Making peace with Béchamel

Making peace with Béchamel


Most of the cooks in my family made their lasagna with a ricotta cheese mixture, blended with an egg. Almost no one bothered to slave over the stove stirring béchamel for lasagna. Mom did make a “white sauce” as a base for her macaroni and cheese, but I couldn’t be troubled to learn how to blend the milk into the roux, and generally ignored sauces thickened with flour as an unnecessary part of my culinary education.

Then came along my French husband, who actually hates all things creamy, but learned how to make lasagna from a roommate in college who deemed that the béchamel was absolutely necessary.

For the last five years I have left him completely in charge when it comes to lasagna. But here and now, quarantined in this beautiful apartment in Pisa where we find ourselves riding out the coronavirus crisis, I decided it was time to put a couple new tricks in my back pocket.

Here is my take on béchamel, which I’ve made four times in the last two weeks. May it make your quarantine period a little tastier, a little brighter.


Béchamel – or White Sauce
Yield: enough for one six-portion lasagna

100g butter
100g flour
700-1000ml milk
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
pinch freshly grated nutmeg

A note on thickness: we like the sauce to be on the thicker side, so we stop adding milk after about 700-750ml. If you want the sauce thinner you may end up adding up to a liter, to your discretion. Feel free to STOP adding milk at any point, stir, and see if the sauce’s thickness is to your liking. If you want it thinner, keep adding milk.

Start by pouring the milk into a medium saucepan over low heat. You want the milk to be warm before you pour it into your béchamel, but not boiling – if at any point you notice it beginning to bubble, turn the heat to the lowest setting or simply turn it off.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir gently with a long-handled wooden spoon. As soon as all of the butter has melted, add the flour and begin stirring, gently but constantly, with the wooden spoon.

The butter/flour mixture should homogenize, and bubble ever so slightly. Do not let it brown. Keep stirring. You want to cook this starter or “roux” long enough so that the flour loses its raw taste, but without browning the mixture. Once it has gotten thicker, elastic-like, begin to add a small pour of milk. Stir generously.

At this point, add the bay leaf to the pot. Stir the mixture continuously and rigorously, so as to eradicate any lumps in the flour. Scrape down any dried bits on the sides of the pot. Keep adding milk bit by bit, letting the mixture completely homogenize in between each pour. You may want to lower the heat on the béchamel if it is bubbling or thickening too quickly. You can also move the pan on and off the heat as you work to prevent it from over-heating.

Add a pinch of salt (start with a half teaspoon,) and a good grate of fresh nutmeg (four or five grates on a small hand grater. Continue to add the milk.

Once you think the sauce has reached your desired thickness, take it off the heat, still stirring. Sample it on a teaspoon to check for seasoning, adding salt and nutmeg if desired.

It will slowly settle into its state of thickness and you can stop stirring, letting it cool down a bit before you use it in your next preparation: lasagna, gratin, or other dish.

A Taco Party in Paris

As a white, umpteenth-generation American whose grandparents were all born in New England, I didn’t have much experience cooking Mexican food until recently. I grew up eating ground beef tacos in hard shells with chopped iceberg and jarred salsa (and thanks Mom, it was delicious!) But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a nasty of habit of bringing cans of tomatillos, chipotles in adobo, and jalapeños back every time I go to the states. I hoard them in the cellar and curse myself when the expiration dates glide past unnoticed. I ask traveling friends to sneak packages of dried Ancho peppers in their suitcases, and for a while I ordered delicious homemade tortillas from a little output in the 11th but then they closed. (If anyone has recommendations for a replacement supplier, please, tell me!)

When you live alone it feels silly to make a fuss opening a smuggled can of tomatillos to make homemade green enchiladas for yourself, but since I’ve had a life-mate, I’ve been experimenting more and more with my little Parisian American version of Tex-Mex to rave reviews.

Taco leftover lunch

Taco leftover lunch

To celebrate my most recent revolution around the sun, I decided to orchestrate a taco fiesta for a considerable portion of my social circle. We attacked the buffet like a pack of wolves and the only photo I took of any of this food was of my leftover lunch the following day. NB: the only reason there was any pork leftover is because we ran out of tortillas. I also got a sweet battle wound (oven burn) throwing tortillas out of the oven and onto the table with the help of said life-mate and Ms. Tangerine.

