My mother never taught me how to make a white sauce. I recognise that in the grand scheme of grief and mourning and the death of a parent, this does not at first sight appear to be a problem worth griping about, but bear with me.
My mother had a strange philosophy, that she would repeat frequently and proudly: that she need never make a white sauce, simply because she knew how to make one. She believed she was justified in her shop-bought fish pies, because if pressed, she could make one. I never saw her make one, but don’t doubt for one moment that she could have done. She was very much of the ‘life is too short to stuff a mushroom’ school of thought, and I grew up with a gentle scorn for people who insisted on cooking everything from scratch, but without the knowledge or experience to back it up.
I never asked her to show me how to make one because I was far too busy being in my early twenties, enjoying my wilderness years, and feeling like I was the first person ever to sit law school exams, or go on dates, or to move away from home. And then, of course, it was too late.
And unfortunately, her philosophy only holds water if in fact you know how to make a white sauce. I did not. And when my mother died, there was no one to teach me. In many ways, it was white sauce — or the lack of it in my life — that prompted me to descend into self-taught cooking and baking.
So fish pie was the first proper dish, the first meal, I cooked after my mother’s death.
I took a supermarket packet of ‘fish pie mix’ and a pint of milk, and set myself in front of the stove. Armed with a googled recipe in one hand, and a wooden spoon wobbling in the other, I tried to teach myself.
As I got half way through the recipe, I could see that — bloody hell — I’d made a white sauce! On my own! And I’d done it without my mummy, and it hurt, but I was ok.
I then realised two things: first, that I could do this. And secondly, that I had always hated fish pie.
My mother loved fish pie, albeit not of her own making. She, like many of her generation, had grown up alongside supermarkets’ love affair with pre-prepared meals. The speed and ease which was once only the realm of Fray Bentos pies suddenly became possible for moussaka! And spaghetti carbonara! And fish pie! It was compulsory on Good Friday, because on Good Friday, we ate fish.
But I loathed fish pie.
Mummy never understood my dislike of fish pie. I was a good eater. I wasn’t fussy or picky. But fish pie was the exception. I was, even as a small child, affronted by the possibility that I’d be asked to eat it, and would miserably and self-consciously push tepid peas around my plate, as the dish cooled and my mum became increasingly frustrated. I’m not sure whether my mother would collapse in laughter or tears if she were to learn now that, two years ago, the first proper dish I tackled was, of all things, fish pie.
So I stood over the stove, proudly admiring my silken sauce, whilst pondering the fact that I was pretty much committed to making and eating a dish that I had hated for twenty five years which for reasons I couldn’t unpick at that time had suddenly become terribly important to me.
I spooned the sauce onto the pie. And mashed the potatoes. And put it into the oven. And realised that my wobbly wooden spoon-holding hand had become my mashing hand and my spooning hand and my removing a beautiful dish from the oven hand, and it wasn’t wobbling anymore.
And then I ate the fish pie. And it was delicious. And I found that it had anchored me, both to make and to eat. So, maybe not the next day, or the day after that, but some time later, I continued cooking. I kept returning to that fish pie, to the most hated dish of my childhood, that I found myself longing for on a regular basis.
So, forgive me if I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs. 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; you don’t taste the dijon mustard when you eat the dish; instead you get the taste of a far cheesier, more mature sauce than warranted by the amount of cheese you have added, and a cheese sauce that is able to cut through the smoked fish, rather than just make it cloying.
This is my foolproof method — discovered through trial and error — for perfect white (and then mornay) sauce.
[First the formula for a white sauce is this: you need the same quantity of flour and butter, and whatever the weight of your milk or butter, times it by ten, and you have the amount of milk you need. So for this white sauce, you use 40g butter, 40g flour, and 400g (or ml) of milk. Easy.]
- Melt your butter.
- Add the flour and mix it with 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 your 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 ideal, I think, to make in advance. The whole pie will sit quite happily in the fridge for a day, awaiting its blast in the oven. 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, and refrigerate: if the clingfilm touches the sauce, it will stop a crust forming.
Make it on Maundy Thursday, and eat it on Good Friday. It is the perfect Good Friday dish, especially if you need to have a wobble, but not fall down.
Equally, if you want to massively speed up the preparation time, you can pop your potatoes onto boil as you embark on poaching your fish, and they will then be ready for mashing by the time you have completed your cheese sauce.
Good Friday Fish Pie
Makes: 4 portions
Takes: 20 minutes
Bakes: 30 minutes
400g Fish mixture (third white fish, third smoked fish, third salmon)
400ml whole milk
2 Bay leaves
1 Onion, peeled and cut in half
40 g Flour
40 g Butter
1 desert spoon dijon Mustard (normal mustard or mustard powder would be totally fine here, but probably avoid wholegrain)
50g Cheese plus a small extra handful
1 kg Potatoes
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, 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 your mustard and your 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 degrees 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 knife into the potatoes, they are soft. Drain the potatoes and return to the pan. Mash. Mash mash mash. Mash for longer than you think you need to. Season and add the butter and mix vigorously.
7. Spoon the mash onto the pie and smooth over using a palette knife or the back of a spoon. Decorate with a fork (this will give you lovely crunchy bits of potato), and scatter a scant handful of cheese over the potato.
8. Bake in the oven for half an hour until the potato is golden.
9. TA DAH!
Icing on the Cake: I ate this with steamed green veg, quietly, and quickly. And then whilst standing over the leftovers, eating from the serving spoon, equally quietly and quickly I muttered an apology to my mother for being such a pain about fish pie for so many years.