Sweetbreads in Bechamel
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.
I LOVE LOVE sweetbreads! I love all organ meat, actually and enjoy them weekly. This looks so good with creamy bechamel and puff pastry. An excellent gourmet dish, Mimi.
Thank you Angie! I love it all too.
Oh.. you and I can be besties!! Coincidentally, I was in Lyon last November and had sweetbreads everyday!! It’s my favorite French city now!!
Hahahahahaha! Lucky you. It’s a beautiful city.
Not my cup of tea, but your beautiful photograph almost makes me want to try them.
I understand. It’s a textural thing for most people. But thanks!
Creative and nicely done!
I used to serve them to unsuspecting dinner guests then tell them later what they had eaten and ENJOYED. I don’t think they raced home and cooked them for themselves but I have always enjoyed them. Bit of a faff to prepare but well worth it.
Faff indeed! My sister and I were just talking about when our mother served brains to a supposedly wordly fellow. It did not go over well!
My mother will be so disappointed she wasn’t invited. Though I have never had sweetbreads she apparently ate them as a child-yes, the whole animal kind of thing. She would have been in heaven.
I hope you get to try them some time. Very different, but very good!
I’ve never had sweetbreads—this looks like a wonderful way to serve them! Very pretty! :)
Thanks! I think I could eat just about anything smothered in a white sauce!
i certainly have enjoyed chicken hearts that Brazilian friends make, and of course chicken liver pate goes down a treat so yep maybe i could go chicken thymus or was it cow? :=) Oh yes I see – cow. I guess a chicken doesn’t have one?
No idea! You got me there. Maybe only mammals have a thymus gland??!!!! Well hopefully you get a chance to try them one day!
I would order this, and enjoy it for sure. I’ve never seen sweetbreads in our butcher though otherwise I would make this.
I’m pretty sure you can ask for them. Brains are really fabulous, too, and easier to prepare for cooking.
I would happily eat this and your pictures are beautiful! And coincidentally, I might have been in Lyon the same year you were. I have often wished I’d properly appreciated the wonderful opportunity to experience a Paul Bocuse meal. My (now) husband and I passed while our friends enjoyed a spectacular gastronomic experience.
Oh no! That’s so sad! But I imagine you still had wonderful food. The first thing I ordered was a salade Lyonnaise!
I would definitely eat this Mimi! Absolutely delicious! My other half wouldn’t though. She’d turn her nose up at it. Like she does my steak and kidney pie or my delicious liver and onions. Grrrrr!
We’ve been married 41 years, so I know we have some things in common, just not a lot of food – especially offal!
Oh I would love to eat this dish Mimi, it brings back memories. We never really called them sweetbreads at home, but my Mum cooked brains in white sauce and crumbed brains, the latter is my favourite. Then there was liver and bacon for breakfast, steak and kidney pie, all meant to use every part of the animal. I’m rather excited about it being a restaurant dish in France as I will be there in a couple of months. I’ll have to try and find Julia Childs books as well. An inspiring post, thanks Mimi.
What are crumbed brains? I’ll google. And yes, I love all forms of liver, especially foie gras. I’m jealous you’re going to france!!!Lucky you!
Fabulous! By funny coincidence I was thinking about sweetbreads just the other day. Waxing nostalgic, actually as you hardly see them anymore, even in fancy French restaurants. I liked them almost as much as brains, which it seems you can’t buy for love or money these days. They disappeared around the time of Mad Cow Disease and never made a comeback…
Oh is that what happened? Shoot. I just know I can’t find brains, although I would have made the recipe the same.
Sweetbreads are the best! Mark and I both love them and order them any chance we get. I have also made them at home (yes, tedious prep, but worth it — or, as the French say, «C’est vaut la peine.» But I’ve only made Italian preparations — I can’t wait to make your French version! Thanks for another wonderful recipe!
Aww, thank you! I’ll have to look into Italian preparations. I just wanted to attempt to recreate what my mother made.
Well, you did a beautiful job! I think there is a good one in Tuscany, The Beautiful Cookbook by Lorenza de Medici with Marsala and peas. I’ll send it to you if you want!
Is that the coffee table book?