We were thirty people. Everyone was satisfied, but I think everyone could have had one more taco (they were so good!) I planned an average of 3 tacos/person, plus corn chips with guacamole and salsa, and an array of desserts.

What follows here is my game plan.

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Perfect Persimmon Cake

Shiraz hostel

Shiraz hostel

When we were in Shiraz, we languished in the afternoons underneath the persimmon tree in the hostel courtyard. They looked like little orange crowns soaking up the sunshine and synthesizing it into sugar. The persimmons weren’t ripe yet while we were in Shiraz, but no bother – the hostel grandfather Ali came around all afternoon offering tea and fruit to everyone. One day, sweet yellow melons, another day, pomegranates and apples. Late one evening, we were reading the guidebook and writing in journals, and Ali came around with more tea. We talked about people, and cultures, via the instant magic of the Google translate app. He told us Israel was “very, very bad,” and China was “very, very good.” Unsure how to answer, and especially explain that one of us had an entire family in Israel, he quickly typed away and thrust the phone back in our hands. “All people are good, just governments are bad.”

Last weekend at the market, amid the last ruby red tomatoes and shining dark eggplants, the shift in squash proportions like the arms on a clock signaling that zucchini time is finishing and pumpkin time is rolling in, I spied these sweet little trays of deep orange persimmons at the fruit stand. They were almost the same size and shape of those ones in Shiraz – little gems shining under a screen of plastic. They’re from Spain, the seller said, they’re the REAL ones – not those crisp bitter ones you can bite into. They’re really, really ripe – but they’ll last all week in the fridge.


The persimmon tree

I arrived home to another pile of figs on the dining room table and realized I would probably need to do something with the persimmons, rather than just eat them along with all the other fruit I’d been stockpiling. What follows is a lovely tea cake – or breakfast loaf, or dessert – as you wish! Freeze thick slices of it and defrost them overnight in the fridge for months to come.


Perfect Persimmon Cake
Inspired by Rachel Roddy

250 grams white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
150 grams white sugar
200 grams full-fat Greek yogurt
200 ml olive oil
3 eggs
zest of one lemon
a good dusting of freshly grated nutmeg
pinch salt
250 grams of very ripe Persimmon flesh


Perfect persimmon cake

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and white sugar. Add yogurt, mix partially until you have a lumpy wet batter. Pour in olive oil, beat thoroughly with a metal fork until mixed through. Crack eggs into one side of the bowl, whisk roughly to break up the yolks, then mix well with the rest of the batter. Add the lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, and persimmon, mixing well until batter is homogenous.

Grease a nonstick loaf pan with a bit of olive oil, then pour batter and bake on the middle rack of the oven. Begin checking for doneness after 45 minutes, covering with foil once the top begins to turn crispy dark brown. Cake is done once a toothpick comes out clean – mine took two hours.

Best enjoyed once cooled, cut into thick slices and adorned with crème fraîche or ricotta. Perfect for afternoon tea, or even breakfast.

Iran, part two: Fesenjan

It should be no surprise that I have a thing for pomegranates.



One of the first times I ever organized a dinner party, in a tiny apartment in the 17th where I cohabited with a then-boyfriend, I wanted to make something with pomegranates. This was in 2008, I thought I was so clever when I googled the ingredients I wanted to use in order to find a suitable recipe.

The recipe that I found and ended up making was from a Persian cookbook writer I hadn’t heard of yet, and was for a dish I had never tasted. Khoresh-e-fesenjan, or Pomegranate Khoresh.

The dish was delicious, however the sauce was a bit thin. I would forget about it over time, and years later while preparing for my trip to Iran, I would re-learn about fesenjan: the magical pomegranate and walnut stew.

In Kashan, the mother of one of our CouchSurfing hosts had just finished making her yearly batch of pomegranate molasses, from her husband’s pomegranate trees cultivated on a small farming plot outside the city. She sells most of it to neighbors, keeping a few jars for the family’s yearly consumption.

Upon learning about this, my jaw dropped to the bottom limit of my hijab. “Could I try some?” Of course. Her mother appeared with a dollop of thick burgundy substance on a plate with a coffee spoon.

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Its taste is unlike anything else I’ve tried – it doesn’t have the same syrupy consistency as most of the Lebanese or Turkish pomegranate molasses I can find here in Paris, and it almost tastes as if it has vinegar added to it. (It doesn’t.) The secret is that she cooks the juice down for six hours, so the liquid evaporates and the natural sugars in the juice act as a thickening agent on the rest.

