The idea of thickening liquids with a roux, i.e. flour cooked in hot fat until the raw flour taste had gone, arrived in France from Italy in the mid seventeenth century and changed the way sauces were made in western cuisine. The march of the béchamel had begun. Before that, sauces, soups and stews were thickened with bread—a convenient way of using up stale bread at a time when many households had a weekly baking day.
In my blog about Christmas pudding of 1 October 2016 I described how plum pottage developed into plum pudding. Bread sauce, another traditional accompaniment to Christmas dinner in the United Kingdom and Ireland, is the sole survivor of the medieval tradition of thickening sauces. Essentially it is savoury spiced milk into which enough white breadcrumbs have been mixed to give a soft, porridgey consistency.
Its appearance is not appetising and diners encountering it for the first time cannot be blamed for taking only a small, token spoonful with the firm intention of leaving it on their plates. But perhaps they enquire about the source of the wonderful aroma or taste a forkful of turkey and stuffing which has encroached upon the sauce. And then they are hooked.
Bread sauce is soft, creamy and aromatic. It peps up bland turkey, complements ham, bacon and sausages and, most surprising of all, is delicious with potatoes of any shape or form. The scent of Christmas to me is made up of roasting turkey and aromatic bread sauce. Here is the recipe I always use. You will need:
500 ml (1 pint) fresh, whole milk (3.5% fat)
2 small onions or large shallots
12 whole peppercorns (I use a mixture of black and white, but use whatever you have to hand.)
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
12 whole cloves
Blades of mace (the amount shown above is enough for 500 ml. milk)
About 180 g (six ounces) of fresh white breadcrumbs, made from crustless bread
Peel the onions or shallots. If you only have 1 large onion cut it in half. Stick the cloves into the onions. Put the milk in a small saucepan and put in the onions/shallots stuck with cloves, the mace, bay leaves and peppercorns. It is important that the onions/shallots are covered by the milk. Put the lid on the saucepan, put it on the stove at the lowest heat possible and let the spices infuse in the milk for thirty to forty-five minutes. Check from time to time that the milk is not sticking at the bottom of the saucepan. If the milk threatens to come to the boil too soon, turn off the heat.
After thirty to forty-five minutes, bring the milk to the boil then strain it. Don’t use a slotted spoon but strain it properly as this will also remove any skin that has formed. Return the milk to the saucepan and add the breadcrumbs a handful at a time until they just come to the surface of the milk. The mixture will still be quite thin. Stir the mixture over a low heat until the breadcrumbs swell and thicken the sauce. You can adjust the consistency before serving by adding more breadcrumbs or more milk if necessary. Some recipes call for butter or cream to be added at this stage, but I don’t think it is necessary. Serves four to six.
Notes: Mace is the outer membrane of shell of the nutmeg. Try and get blades rather than ground mace. If you cannot get either, use nutmeg.
Make fresh breadcrumbs yourself. It is easy to do this in the food processor. Do not use the dried breadcrumbs that are sold for egg and breadcrumbing fish, schnitzel etc.
Make the breadcrumbs the day before and start making the sauce about an hour before you want to serve dinner.