My mother never taught me how to make a white sauce before she died. In the grand scheme of grief and mourning and the death of a parent, this may not seem like a problem worth griping about. But bear with me.
My mother had a strange, slightly illogical belief, that she repeated often and with a certain pride: she never needed to make a white sauce, simply because she knew how to make one. Buying a shop-bought fish pie was, to her, a moral failing – unless you knew how to make it from scratch. In that case, you were in the clear.
My mother was very much of the ‘life is too short to stuff a mushroom’ school of thought. Like many Baby Boomers, she was a devotee of convenience foods, at least the posh sort that came from M&S. We ate fish pie every Good Friday, as is traditional, and it was always shop-bought.
I grew up believing that the ability to make a white sauce was a virtue every person should possess, even if they didn’t exercise it. But I never actually got around to asking my mum to show me how. I was far too busy doing all the things you do in your early 20s – the period of my life I like to call my ‘wilderness years’. I was going on dates, drinking and, occasionally, working. White sauce paled in importance. And then, of course, it was too late.
After my mother died, this thing I’d never cared about suddenly became terribly important to me. In many ways, it was white sauce – that strange, not terribly exciting substance – that made me start cooking and baking. It became a symbol of something bigger, of self-reliance. So I bought a wooden spoon, pointed my browser at YouTube, and set out to learn a new skill.
Forgive me if I am teaching you to suck eggs (particularly if you’re a grandmother). But, just in case you don’t know how to make a white sauce, and you don’t have anyone to show you, and it suddenly becomes really important you know how to, this is my white sauce – or really, my mornay sauce, which is a traditional white sauce with cheese added. I add Dijon mustard to it as well, but if you’re not a mustard fan, don’t worry: you don’t taste it when you eat the dish. Instead, it serves to amplify the savoury cheese flavour, so it can compete with the smoked fish.
This is my foolproof method – discovered through trial and a lot of error – for perfect white (and then mornay) sauce. You need the same quantity of flour and butter, and 10 times that weight in milk. In this case, that means 40g butter, 40g flour, and 400ml milk. Easy.
Melt your butter, and then add the flour to the pan, stirring it into the butter. Cook until the roux (that’s right, you’ve just made a roux) begins to sizzle. This get rid of any floury taste in the sauce later. Remove from the heat and add about a tablespoon of the milk and stir fast and firmly until it has combined. Add the rest of the milk slowly until you’ve used it all up. Continue stirring throughout. Return to the heat until your white sauce (white sauce!) thickens a little. Sprinkle in a generous handful of grated cheddar cheese bit by bit and stir until it melts into your — now mornay (mornay!) sauce. Add a dessert spoon of Dijon mustard and stir it into the mix. Congratulations, you have just made a perfect mornay sauce.
This dish is perfect for making in advance. The whole pie will sit quite happily in the fridge for a day, awaiting its blast in the oven, until the cheese sauce bubbles up and the potato turns golden. Or you could make it as far as the cheese sauce, lay that on the fish in the dish, and then place clingfilm over the top so it’s touching the surface, and refrigerate. This will stop a crust forming. It goes likes this…
Good Friday fish pie
Makes: 4 portions
Takes: 20 minutes
Bakes: 30 minutes
400g fish mixture (mixed white and smoked fish and salmon)
400ml whole milk
2 bay leaves
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
1 dessert spoon Dijon mustard
50g mature cheddar cheese
20g mature cheddar cheese
1. Place your fish mixture into a large saucepan and add the milk, bay leaves and onion. Slowly bring the mixture up to the boil, then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for five minutes.
2. Strain off the milk through a sieve or fine colander. Reserve the milk. Do this gently; you don’t want to completely obliterate the poached fish. Chuck away the onion and bay leaves. Place the poached fish at the bottom of the dish you’re going to cook the pie in.
3. Now, turn to your mornay. Melt the butter gently in a large saucepan. Add the flour and stir the butter and flour together until it’s a disconcerting blob of dough. Continue cooking for a couple of minutes until you can hear the mixture gently sizzle. Remove from the heat and add a little bit of the reserved poaching milk. Stir fast and deliberately. Don’t panic about the milk sploshing, just keep stirring. When combined, add another bit of the milk. Keep doing so until you’ve used all the milk. Now return to the (gentle) heat and stir until the sauce thickens slightly. Add the mustard and cheese, and stir until combined.
4. Spoon your mornay sauce evenly over your fish in the dish and set to one side.
5. Preheat your oven to 190°C.
6. Peel and chop your potatoes. Bring a pan of water to the boil and add your potatoes. Cook for 15-20 minutes until, when you put a small, sharp knife into one of the potatoes, it falls off the knife back into the pan. Drain the potatoes and return to the pan. Mash until ver smooth. Season and add the butter, and then mix vigorously.
7. Spoon the mash onto the pie and smooth over using a palette knife or the back of a spoon. Score the mash with a fork and scatter a scant handful of cheese over it (this will give you lovely crunchy bits of potato).
8. Bake in the oven for half an hour until the potato is golden.