I sheepishly asked if, perhaps, there was enough leftover for me to purchase a kilo myself – and bring back home to Paris. Of course there was!

Pomegranate molasses

Pomegranate molasses

Her mother was touched that a foreigner was so interested in her cooking, and we had an exciting conversation about recipes translated through patient Fatema. What follows is the word-by-word verbatim, noted down in my journal, about how to make a proper fesenjan.

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Iran, part one

That first morning in Tehran, we stepped out into the street and I could smell bread. A friend’s father had told me about it: san-gak, sounds just like “saint jacques” (the French term for sea scallops.) I could smell it but I couldn’t find it, so we went to a nearby youth hostel for breakfast.

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

After that first day, spent exploring Tajrish market, I had a better idea of what a bakery should look like. We’d found a few in Tajrish – selling naan-e-barberi, and little cornmeal sesame muffins whose name I never managed to learn.

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

The second morning, I followed my nose and found the bakery, and let my male companion push his way into the Iranian line and claim one san-gak for our breakfast. He flicked the hot stones off the back of the bread as it cooled a bit on the metal rack before collecting his change and, following the local example, folding the bread into thirds and sticking it under his arm like a newspaper. We bought feta cheese and cherry jam from the corner store (“Hi! How are you today!” the shopkeepers recognized us from the day before…) and headed back to our apartment to have breakfast.

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

In Shiraz, we found the city’s best ice cream and I marveled at its elasticity. We met lovely CouchSurfing hosts who gave me the great joy of helping out in the kitchen – to decorate cardamom saffron rice puddings in celebration of Ashura, the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Decorating in Shiraz

Decorating in Shiraz

At Persepolis, our guide organized a picnic lunch. His wife’s Shirazi salad was the best I had during the whole trip.

Lunch at Persepolis

Lunch at Persepolis

In Yazd, we bought a whole box of baklava and snacked on it for days. The saffron rock sugar (nabat) was starting to work its charm on us, and by our final days in Iran, we’d buy a whole kilo to cart home and share with family and friends.

Baklava in Yazd

Baklava in Yazd

In Kashan, I’d learn how to make fesenjan from the mother of a Couch Surfer, who was just as excited to discuss cooking as I was – translated through the mind of our host. To be continued…

Setting the table in Kashan

Setting the table in Kashan


Eggplant Caviar and Muhammara

Mom’s broccoli casserole.

Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.

My eggplant caviar.

These are the dishes that will, without fail, provoke at least one or two members of the party to come up and ask “Can I puh-leeze have the recipe for that??”

When it comes to my eggplant caviar, well, for a long time I didn’t have a recipe. Or rather, I did, but it wasn’t my recipe. I’d follow different variations of other people’s recipes until I finally just stopped using one. Sesame paste, cumin, salt, garlic, maybe a splash of lemon (or maybe not,) and just keep adjusting until it tastes right. (One time I did try a Greek version: no sesame or cumin, but a dash of red wine vinegar and lots more olive oil. Delicious, but doesn’t hit the same spot on my tongue.)

So after many requests, I finally decided one day to write the whole thing down. My recipe. Here it is:

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant caviar
3 small eggplants (330 grams)
2 Tablespoons tahina (sesame paste)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 Tablespoon olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 Tablespoon toasted pine nuts, optional

Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F. Pierce the eggplants a few times with a fork or a sharp knife and place them on to an aluminum lined baking sheet.
Bake them in the oven, turning them over every 20 minutes or so, until the skin is blackened. You’ll know they’re done when the flesh inside feels totally soft and broken down when you prod them with a spoon. This can take anywhere from 50 minutes to 100 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of the eggplant, and the room temperature.

Let the eggplants cool – then, cut them lengthwise in half one by one, and scoop out the flesh into a large bowl. Combine all other ingredients and blend with a hand blender (or transfer to a food processor and mix until fine.)

This is best prepared a few hours in advance so that the flavors can blend together. Refrigerate it while it’s resting, but take it out 30 minutes before you plan to serve. Drizzle some olive oil over the top and, if you’re feeling fancy, some toasted pine nuts. Serve with pita bread or crackers.

