Friday, January 25, 2013

The Cookbook Update

Just about a year ago, I posted about "The Cookbook" that I am working on as a tribute to my mother and all of things I learned from her about the "art" of cooking.  I am still plowing through the plethora (how's that for alliteration?!) of recipes that my mom, grandmother and aunt left behind.  In the meantime, I have finished a collection of recipes favorites from my cooking classes as well as some family favorites.  I am self-publishing so it will be going to the website this weekend and see what else I need to do to finish it so...that is on its way!
Here is a re-worked version of that post from last year...quite a bit better, I think.  Let me know if you agree!

There are a few things in life that are pivotal if you’re going to cook, at least, if you were growing up in my house.  Can you make pie crust and, more importantly, can you make gravy?  Gravy making skills could only be described as the defining moment in your cooking career.  You were measured by your ability to make gravy whether lumpy, pasty, too thin, too thick, salty, peppery, or perfect. There were a lot of gradations of bad but only one good.  So for some reason, I wanted to make gravy, actually, I needed to make gravy and not just any gravy, my mom’s cream gravy.  But why?  There was no gravy hall of fame or was there?  What if I could make cream gravy as good as my mom’s…what if I made it better?  No, no, that couldn’t be possible.  My aunts couldn’t do it.  Not even my grandmother could make the legendary cream gravy that my mother called “hers”.   The gravy that was chock full of delicious crispy bits of chicken left over from the perfect frying (that’s another chapter) , the small amount of flour and fat that she used to thicken and turn it just slightly off-white so it could never be mistaken for the shocking white of gravy mixes.  And, the texture, creamy, just thicker than heavy cream, creaminess that would roll over your mashed potatoes to pool around the fried chicken, green beans and freshly baked rolls waiting on your plate.  That was my mom’s cream gravy and I wanted some of that!

My mom had two gravy making methods.  Gravy made in the pan from drippings where she added flour and milk or broth, and gravy made from combining flour and water in a Mason jar and shaking it to combine then pouring it into a beef broth (this was the accepted method for pot roast, the other for fried chicken, chicken fried steak, etc.).  So, I watched my mom make gravy.  I asked so many questions about how to do it she would finally become so annoyed that she would say, “just watch and be quiet and you’ll figure it out.” 

You see, my mom was an amazing cook but she was no teacher.  She had no interest in teaching you how to do much of anything really.  It was easier (and better) if she did it herself plus she didn’t have the patience for you to learn from your mistakes.  “Just let me do it.”  So, I would characterize my culinary education at my mother’s elbow as “osmotic”.  I would watch and, with any luck, the knowledge, skill, talent or gift would simply waft its way over in the fragrance of roast turkey, banana cream pie or pot roast to me and, I would grab it, and file it in that part of my brain devoted to learning the tricks of my mother’s cooking.
But my mother couldn’t or wouldn’t explain how much flour to use or how much fat to leave in the skillet or how much milk to pour in and when and what temperature it needed to be.  That was because she had made “cream gravy” so many times that she just did it.  There was no measuring.  She just knew.  And, I wanted to just know, too.  But, that sacred knowledge is only acquired after years of making gravy (and lots of other things) and she wasn’t going to make it easy for me; I had to learn myself.  That osmosis thing. 
I started studying cookbooks.  Not just reading for recipes but actually, pulling the methods apart and figuring them out.  And, one day, as I was considering my mother’s cream gravy and her “white sauce”, I happened upon “Mother sauces” and, one in particular, leapt off the page at me.  Béchamel.   A classic cream sauce made with a roux and milk. 
Wait a minute.  Roux.  Fat and flour.  Thickening. Milk.  White sauce and yes! Cream gravy.  Hallelujah!  The Heaven’s opened and the angels sang…it’s a béchamel , you idiot!  Your mother has been making béchamel all these years and you just figured it out!  I couldn’t wait to share my newfound knowledge.  I discovered it…the Holy Grail!  The Gravy Hall of Fame! 
Mom!  I’m so excited.  You know your cream gravy and white sauce…it’s actually a béchamel.  You know how you add just enough flour and fat?  Well, it’s actually equal parts.  You probably just knew that but anyway that’s a roux.  Did you know it was called a roux?  And, then you add the milk and bring it to a boil because it doesn’t reach its full thickening power until it boils but then you simmer it for about 30 minutes so it doesn’t taste pasty.  It’s called a Mother sauce because other sauces “spring” from it like a mother having a baby, and, and, and, she said, “well, of course, it’s a Mother sauce.  I’m your mother and it’s mine.”

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