Blaming your tools :: {bearnaise sauce}

Whoever said that thing about a good craftsman never blaming their tools can't have been a craftsman.  Or if he was, he had good tools.  Anyway, I've found that sometimes one does blame one's tools, and that's perfectly respectable.

My culinary Everest for years was Bearnaise sauce, that sublime invention only the French could have conceived as a vehicle to increase your butter consumption -- something designed to make steak, which really needs nothing but salt, seem incomplete without it.  Made properly it's velvety, tangy, delicately scented, at once subtle and commanding.  A failed attempt is grainy, sharp, and nothing short of disgusting.

Perfect Bearnaise, every time, at Harry's Grill Bar.  I took this picture, and then I got to lick out the bowl.
Armed with my Christmas gift that year, a sauce cookbook book of epic proportions and heft, I felt confident that I could whip out a perfect Bearnaise, worthy of the most charming bistro in the world.  I was making this Bearnaise sauce to accompany our New Year's Eve dinner of Fondue Bourguignonne.  My brother was bringing his new girlfriend (future wife, but none of us knew that)...stakes were high, but I wasn't phased.  I imagined us all gaily laughing as we swept our perfectly sizzled bits of fillet through a perfect mound of sauce, smacking our lips, and exclaiming how perfect it all was.

You can see where this is going.  The tool I'm going to blame this time was the stove.  It was a gas stove, but the low setting was really only low if you compared it to the high setting.  It was a relative low.  The sauce broke because the heat was too high and the eggs essentially scrambled.  All this happened moments after my brother's girlfriend arrived.  I was whisking the sauce like a maniac, peering into the pot expectantly, and then suddenly I saw it beginning to seize up.  I let out a sustained, high pitched yelp, whisked even more frantically, turned from pink-faced to red, and, still yelping, flung the whisk into the ruined sauce and fled from the kitchen, through the length of the house, to the front door where I collapsed in a pile (still yelping), wrapped myself in the curtain, and summoned forth a howl with the small amount of air remaining in my lungs, "It broooooooooooooke."

My mother, who had been engaging in beautifying rituals upstairs, heard my heartbroken cries and scrambled to my rescue.  "It's all ruined.  I'm not eating.  The whole dinner is ruined," I blazoned from inside the curtain.  Somehow, like only a mother can, she managed to fix the situation, the sauce, and apparently even the poor girlfriend's opinion of our crazy family.

Fast forward a decade and several dozen more failed attempts at Bearnaise sauce and I found myself waitressing at an upscale steakhouse restaurant in England.  It was there that I learned the many secrets of a perfect, unbreakable Bearnaise, even when your tools are to blame.

Bearnaise Sauce
The secrets to unbreakable Bearnaise are: a heavy pan, low heat, clarified butter, and a whisk (not a fork -- trust me).  You can do this.
First of all, gather all your ingredients.  Don't scramble around while you make this.  Approach your sauce with confidence because it will smell your fear.
Finely chop one shallot and about a tablespoon of tarragon leaves.  Place these in the smallest saucepan you have and add 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar.  Bring this mixture to the boil and boil it until it reduces to about a tablespoon of liquid.  It needs to be good and reduced or your sauce will be runny.  Strain out the shallot and tarragon, pressing them against the sieve to extract all the flavor, and set the liquid aside.  
Melt one and a half sticks of butter in the microwave in a pitcher.  Set this aside.
Separate one egg.  You'll only need the yolk, but you can save the white to make delicious Bourbon sours which your husband might make for you while you're cooking.  Set the yolk aside.
Finely chop another tablespoon of tarragon leaves.  Set aside.
Make the sauce.  Put your egg yolk and the vinegar reduction in a sauce pan and before you even think of putting it on the burner, whisk it until it turns pale gold -- a good minute or two.  Now, put your burner on low and place the pan on the burner.  Continue to whisk for another 30 seconds or so.  Dip your finger into the egg yolk mixture and touch the bottom of your pan.  As you make this sauce, you should always be able to touch the bottom of your pan for several seconds without it burning you.  If it feels too hot, take your pan off the stove and work off the heat for a minute or so before you put it back on.  Now start to drizzle your butter into the yolk mixture.  Very very slowly.  Drop by drop, whisking constantly.  Keep checking the temperature of the bottom of your pan, dripping butter in, and whisking until you begin to see the glorious sauce thickening before your eyes.  You might not need all the butter, but it's better to have it ready (you can save the extra in the fridge for another use.  When the sauce is lovely and thick (but not as thick as mayonnaise), remove it from the heat and season it with salt (it takes quite a bit of salt) and add the reserved chopped tarragon.  Serve immediately (probably with steak and french fries, but by no means limit yourself!).
So, to recap: low heat, slow dribbling of butter, constant whisking, constant checking of the temperature of the bottom of your pan, immediate consumption.