The next-most-popular dip I bring to parties is based on a Persian / Middle Eastern dish, Muhammara. The sweet and savory combination of red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses is a crowd pleaser.

Pomegranate trees in Iran

Muhammara isn’t very photogenic, but this pomegranate trees is.

1.5 cups (120 grams) walnuts
4 roasted red peppers (230 grams) drained
1 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash cayenne
1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 clove garlic, pressed

Toss all ingredients in a blender or in a bowl with a hand mixer. Blend until smooth. Serve at room temperature with pita bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.

I scream, you scream…

Given our tiny Parisian apartments and limited storage space, my culinarily inclined friends will often daydream about shared purchases: slow cookers, waffle makers, raclette grills, and most recently – ice cream machines.

When Frances suggested an ice cream machine, I thought long and hard: does it really make sense to lug it uptown and downtown every week, or every time my French lifemate wants more homemade chocolate sorbet? But then a light bulb went off.


Pumpkin coconut ice cream

Another dear friend, Meta, was leaving town for 11 months – and she is known for commencing her dinner parties with asparagus soup adorned with a scoop of homemade foie gras ice cream.

Meta agreed to lend us her ice cream machine, and so, for the last two months, it has made many trips between the 19th and the 11th in a sturdy shopping bag hung from the handlebars of our bicycles.

We started with the masters: studying techniques and flavor combinations for sorbet and ice cream from Serious Eats, David Lebovitz, and NYT Cooking. Then we started branching out and dreaming up our own combinations: Frances, most notably, for roasted peach / miso / ricotta ice cream, and in my case, for doing a mashup of two recipes from Lebovitz to make a perfect fall flavor: pumpkin ice cream with coconut milk and cardamom.

"Potimarron" - red kuri squash

“Potimarron” – red kuri squash

Lots of websites try to tell you that you CAN make ice cream even without an ice cream maker, but to be honest, if you don’t have one of these frozen turbine machines, just stick to granita. In our case, the cheapest turbine machine is only around 40 euros at Darty, so even when Meta comes back, I think we’ll be investing in some new kitchen appliances.

Pumpkin Coconut Ice Cream

Inspired by two recipes from David Lebovitz: Pumpkin Ice Cream and Coconut Ice Cream with Saffron

400 ml (14 oz) coconut milk
200 ml (7 oz) light cream (18% fat)
95 g (1/3 cup plus 2Tablespoons) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
180 g (3/4 cup) pumpkin puree (see note)
60g (1/4 cup) dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon dried ginger
1 heaping Tablespoon cardamom pods, lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 or 2 grinds of pepper


Start by preparing the bowls you’ll need: two medium, one large, plus one large saucepan.

Fill the large bowl halfway with ice cubes and some cold water, and place one of the medium bowls in the ice bath. Pour the cream into said medium bowl and set aside.

Beat the egg yolks in the other medium bowl until well combined.

In the saucepan, heat the coconut milk, granulated sugar, and salt over medium low heat. Once it’s hot and producing steam, but before it bubbles, take it off the heat. Whisk about three spoonfuls of the warm milk, one at a time, into the egg yolks to heat them gently without scrambling them. Once they are lukewarm, pour them into the saucepan with the rest of the warm milk and add the cardamom pods, cooking over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.

Pour this custard into cream in the ice bath. Add the pumpkin puree, dark brown sugar, vanilla, ginger, and black pepper and mix well.

Cover and set the custard in the fridge overnight. The next day, pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing down on the cardamom pods to extract as much custard as possible, then freeze the mixture in your ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze for 4-5 hours before serving.

Pumpkin coconut ice cream with a "cat's tongue" cookie

Pumpkin coconut ice cream with a “cat’s tongue” cookie

Note: pumpkin puree

Living in France, I’ve gotten used to making my own pumpkin puree for soups and pies, since we don’t have handy cans of Libby’s for sale at every supermarket. If you’re using canned pumpkin make sure it is 100% pumpkin. Other options are frozen pumpkin puree, available in France at any Picard store.

To make your own, simply cut your squash into cubes: you can peel it, or not. Squashes with thinner peels don’t need to be peeled (like a small butternut, or a kuri squash,) but bigger ones (like French potiron) are better off peeled.

Steam the squash over boiling water for 5-12 minutes, or until you can easily pierce it with a knife. Allow to cool slightly, then puree in a blender, food processor, or with a hand blender.