Not so, says Sonia Stevenson. An elder stateswoman of cooking, she has written her first cookery book, The Magic of Saucery, in which she demystifies sauce-making.
Although it includes 150 superb recipes, based on a lifetime's experience of cooking at the Horn of Plenty, Gulworthy, on the edge of Dartmoor (Egon Ronay gave her his top accolade, three stars), the key to the collection is a mere four basic techniques.
Learn four recipes, she says, and you open the door to 150 more. And unlike those adverts which promise you that you can learn a language in three weeks, these you really can master in a matter of minutes.
Are these sauces based on the patient but slow basics of French kitchen disciplines, the white and brown roux, bechamel and veloute, hollandaise and bearnaise, and so on? To some extent, yes, but simplified. Her four techniques are egg-based sauces, cream sauces, brown sauces, and sugar syrup sauces - this last an unusual category but a key to both savoury and sweet dishes.
These techniques are not very hard to master, says Sonia Stevenson. In one, the cream-based sauce, the work has already been done by the cow. Mixing eggs and hot butter takes 20 seconds. Making sugar syrup is a matter of 10 seconds. Brown sauces, it's true, take longer, but they can be stored in the freezer and save hours and hours of time later.
Having mastered these bases, then the fun really begins, she says. "Just a change of spice here, or an extra ingredient there, and using a different meat, before long you'll be designing your own dishes, writing your own recipes and probably opening a restaurant."
Her book is a marvellous exercise in clear, thoughtful exposition and she immediately joins a pageant of educated, sophisticated middle-class ladies which goes back several centuries in British cooking. We can trace the lineage through the centuries from Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson back to Hannah Glasse, Elizabeth Rundell, Eliza Acton and, in Scotland, Meg Dodds (we don't count Mrs Beeton, sorry about that).
Sonia Stevenson never intended to be a cook. She was the daughter of a air commodore and on the first rung of her career ladder, learning the violin at the Royal College of Music, when she met her husband-to-be, the opera singer Patrick Stevenson, who was 20 years her senior.
He was passionate about good food, but the nearest Sonia had ever come to cooking was as a child making mud-pie cakes piped with striped toothpaste. After a week of marriage, Patrick tried not to betray his anxiety, but asked if she could attempt something other than sausage and mash. Familiar with the idea of a leg of lamb and a leg of pork, she went to the butcher, asking confidently for a leg of beef. "For how many?" asked the butcher, faintly surprised. "Two," she replied.
Her husband started to take her to the fashionable eating places of the day (and later to Michelin-starred restaurants in France). It became clear that her talent for music was rivalled by her skill at the stove, and soon her dinner parties in Campden Hill in London became famous. But she was horrified by his suggestion that they should go on to open a restaurant. A dinner party is one thing; cooking professionally is another. That, however, is what they did, building a conservatory for dining on to a remote country house with views across the Devon valleys and hills.
Her cooking is based on classical French, but as she is self-taught and was not expected to follow the rules blindly, hers is an intellectual approach. And homely. Soon she had a family of customers ringing up asking for advice, particularly on sauces they had enjoyed.
"I learnt to teach sauces over the phone," she says. "Eventually, I had the idea of running Courses for Sauces." They were very successful, and although she and her husband have given up the restaurant, she still keeps her courses going. (For information about her cookery courses, ring 01752 851813.)
At first she was reluctant to convert the courses into a book. "I have always hated books on sauces." However, her book has already been acclaimed as "clear and masterly" by top chef Nico Ladenis. So here is a taste of it.
The Egg Sauce Base can be used in many ways, conventionally for hollandaise sauce and bearnaise sauce, but also as a thickener for soups, added at the end (for example, in a vichyssoise). Here is the basic recipe, followed by Sonia's delicious version of kedgeree.
EGG SAUCE BASE
This will take less than a minute to make, in four simple steps. It's especially important to remember the following points
Heat: if the butter is too Hot, it will fry the sauce. Instead of sauce, you get fried egg. Once an egg is cooked, nothing will uncook it.
Speed: don't add the butter too fast, or you stop the emulsion forming. Add it little by little. The usual instruction of a slow, steady stream will guarantee disaster. The ingredients will be desperately trying to form an emulsion while you are drowning it with a continuous stream of butter that it can't absorb. Much better to give it a mouthful to digest, then another - just like feeding a baby!
Makes 150ml/14 pint (double quantities as required)
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon water.
