whisking blisters
April 27, 2008

When baseball pitches get blisters on their fingers, the press and fans work themselves into a frenzy. When pop icon drummers suffer the malady, we record it for posterity. When aspiring chefs have been making too many emulsion sauces, it sounds more like a geriatric rock band: "Now, to follow up the Dancing Grannies, a big hand for the Whisking Blisters!"

Somehow a night's worth of hollandaise, béarnaise, mayonnaise, beurre blanc and sweet sabayon just doesn't have the coolness—the danger factor—of a 98-mile-an-hour fastball or 18 takes of rock-and-roll. (It does, however, come with a pretty upset stomach, especially if you've decided to spoon up the hollandaise like soup.)

All the same, two days later when Poppy's invited John up for brunch in Lowell, I want to contribute something beyond pancakes and hashbrowns. I decide I can whisk up a sweet sabayon akin to what chef demoed in class, but more geared to breakfast than dessert. Hers was made from marsala wine and folded into whipped cream before being spread over strawberries and raspberries; I plan to make ours from orange juice and Grand Marnier. But somewhere along the way I get tripped up by conversions. I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to have 100 milliliters of butter per 1 egg yolk, but trying to convert tablespoons into milliliters while staring at the hatch marks on a Land O'Lakes stick makes my head spin. Plus, is it different if I'm not clarifying? I start whisking egg yolks with a little sugar and about two tablespoons each of Grand Marnier and orange juice. It's runnier than I want it to be, so I rashly add another egg yolk, which means that now I need another 100 milliliters of butter. John races to measurement rescue while I keep whisking for life. The sauce seems in no danger of breaking, but way too rich, so I try cutting it with more orange juice and Grand Marnier, no longer worried about the viscosity. And adding, and adding....

In the end, the sauce turns out well enough, though not precisely the flavor I'd had in mind. Mostly, there's just a lot of it. We pour it over pancakes, over strawberries, over John's brioche and try not to think of the amount of butter we've consumed. We pack the leftover brioche, berries and sabayon into a bowl to brown in the oven, sort of like really dense French toast.

Once I'm home, I check the recipe I'd thought I was making to discover that I'd made several grave mechanical errors. Sweet sabayon, while it begins like hollandaise et al, doesn't even have butter. It's usually an egg-cream sauce. Plus, my ratio of 100 milliliters of butter per egg yolk turns out to be 100 grams. I spend the next several hours trying to figure out what 100 grams of clarified butter would yield in tablespoons (about 3 1/2, an equation that hardly suggests the effort).

So I'm not yet at stage where I can whisk from memory, but I do have the blisters to suggest I'm on my way. (Class did in two fingers; brunch ruined a third.) Someday I might even be able to convert from metric to U.S. measurements, volume to weight, in my head. For now, I'm perfecting my tournage—which I'd tell you about, but it's left my fingers so arthritic I can no longer type.