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.

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


The one-egg wonder: Lavender Orange Blossom Cake

A quiet Saturday afternoon in my apartment. A lull between birthday parties, between seasons. Springtime is coming, or it’s here – the raspberry plants are growing. The jasmine has buds and will bloom any second now. The mosquitoes are back, bit by bit.

Springtime looms

Springtime looms

When you cook a lot, you feel this pressure to always bring something homemade and fabulous. Showing up with just wine is better than bringing a store-bought cake. And when there’s a party, well, it’s just another excuse to test recipes on people.

The lone egg

The lone egg

There was only one egg left in the pantry, and the supermarket (half a block away) was too much of a bother. I decided to let the pantry inspire me, to come up with something unexpected. With springtime imminent, I thought of the bright flavors of the orange blossom water hiding in the back of the garde-manger, of the lavender flowers I bought years ago to make a delicious cocktail, of the violette liquer in the liquor cabinet.

Lavender flowers, orang blossom water

Lavender flowers, orang blossom water

The internet revealed a plethora of options, and I used this one to loosely base my experiment: One Egg Lemon Pound Cake. Most friends thought it was delicious, but one with a particularly keen palate asked me discreetly: “Are you sure this is fully cooked?” “It only has one egg,” I smiled, glad that somebody was there to keep me in check. The verdict: delicious, but a bit dense. Try for yourself!

Lavender flowers

Lavender flowers

Lavender Orange Blossom Cake

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Transatlantic Chowder

I read the Wikipedia article about Quahogs and I am transported to another place and time.

It is the summer of 2002 and I am 17 years old. I’ve just graduated from high school. In addition to my usual part-time job at an upscale local supermarket, I’ve taken another job at what people in my part of the world affectionately refer to as a “clam shack.”

The Cove Fish Market was a small store selling fresh fish and lobsters in the front, and a clam shack in the back. I’d spend hours every day spooning ladles of chowder into Styrofoam cups (the clear-broth, “Rhode Island style” was home made. The creamy-broth, “New England style” came in frozen.)

The team at the Cove was a mixture of fresh-faced, long-haired college girls home for the summer, and rough-edged, part-time alcoholic pot head townie guys who had started out as dishwashers.

Paul, who owned the Cove was at least 80 years old, made the best chowder I’d ever had. I didn’t care for “clear-broth” chowder one bit until I started working there. The soft blend of the broth with the cubed potatoes – the finely chopped Quahog clams – I asked my mother what she thought the secret was. “I hear he uses salt pork as a base.”

Only one guy on staff knew the recipe. The chowder needed to be prepared a day in advance, and Jay would start it on an outdoor gas hob behind the kitchen. Onions would sweat under the hot August sun in salt pork fat. I was too young to get a good sense of the recipe, and too busy spooning chowder and filling orders for lobster rolls and fried clams to ever get a good idea of his method – and for years I kept telling myself that clam chowder was one of those things I’d get around to making “one of these days.”

I was recently issued a cooking challenge to finally tackle clam chowder – albeit, involving goat’s cheese and chorizo. I give you this – which turned out smooth and silky, and will definitely be made again in this house before winter’s end.

Clam remnants

Transatlantic Chowder

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Golden Carrot Cake with Bananorama Frosting

Baking has never been my forté. Translating cake recipes from American to French and back again, with my Tefal kitchen scale and my trusty metal American cup measures, something always seems to get lost in translation. Yeast is called “levure boulangère” and baking powder is called “levure chimique.” Baking soda is something you buy at the pharmacy and it’s called “bicarbonate de soude.” All this confusion has led to a lot of flat cupcakes!

In the last couple of years, with a bigger kitchen, a real (enough) oven, and better baking supplies, my skills have improved. It is only very recently that I have started experimenting with cakes – not following an exact recipe and just going as I see fit, with eggs, yogurt, milk, flour, and of course, the various forms of levure.

Last week, I had a particular task at hand: give pastry-chef friend a break from always making dessert for our get-togethers.

What was left in the house: a half a bunch of golden carrots, four ripened bananas, various nuts, raisins, flours, and half a dozen eggs.