125g/4oz unsalted butter
Melt butter until it starts to boil. Place the water and the egg yolk or yolks in a liquidiser. Blend until pale (about 10 seconds). Add half a ladleful of butter and process. Add the remaining butter, about half a ladle at a time. Wait a few seconds between adding each one - this allows the egg to absorb the butter.
Note: when the sauce 'cuts' (that is, it splits into curdled-looking bits) pour the sauce into a jug, rinse out the liquidiser and whizz up another yolk with 1 teaspoon of water. Add the curdled sauce to the beaten egg, a little at a time, beating well between additions. Warm it up a little before you add it to the new egg. Don't ever try to mend a split sauce just by whizzing it harder; no amount of whisking will solve the problem.
Use the Egg Sauce Base immediately, or keep warm for up to 30 minutes before serving.
For Sonia's hollandaise sauce, cook 50g/2oz butter, 10 crushed black peppercorns and two chopped shallots till soft; then add 300 ml/12 pint white wine vinegar and 150ml/14 pint white wine and cook till the mixture is syrupy. Then add 150ml/14 pint water and boil rapidly to draw out excess vinegar taste. Strain the liquid, and boil it down to a mere two tablespoons. Add this to the hot (but not boiling) Egg Sauce Base.
SMOKED HADDOCK KEDGEREE
175g/6oz long-grain rice
500g/1lb smoked haddock fillets
150ml/14 pint milk
150ml/14 pint Egg Sauce Base
4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Boil or steam the rice, using your usual method. Poach the fish in the milk, then strain. Keep the liquid for making a smoked cream sauce - perhaps for scallops.
Flake the fish and mix with the cooked rice. Bind with the Egg Sauce Base and some of the chopped egg, keeping some for garnish. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Sonia Stevenson has no fewer than four versions of this base, the thickness depending on how long it is boiled to reduce the volume. The first stage, pouring consistency (she always uses whipping cream, not double or single) may be added to pan juices to go with vegetables or a potato salad. The next stage, coating consist-ency, flavoured to taste, suits steamed, grilled or baked fish dishes. The third stage, an emulsion as thick as mayonnaise, can be used for thick sauces. Cooked till the cream begins to cara-melise, it can be used instead as a beurre noisette for a sauce for skate, or for mussels with saffron.
CREAM SAUCE BASE
A Cream Sauce Base is made in three stages and it can be used in recipes at any one of these stages. Even when it has "gone too far" it can be used as a buerre noisette.
1 Pour the cream into a non-stick pan and bring to the boil. Cook until it boils fiercely with small bubbles and thickens to a pouring consistency.
2 Continue to boil the cream, stirring , until it reduces and thickens further and boils with big bubbles to form a coating consistency.
3 For a mayonnaise-like emulsion, pale caramel in colour, continue to boil, stirring constantly.
Boiling after this point will make the sauce begin to separate, but it can be recovered by adding water (not more cream). Continue to cook the cream to form the buerre noisette.
SKATE WINGS IN A NUT-BROWN SAUCE Serves 6
6 skate wings, skinned,
1 tablespoon hazelnut oil
150g/5oz wild musrooms or yellow oyster mushrooms
Cream Sauce Base, made from 300ml/12 pint whipping cream
150ml/14 pint white wine vinegar or raspberry vinegar
3-4 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ask your fishmonger to fillet and skin the skate. Season the wings with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Heat the hazelnut oil in a small pan and gently fry the mushrooms. Set aside and keep them warm.
Heat the butter in a large frying pan. Fry the skate wings, turning them once, until they have shrunk and tightened up (this will happen very quickly, in just a minute or so).
To make the Cream Sauce Base, pour the cream into a non-stick pan, bring to the boil and cook until it begins to fry and toast the milk solids. Do not let it burn. (This is the beurre noisette effect. Buerre noisette is usually made with butter, but when made with cream, as here, it has an even more delicious, nutty flavour.)
Add the vinegar and boil again until it has almost disappeared, then pour in the cooking butter from the skate. Add the capers, three tablespoons chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley, some salt and plenty of pepper.
Arrange the skate wings and the sauted mushrooms on heated dinner plates, pour over the sauce and sprinkle with a little parsley.
