealing emulsion; just about the best of all sauces. Legendary.

She typed up the detailed recipe and mailed it to her sister in California in order to verify that her instructions would result in a successful beurre blanc.

Here is a copy of Julia’s typewritten page to her sister. I love how Julia marked it “Top Secret”, no doubt, evidence of her training in the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA).
(Double-click on it. It embiggenates nicely)

Seeing Julia’s typewritten instructions dated Nov. 7, 1952, I feel as though I’m looking at something holy, to be revered; a signed letter from St. Paul to the Corinthians or Handel's autographed manuscript of the Messiah.

Begin by cutting two sticks of unsalted butter into half-inch cubes. Place them on a plate and chill in the fridge. (It’s important that the butter be cold, so you might as well get this done first.)

Mince one tablespoon of shallot, add it to 3 tbs of white wine vinegar and ¼ cup dry white wine. Also add 1/8 tsp pepper and salt. Reduce this over high heat until a mere ½ Tb of liquid remains. Now, begin whisking in the butter, piece by piece over very low heat. Once each piece melts and becomes creamy, add another piece until all of it is used. (Yes, two sticks of butter.)

It should result in a thick and creamy sauce. Taste for salt and serve right away.

I invited my dear friend, Carla, over for dinner. Knowing she adores scallops, I served this sauce over scallops and asparagus. Grape tomatoes from a friend’s garden and pan-roasted baby Yukon gold potatoes completed the meal. (She blogged about it here.)

How good was this sauce? We ate every drop. Once the scallops were gone, the saucepan was brought to the table and we practically dove in with spoons. And that’s no joke.

One should really have Handel’s Messiah playing when Julia’s beurre blanc is served. And, again, that’s no joke.

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