I thought about carrot cake, banana cake, banana cream pie, something with meringue, frostings, nut crusts…

Then I thought, why make carrot cake or banana cake when you can combine the two?

One of our dining friends decided to name this Bananorama Cake. But I’ll call it Golden Carrot Cake with Bananorama Frosting.


Golden Carrot Cake with Bananorama Frosting

1 cup white flour
1/3 cup almond meal
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
½ cup granulated sugar
1 small container (125grams) plain yogurt
2 medium golden carrots, peeled and finely shredded

Icing (from Bite Me More):
¼ cup butter, softened
1 banana
½ teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ½ cups confectioner’s sugar

To finish:
½ cup hazelnuts, lightly roasted and skins removed, chopped medium-fine


Pre-heat oven to 175C/350F.

Stir together flour, almond meal, baking soda, cardamom, ginger, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a food processor or mixer bowl, blend oil, eggs, sugar, and yogurt until smooth. Gently whisk in shredded carrots. Add flour mixture gradually, forming a smooth batter.

Pour batter into a medium size loaf pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Let the cake cool for 5-10 minutes in the pan, then pop it out and cool for another 15-30 minutes. While the cake is cooling, make the frosting by blending all ingredients except the sugar in a food processor. Add the sugar gradually, letting it completely absorb in the wet ingredients. You will end up with a thick glaze.

Once the cake has cooled, cut it lengthwise down the middle. Spread about a fourth of the frosting on the bottom layer and sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts. Lightly spread about a tablespoon along the cut end of the top layer and place it on the bottom layer. Top the rest of the cake with as much frosting as you please, finishing with a line of chopped hazelnuts on the top.



Cool the cake down in the fridge for at least an hour to let it solidify. Enjoy after a family dinner with friends on a Sunday evening.


Other ideas to experiment: a mixture of shredded coconuts and carrots in the cake; and/or a cream cheese or marzipan base in the banana frosting with less sugar.

An Ode to the Fig: Fig Tart with Mascarpone Citrus Custard

The first and only time I ate a fresh fig in the United States was when I was 17, working at a family-owned upscale grocery store in Mystic, Connecticut.

A coworker had bought a box of four figs and was eating them on her lunch break. I had no idea what the round purple things were. I presume she was familiar with them because her parents were from the Southern US; there was no way a fig tree could have survived the winters in Connecticut without a heated greenhouse.

“You’ve never had a fig? Here, try one.”

The fleshy pink and purple mess didn’t have much taste, and I didn’t like the texture. In retrospect, I think they must have been under ripe and a bit dry.

I don’t know exactly when the passionate fig obsession kicked in, but shortly after establishing residence in Paris, in September of either 2007 or 2008, I began the habit of buying at least a kilo per week while they were in season and trying many of the fresh-fig recipes I’d collected throughout the year as long as they were available. I can’t help but eat one or two before I even get home from the market, before they’re washed. I scope the offerings up and down the market stalls to find the figs that are just perfect: dark purple, with a bit of gooey syrup oozing out from the bottom.

This year, I’ve dreamed up a recipe of my own, after reading dozens of methods for fig cakes, pies, and tarts. Enjoy!


Fig Tart with Mascarpone Citrus Custard


Fig Tart with Mascarpone Citrus Custard

Cookie crust:
1 cup wheat flour
¼ cup almond meal
2 Tbsp white sugar
pinch of salt
70 grams (5 Tbsp.) butter, chilled, cut into cubes
1 egg yolk
2 ½ Tbsp. ice water
1 250g (8.8oz) mascarpone cream cheese, at room temperature
¼ cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 Tbsp. orange blossom water
½ tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. maple syrup (I used Grade B)
1 tsp. chopped lemon zest
2 Tbsp. almond meal
¼ tsp. salt
20-25 grams (1.5 Tbsp.) unsalted butter
juice of 1 medium lemon
4 Tbsp. brown sugar
Fresh figs: about 350 grams, or 6-8 figs
Lightly toasted slivered almonds


Cookie crust:

Blend together the wheat flour, almond meal, and sugar in a food processor. Leaving the processor on medium speed, add the salt, and gradually incorporate the cubes of butter. Once the dough is sticky, add the egg yolk, and once it has blended in, add the ice water. The dough will quickly thicken in consistency and roll up into a ball, or a couple of large chunks.

