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
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.