The Anxious Cook

Next morning they would go over the dishes – the soup, the salmon; the salmon, Mrs Walker knew, as usual underdone, for she always got nervous about the pudding and left it to Jenny; so it happened, the salmon was always underdone.                                                                             (Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway)

However much I love cooking – or perhaps because I love it so much – I often get anxious when cooking, particularly when cooking for others. Will there be enough food? Will my guests like it? Will it be perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned? Will I impress as a cook? 

I am not alone in my anxiety, with there being a literary equivalent in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway.

Mrs Dalloway, Woolf’s fourth novel which was published in 1925, is set over the course of one day in post-First World War London. The eponymous protagonist is hosting a party that evening for a number of distinguished guests and, as she makes her preparations in her local area – Regent’s Park – her mind wanders back and forth in time: she recalls key episodes in her life; ponders the decisions she has made, including her choice of husband – the safe, but dull Richard Dalloway, and the loves she has lost; and thinks about the various people who will be attending her party.

Whilst Clarissa Dalloway is the centre of the novel, which is principally narrated from her perspective, the reader is offered glimpses into other characters’ minds, among them the shell-shocked war veteran, Septimus Smith; Peter Walsh, a former suitor of Clarissa’s whose marriage proposal she rejected; Richard Dalloway, who tries – but fails – to tell his wife he loves her; and Mrs Walker, the Dalloways’ cook.

As a member of London’s high society – Richard works for the government and the Prime Minister is one of the guests at the party – Mrs Dalloway does not do any of the cooking for the party; that task is left to her household staff, overseen by Mrs Walker.

And Mrs Walker is worried – as well she might be, considering the guests she is feeding and knowing that on the following day, after the party, the dishes will be ‘go[ne] over.’

Whilst Mrs Walker only makes a fleeting appearance, she gives an insight into what goes on behind the scenes at these social events: the effort, preparations and stress which the guests never see but which is all too real for those involved:

The Prime Minister was coming, Agnes said: so she had heard them say in the dining-room, she said, coming in with a tray of glasses. Did it matter, did it matter in the least, one Prime Minister more or less? It made no difference at this hour of night to Mrs Walker, among the plates, saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans, chicken in aspic, ice-cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens, and pudding basins which, however hard they washed up in the scullery, seemed to be all on top of her, on the kitchen table, on chairs, while the fire blared and roared, the electric lights glared, and still supper had to be laid.

And amongst all these pressures, ‘it was the salmon that bothered Mrs Walker’.

When I started thinking about cooking a dish that would reflect this passage in the novel, I thought about what way of cooking salmon would create anxiety in me. I knew that I would not be particularly worried about undercooking it. But then I hit on the idea of making a hollandaise sauce to accompany it.

Hollandaise sauce: that wonderful golden eggy-buttery sauce combined with high levels of stress; a sauce which needs your full attention; a sauce which has to be made at the last minute; a sauce which goes wrong more often than not; a sauce, the making of which is difficult to time; a sauce, the making of which increases my heart rate and temperature on the coldest day; and yet, a sauce which is so delicious that it is definitely enduring all this suffering and stress to make. Though I don’t think I would ever make it for a party!

To reduce the anxiety that I experience with making hollandaise sauce, I prefer to cook everything else in the oven; that way it can just get on with cooking (and sitting in the oven whilst cooked) whilst I make the sauce. If you’re of a more daring disposition, you might like to pan-fry your salmon and cook your vegetable accompaniments in saucepans. Rather you than me!

Ingredients (per person):
1 salmon fillet
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon white wine
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the hollandaise sauce
100g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C / 180C (fan) / Gas mark 6.

Lay the salmon fillet on a large piece of foil. Season the fillet and then sprinkle with the white wine and olive oil. Bring the foil up around the fish and fold it over at the top to make a sealed package. Lay on a baking sheet and cook in the oven for 20 minutes.

I also put my vegetables in the oven at this point – very thinly sliced potato, brushed with oil, seasoned and arranged in a single layer on a baking tray; asparagus spears sprinkled with olive oil and salt and laid on a baking tray. The potatoes will need turning half-way through cooking. Otherwise just leave everything to get on with it.

A few minutes before the fish and vegetables are ready, melt the butter for the hollandaise sauce in a small saucepan. At the same time bring a small saucepan half-filled with water to the boil.

Keep the water in the saucepan on a simmer, and place a glass bowl over it. Make sure the water is not touching the bottom of the bowl (if need be pour some away).

Place the egg yolks in the bowl and, begin adding the melted butter a trickle at a time whilst beating furiously with a whisk.

You need to keep going until the mixture resembles a thick yellow cream – you may not need to use up all the butter. Take off the heat, add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste and serve with the fish and vegetables.

If the sauce splits – as mine did in both my practice runs – don’t despair! Take a new glass bowl, place one new egg yolk in it and place over the simmering water. This time add the split sauce little by little to the new egg yolk, once again beating furiously, until it reaches the required thickness. The good news is that, from my experience, this stage always works and the sauce does not split again!

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