Line a 9 inch/24 cm tart pan with wax paper and press the dough into the pan until you have an even consistency along the bottom, and have covered the sides of the pan – pressing into the crease so the dough is even all the way around. Freeze the dough for 30-60 minutes.

Preheat the oven while the dough is in the freezer to 180C/350F.

Bake the dough for 18-25 minutes, or until it is lightly browned.

Allow the dough to cool on a rack (or outside, on the windowsill!)

Prepare the filling while the dough cools. In the (cleaned and dried) bowl of a food processor, combine the mascarpone with ¼ c sugar. Allow the mixture to come to an even consistency, and then, leaving the processor on medium speed, gradually add the rest of the filling ingredients. Once you’ve added everything, turn off the processor and check the consistency- if the mixture is not evenly mixed, pour it in a bowl and whisk manually.

When the mixture is evenly mixed (all ingredients mixed throughout and the texture is uniform,) pour the custard into the cooled tart shell and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the custard puffs up and turns golden brown.

Right out of the oven

Right out of the oven

Allow to cool for 15-30 minutes on a wire rack (or windowsill) and then at least 30 minutes in the fridge. At this point, it can sit in the fridge overnight to be finished the next day, if necessary.

Prepare the glaze by combining the butter, lemon juice, and brown sugar in a medium saucepan on medium low heat. Let it cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, about 15-20 minutes until it thickens and forms a puffy foam.

During this time, toast about 1.5 Tbsp of slivered almonds either in a dry saucepan on medium heat, or in a 180C/350F oven, stirring occasionally, being careful not to over-brown.
Slice the figs vertically to about 1cm/one-third of an inch, removing the rough top stem. Place the figs over the surface of the custard and brush liberally with glaze. Top the tart with the toasted almonds.

Allow the tart to cool and set in the fridge for at least thirty minutes before serving.


Fig Tart with Mascarpone Citrus Custard

Fig Tart with Mascarpone Citrus Custard


Last summer, Italy beckoned. The way simple things taste in Italy blows my mind. Pizza, ice cream, coffee, tomatoes, and cheese – all held up to their highest possible standard, excruciatingly delicious. Excruciating because I’ll ask myself “Why doesn’t it taste this good elsewhere?”

I wanted to find a food festival. A celebration of wine, cheese, a specific vegetable, whatever – my only criteria were that it happen sometime between late July and mid August. After various extensive Google searches, I came up with the Fiordilatte Fiordifesta: a festival celebrating the cow’s milk mozzarella “fior di latte” in Agerola, south of Naples.

What my Parisian-American food loving brain was expecting: a regional cheese festival with samplings from different producers, perhaps explanations of why their cheese tasted different from other cheeses, milk samples, etc. Maybe there would be a cow or two, a tasting flute, a wine pairing – you see where I’m coming from.

What we got: a charming town-fair atmosphere with carnival toys for little kids, Christmas-season style lighting in the streets, and glow-stick laden teenagers. (There was also a concert by Italian pop star Umberto Tozzi, but I didn’t learn who he was until we were in the school bus shuttle from the parking lot, and a friend who went to Swiss boarding school got to singing “Te Amo” with the driver…)


Since this was taking place in Italy, in the country’s foremost cow-milk mozzarella-producing region, there was also excruciatingly good fair food.


The food was extremely organized: it was not a sandwich OR pasta type of festival, it was a sandwich AND pasta AND mozzarella plate AND melon AND cake type of festival. Meal tickets were sold at €10 apiece, and stands were scattered throughout the town’s main street for each of the six courses (plus wine.)


Having eaten an enormous lunch earlier that day, my travel companions and I all shared one ticket’s worth of food.


The food looks simple but the thickness of the pasta, the quality of the cheese and the tomato sauce, even the fried cheese balls – this is not your average fair food:



After dancing the night away to Tozzi’s 30 and 40 year old hits, we scurried back to the rental car and back down the hills to Naples.