There are certainly a number of vegans and vegetarians who won’t appreciate this post. But you know what?! A lot of meat eaters won’t either, like my husband, friends, family… so many people just gag at the kinds of foods I grew up eating. But it’s all what you’re used to, and my most requested dish for my birthday meal growing up was this – sweetbreads or sometimes brains in a cream sauce, all beautifully tucked into a puff pastry shell that she made from scratch.
People around the world were raised on the whole cow, chicken, pig, fish, you name it. This post isn’t meant to gross people out, I love sweetbreads and I’m sharing a version of the recipe my mother made for me. It’s similar to France’s Bouchée à la Reine, which translates to “queen’s morsel.” Odd, I know. Sometimes it’s brains in the white sauce, and sometimes it also contains chicken.
Nobody seems to know where the name sweetbreads originated. I know it can be cow, veal, or even lamb, and it’s either thymus or pancreas. These are cow thymus that I ordered.
I recently asked my sister if she remembered Mom’s brains in a cream sauce and indeed she did. As someone who lives part of the year in France, she also added that whenever she’s ordered sweetbreads at a restaurant, the preparation has never been as good as Mom’s version.
Funny story. We were with our daughters in Lyon, France, in May of 2001. I know the date well because we’d waited a long time before we were able to take this trip; I didn’t want my kids to leave for college without having experienced Europe. My husband suggested France, because “I spoke some French.” I was extra excited, because although any country would have made me happy, I had so many memories as a child visiting and living in France.
We were sitting outside at a restaurant for lunch in the old part of Lyon. I was so engrossed in reading and deciphering the menu, that I guess I neglected helping my other family members with choosing their lunch dishes; the French was hard enough for me.
After we ate, my husband and older daughter talked about how their lunch was the best thing they’d ever eaten. When I’m experiencing a spectacular meal, I can become oblivious to everything else that’s happening around me, so I had to ask what they ordered. Bouchée à la Reine!!!!! From the look on my face, they knew something was up. And I had to tell them! So, accidentally, these two weirdos ate and enjoyed sweetbreads, with chicken.
I’ve never prepared sweetbreads myself, partially because they’re hard to get, and partially because my family would never knowingly eat them. At least the pescatarian has a real excuse. I turned to Julia Child for basic preparation instructions.
According to Ms. Child: “Wash in cold water, then place in a bowl and soak in several changes of cold water or under a dripping tap for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Delicately pull off as much as you easily can of the filament which encloses them, without tearing the flesh. This is a rather slow process. Soak them again for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, this time in several changes of cold water containing 1 tablespoon of vinegar per quart. Peel off as much more filament as you can, and they are ready for trimming and cooking.”
I would also add that using some sharp scissors helps with the removal of the membrane and blobs of fat. Tedious work but necessary.
Sweetbreads in Bechamel with Mushrooms
2 pounds sweetbreads
1/2 pound small mushrooms, peeled, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
Splash of cognac
Pinch of white pepper
Salt and pepper
1 package pastry shells, thawed, in refrigerator
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups cream or 1/2 and 1/2
2 cups chicken broth
Chopped parsley, for garnish
Prepare the the sweetbreads, which can take a few hours. You can even do this the day before and keep them submerged in water in the refrigerator. After you remove them from the water, dry them off and gently chop. Set aside.
Next sauté the sliced mushrooms in the melted butter and oil over high heat to get some caramelization on the mushrooms. Add the cognac and flambé until the flames die down. Season with white pepper, salt, and black pepper. Set aside.
Next, bake pastry shells according to the directions. Let cool, and remove the lids.
Next, prepare the white sauce, or bechamel. If you need guidance, refer to my post on making white sauce here.
Bring the chicken broth to a boil, and add the sweetbreads. Simmer for 10 minutes. This will cook them and also render fat. Strain the sweetbreads in a colander; Don’t save the broth.) Add the sweetbreads and mushrooms to the white sauce and stir gently.
Gently fill the pastry shells with the mixture. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.
The pastry shells look really cute with their “hats” on!
These would be a light lunch, if you only have one, or make a wonderful first course for a French meal.