Once upon a time there was this book:
It was, for many years, among the kit of references and tools that students and stagiaires were given upon arrival at La Varenne cooking school in France. In it are the foundational basic recipes that we would be drawing from over the coming months, recipes that would become nearly rote from the frequency at which we reproduced them. But for reference, reminders, and as a study tool before our occasional exams, this book was indispensable.
You can see how well mine has been used since I first got my hands on it in August of 1989. It’s the only book that resides full-time in my kitchen, tucked between the flour and coffee bins on the counter for easy access. I turn to it a bit less for the stock and sauces, which have become such natural impulses for me in the kitchen over the years. A couple tablespoons each of butter and flour cooked for a bit, add some warm milk or broth along with whatever seasonings beckon, cook to thicken and voilá: béchamel or velouté, a great starting point for countless recipes from chicken pot pie to cheese soufflé. These recipes allow more flexibility for improvisation, which I practice pretty regularly. And which proves that I was not made for the pastry kitchen, where precision of ingredient ratios and other recipe elements are so critical. I lean on this book heavily for pastry and cake proportions, meringue details, things that require a little more ratio or technique finesse.
After a few decades of this book being just in the hands of former La Varenners like myself, the basics are back in print as Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen: 50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs to Know. It’s pretty much exactly what was in that 1978 original, though in a much spiffier package. If you’ve got a hankering for homemade ice cream or need some guidelines for fish stock, you’ll find it here. Some of the offerings are perfect as-is recipes.
But where I find this collection to be most inspiring is that the recipes within are delicious starting points that prompt creativity. Like a box of kids’ building blocks, you’ve got recipe components that will combine with others (either with others from this book or from your own repertoire) to put together tasty, off-the-cuff creations. Choux (page 72) plus ice cream (page 110) plus your own chocolate sauce equals profiteroles for dessert! Crépes (page 84) plus velouté (page 44) plus some sauteed shrimp and mushrooms equals an elegant dinner entree.
I’ve put a lot of miles on my copy of the Basics, as I know many of my La Varenne pals have. I can’t recommend enough that home cooks should consider giving this a spot in their kitchen, whether it’s to tackle a new sauce for the first time or to find a reliable reminder about the steps for making perfect buttercream frosting. It’ll make you a better cook, and give you extra confidence for being creative in the kitchen as well.