The thymus gland is the growth gland in a calf. It disappears when it becomes an adult cow. Chickens don’t have them, and other animals don’t have them either, as far as I know. I do know, living close to the french border, that you will find the recipe with chicken on both sides of the Rhine. I guess it has to do with it not being as costly as sweetbreads. In Germany the dish is called “Königinnenpastete” and translates to “Queen’s pastry” and is often served as a festive first course. Better restaurants do the dweetbreads, most restaurants will use small mordels of veal and combine them with morels.
Fascinating. So I should say calf thymus instead of cow thymus. Interesting that it’s a German dish as well. My mother’s father was Alsatian, so maybe that’s how she learned about them growing up. Unfortunately her mother couldn’t cook!
I’ve never tried sweetbreads, but I sure don’t judge those who do like them. And if I tried them, who knows? I just might like them too.
You just never know! I hate uni, and I’ve given it a second chance. With sweetbreads it’s a textural thing for people. They’d soft and velvety!
I hoped to God that your sister didn’t remember mom’s brains in a cream sauce! But please don’t change the wording – I LOVE it!!! I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, and I know logically that an aversion to a particular food is, as you say, simply because you didn’t grow up eating it. My mom used to mix a package of Jell-O with whipped cream and cottage cheese, and if you set this down in front of my siblings and cousins, we’d demolish it. But none of my friends will so much as touch it. So, I’m game for sweetbreads – which I’ve heard of but never tried. I think I’d have to find them served in a restaurant or something first, so I’d know what I was after, before trying to make them myself. There is a restaurant that I go to that has a butcher who uses the whole cow, and they do serve some very interesting foods as a result. I’ll have to see if I can get them there.
Yes, my sister is four years older, so of course she remembered them! I just didn’t remember if she liked them as much as I did. Like I said, that was often my birthday dinner request! It probably would be smart to get them at a restaurant first. A good restaurant. Sometimes they’re sautéed in butter and served that way. I just love bechamel so much that I didn’t want to do something else. And being serve that jello shit would make me gag. Sorry.
Wow! Looks delicious and also very creative.
You’ve definitely elevated sweetbreads into something wonderfully elegant, Mimi. I don’t think I’m much of a candidate, but I admit I’m not even slightly adventurous in food. I admire those who are! I have a funny memory as a child of being in a Japanese restaurant with my mother, not her favorite, and she saw “sweetbreads” on the menu and thought she was going to get literal sweet bread! She was shocked, and I think there was a lot of discomfort involved. 🤣
Oh no! Well the name really is confusing!!!
What great memories from that lunch in Lyon! And what a great photo of the flambéed mushrooms, too! Now I do love meat, but I am not a fan of sweetbreads. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from this post – and I bet it wasn’t easy to find those sweetbreads for home cooking!
Well then, I appreciate your comment! And I understand. You’re in the majority!
Wow, Mimi! I can’t say that I’ve ever had sweetbreads, but I know that if you made them and had me over for lunch, I would clean my plate. I’m always game to try unusual foods, and you obviously knew exactly what to do with these to make them exquisite. Much more elegant than the canned “pork brains” I’ve seen in country markets here in the south, stacked up right next to the Vienna sausages. :)
Oh wow. Canned brains? Well that’s a first for me! Gross!!!
Beautiful but I don’t expect anything less from you :-) What caught my attention is crumbed brains; I prepared a post to publish this year and it’s deep fried brains. Is it the same thing?
Ohhhhhh! I thought it was crumbled brains! It’s crumbed! Yes, I see recipes of balls of brains dipped into a crumb coating and deep fried. I bet they’re really good!!!!
I think it’s mind over matter when it comes to food sometimes. If you didn’t know what you were eating, you would probably like it more. I used to eat balut (boiled developing chicken embryo in the egg) when I was a child in Vietnam and loved it. I shudder at the thought as an adult having lived in the US for most of my life.
Oh sure. I agree. Plus what you grow up eating, of course. Most Americans should at least try different foods. On bite!!!
I adore sweetbreads but never see them on the menu here in the U.S. Lucky you finding them. My mother was raised in France and we had them whenever they were available. She used to weigh them under a heavy pan to flatten them after the last soak, then lightly flour them and saute them in butter. Delicious! I did draw the line at brains although my father liked them. I couldn’t take the texture.
Love this, specially with bechamel sauce! count me in
Thanks, Raymond! It was really good to have again!
Hmmm…not something that I would order or make but your presentation and photos are so beautiful that I would love to try it 😉