Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cooking Class - Ode to Julia!

My friend V and I went to a cooking class two weeks ago on a Friday night at a wonderful cooking school in Frederick, Maryland called The Kitchen Studio Frederick. This particular class was called “Ode to Julia”. We made a few classic French dishes. I have never tried to make Hollandaise sauce before nor have I ever attempted to make a soufflé. It was a really interesting class because our chef/teacher and owner of the school Christine Van Bloem was trained at a French cooking school in New York City so she was the perfect person to teach us a few of the French classics. I learned that there are four basic French sauces that all other French sauces are based on: Hollandaise, Béchamel, Brown Sauce, and tomato sauce. These are the building blocks of classic French, Julia Child, style cooking. I have made tomato sauce many times so that doesn’t scare me but Hollandaise and Béchamel are really “out there” for me. Chef Christine told us that Hollandaise is a “bear” to make, not in those words, exactly. There is an easy but yet excellent recipe for Hollandaise that I will definitely try. It is called Blender Hollandaise. Nothing wrong with using a few shortcuts if you can. We also talked about why she couldn’t have us make Boeuf Bourguignon in a 3 hour class. It wouldn’t work unless we were willing to leave it for her to eat after class! None of us were willing to do that. At the end of each of her classes at The Kitchen Studio Frederick, Christine offers us the meal we have just cooked. I would like to try Boeuf a la Bourguignon sometime but I’ll have to do it on my own.

I stayed away from the soufflé. But I learned that when you pour the hot chocolate mixture into the egg whites you should first pour it into a cool bowl and then add it in small portions so that the two different textures and temperatures of the mixtures can combine slowly. It is very difficult to get it right. That seems to be the most difficult part of a soufflé. We also learned that it isn’t true that soufflé’s will drop if you walk around your house while they are baking or if something drops, etc. That seems to be an “old wives tale.” Good to know! I really wanted to try making a cheese soufflé but now that I know the consistency of a soufflé is more of a custard or pudding, I’m not so sure. I always thought they were more like the consistency of a bread or cake. I don’t know what gave me that idea but I’ll have to rethink my plan to make a soufflé.

The chicken in tarragon cream sauce was pretty easy compared to the soufflé and the hollandaise. I did participate in making this dish. I finally learned how to “butterfly” a chicken breast. Christine thought that would be the best way to thin the chicken breast rather than having us pound chicken breasts all over the kitchen. I agree. It was interesting. It seemed easy but I didn’t really cut it that well. Mine was fairly uneven. The other tip Christine gave us about the chicken is that when you want to sauté anything you must do the sauté in a stainless steel pan. You can’t make a good sauté in a non-stick pan. I’m going to put a 10 or 12-inch stainless steel sauté pan on my Christmas wish list! The chicken does brown beautifully in a stainless steel pan. It was so yummy!

The blender Hollandaise was pretty easy. Only one of the students in class had the chance to actually pour the oil into the blender to make this sauce but we all got a chance to taste it. Having never tried Hollandaise before, I thought it was very rich and tasted mainly of butter. The “other” regular Hollandaise sauce seized up on us. Christine had to rescue it by adding ice cubes. Apparently, this happens fairly frequently and we weren’t the only ones to have our Hollandaise get to that state. She was happy to show us how to “fix” it with the ice cubes and cool it down. I never did taste this Hollandaise but I’m sure it was delicious.

The other thing that we learned was how to poach an egg. I remember that when I was a little girl (many many years ago) I played with an oddly shaped aluminum pan that I was told was an egg poacher. I never knew nor did I ask what the heck a poached egg was but I didn’t like eggs much anyway. Well, all these many years later I learned that you can poach an egg in hot but not boiling water in a shallow pan. You must put some white vinegar in the pan otherwise it won’t work. You break the egg and before you pour it into the water, you stir the water. The egg will swirl in upon itself (or it should) and then you let it cook for 3 to 5 minutes. The eggs they poached that night were all the 3 to 4 minute ones that are “runny”. I decided that I will try making poached eggs with Hollandaise and make my eggs the 5 minute variety so that they are firm. Of course, you know that poached eggs with Hollandaise sauce on top of an English muffin are called Eggs Benedict. There are several stories about the origin of Eggs Benedict. Here are a few that I found on

“In an interview in the "Talk of the Town" column of The New Yorker in 1942, the year before his death, Lemuel Benedict, a retired Wall Street stock broker, claimed that he had wandered into the Waldorf Hotel in 1894 and, hoping to find a cure for his morning hangover, ordered "buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon and a hooker of hollandaise." Oscar Tschirky, the famed maître d'hôtel, was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus but substituted ham and a toasted English muffin for the bacon and toast.

Craig Claiborne, in September 1967, wrote a column in The New York Times Magazine about a letter he had received from Edward P. Montgomery, an American then residing in France. In it, Montgomery related that the dish was created by Commodore E.C. Benedict, a banker and yachtsman, who died in 1920 at the age of 86. Montgomery also included a recipe for eggs Benedict, stating that the recipe had been given to him by his mother, who had received it from her brother, who was a friend of the Commodore.

Mabel C. Butler of Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts in a November 1967 letter printed in The New York Times Magazine responded to Montgomery's claim by correcting that the ‘true story, well known to the relations of Mrs. Le Grand Benedict’, of whom she was one, was:

‘Mr. and Mrs. Benedict, when they lived in New York around the turn of the century, dined every Saturday at Delmonico's. One day Mrs. Benedict said to the maitre d' hotel, "Haven't you anything new or different to suggest?" On his reply that he would like to hear something from her, she suggested poached eggs on toasted English muffins with a thin slice of ham, hollandaise sauce and a truffle on top.‘

Another origin of the dish is suggested in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, where she describes a traditional French dish named œufs bénédictine, consisting of brandade (a puree of refreshed salt cod and potatoes), spread on triangles of fried bread. A poached egg is then set on top and napped with hollandaise. This story would also explain the distinctly French syntax, where the adjective follows, rather than precedes, the noun (although Oysters Rockefeller has the same syntax without needing a Romance-language origin). Still, it is not clear how this dish would have migrated to America, where it became popular. The combination of cod and eggs suggests it was a Lenten or meatless dish, and the use of salt cod suggests it could be as old as the Renaissance, when salt cod became more plentiful.

Mrs. Isabella Beeton's Household Management had recipes in the first edition (1861) for ‘Dutch sauce, for benedict’ (p. 405) and its variant on the following page, ‘Green sauce, or Hollandaise verte’, so it undoubtedly precedes the 20th century claimants above.”

I won’t pretend that I know which story is the true one but they all sound interesting and plausible. I will definitely have to try Eggs Benedict now that I know how to poach an egg!

I want to thank Chef Christine for her wonderful class. I am definitely going to take another class soon. Please check out the classes on her website and sign up. The classes are so much fun!


The Creative Cook