Sugar syrups are essential in the making of sorbets and caramel ice- cream, useful in salads and souffles, but can be used in many other desserts and cakes. Sonia Stevenson also deploys the Sugar Sauce Base in savoury dishes, such as onion confit for game, glazed onions and hot vinaigrettes for grilled salmon. Here are three of her recipes: a summery tomato soup, kidneys in piquant sauce, and nectarine sorbet.
SUGAR SAUCE BASE
To make 600ml/1 pint
300ml/12 pint water
Pour the water into a saucepan, then add the sugar and bring to the boil. Stir the sugar and water together until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil gently until clear. The sugar syrup can then be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator and used as required.
ICY TOMATO SOUP
A delicious and unusual dish, wonderful and cooling for a hot day. The texture is interesting: quite thick, like a cream of tomato soup; the colour is rather creamy, too. It should be ice-cold, but without any ice- crystals, and certainly not solidifying. You can make it the day before and freeze it, but make sure it is thoroughly thawed, although still ice- cold, before serving.
175g/6fl oz sherry vinegar
125ml/4fl oz olive oil
2 shallots, chopped
125ml/4fl oz Sugar Sauce Base
1kg/2lb tomatoes, skinned and deseeded with skin and seeds retained
2 sprigs of basil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 small sprigs of basil, to garnish
Pour the vinegar and half the oil into a non-metal or stainless steel pan, add the shallots, bring to the boil and reduce until the vinegar has been absorbed into the shallots.
Add the Sugar Sauce Base and the skins, pips and juices from the tomatoes. Simmer for 5 minutes, strain and add to the tomato flesh, then add the basil and remaining oil.
Pour into a liquidiser or food processor and puree until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Chill the soup until icy cold but not solidifying, then serve in chilled soup bowls, garnished with small sprigs of basil.
If the soup is made in advance and frozen solid, take it out of the freezer and allow two hours in the refrigerator for the ice to melt.
VEAL KIDNEYS IN A GOLDEN PIQUANT SAUCE
Don't attempt this recipe unless you have some rich, good-quality jellied stock. It certainly won't work using a stock cube. The only alternative to veal kidney (which can be difficult to get) is young, pale lambs' kidneys, very thinly sliced.
150ml/14 pint Sugar Sauce Base
125ml/4 fl oz red wine vinegar
150ml/14 pint water
l carrot, scraped into long thin strips with a lemon zester, or cut into julienne
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons arrowroot or cornflower
150ml/14 pint chicken or veal stock
36 thin slices of veal kidney (about 175g/6oz per person)
about 125g/4oz clarified butter (to clarify the butter, heat it in a saucepan, pour off the clear portion and discard the solids).
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the Sugar Sauce Base in a saucepan and simmer gently until it becomes a rich caramel colour. Turn off the heat, immediately pour all the vinegar in at once, then boil up furiously. Do not be tempted to stir the mixture or it will become a thick lump of sugar and take a long time to dissolve.
When the liquid stops bubbling, add the water and carrot strips and simmer until all the sugar is dissolved, leaving about 150ml/14 pint. Remove carrot strips as soon as they cooked.
Mix the mustard and arrowroot (or cornflour) together, then mix with the cold stock and stir into the pan. Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer until the sauce has thickened.
Remove all fat and membrane from the kidneys and slice them into thin rounds. Season with salt and black pepper. Heat the clarified butter in a non-stick pan until very hot. Add the kidneys in batches and fry them quickly for a few seconds on each side. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside in a warm place.
Place the slices on heated plates and spoon the sauce around. Garnish with the carrot strips and serve immediately.
Because the fruit in this recipe is not cooked it must be of the very best quality - ripe and perfectly sound. The skin gives colour and depth of flavour: the pretty red flecks of skin are very much part of the attraction of this sorbet, so don't strain out. The lemon juice must be added to the fruit before being pureed, otherwise you get a nasty brown mush that looks revolting.
6 ripe nectarines
juice of about 3 lemons
300ml/12 pint Sugar Base Sauce
Cut the nectarines in half and remove stones. Pour the lemon juice into a stainless steel or non-metal bowl; add the nectarine flesh, tossing it in the juice to prevent discolouration. Place fruit and juices in a liquidiser or food processor, then add the cold Sugar Syrup Sauce Base.
Freeze the sorbet in a sorbetiere if you have one. Otherwise chill in the freezer until firm. Scrape the mixture into a liquidiser or food processor and puree quickly to whiten it. Freeze again until firm. Remove 15 minutes before serving and leave in fridge to soften. !
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