With a history going back to the Middle Ages, and traditionally served as an accompaniment to fowl of all kinds — chicken, turkey, and game birds — bread sauce is to a British Christmas dinner what a green bean casserole is to an American Thanksgiving.
When I explain that it is basically a gloop made of stale white breadcrumbs soaked in hot milk and then smeared on turkey, my American friends can be relied upon to make disgusted faces as every story they've ever heard about the horrors of British cuisine flash through their minds. But I always end up having the last laugh because whenever I've managed to persuade an American to taste this bizarre concoction (I usually bring some as my contribution to Thanksgiving dinners), they immediately turn into raving fans.
This sauce is a relic of the times when bread was used instead of a roux to thicken sauces and soups. Greek skordalia, Spanish gazpacho, and Italian pappa al pomodoro are all very distant cousins. Properly made — that is, with oodles of butter and cream infused with fragrant aromatics like onion, cloves, nutmeg, and bayleaf — this homely sauce becomes almost sophisticated.
Think of the lightest, creamiest grits, with a sumptuous texture and milky sweetness, that magically seem to make everything on the plate taste better. It soothes the tartness of cranberry sauce, enhances the nutty bite of Brussels sprouts, swirls richness into a thin, savory gravy made from the pan juices, and gives succulence to every mouthful of turkey. Weirdest of all, it takes the place of mayonnaise to make divine cold turkey sandwiches.
Because the components of this dish are so simple, use the best-quality white loaf and creamiest milk you can. This is not the place for bendy, ready-sliced wonder loaves.
Have you tried bread sauce?
Serves 4 to 6
good-quality white bread, not sourdough (remove the crusts, break into pieces, and leave on a rack to get stale for a day or two)
whole cloves or 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly grated nutmeg to finish
Whizz the stale bread in a food processor or blender until you have around 2 cups of coarse breadcrumbs.
Peel the onion and slice it in half.
Stick the whole cloves — which look like little nails — into the onion halves, or, if you can't get these, you can add freshly grated nutmeg to the milk.
Pour the milk into a saucepan and add the clove-studded onion, bay leaf, peppercorns, and nutmeg if using. Add the salt and bring everything a boil. Immediately turn off the heat, cover the pan, and leave in a warm place for an hour or two so that the aromatics infuse into the milk.
When you're ready to make the sauce, strain the onion and spices from the infused milk, stir in the breadcrumbs, and add 1 tablespoon of butter. Bring the sauce to a simmer and then cook very gently for about 15 minutes until the bread has softened and disintegrated and the sauce is thick and creamy. Stir in the cream and top with the remaining butter (or a tablespoon of the pan juices from the roast bird) and sprinkle on some freshly grated nutmeg.
Serve immediately as an accompaniment to turkey or chicken.
Total time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including 2 hours infusing time