Making peace with Béchamel

Making peace with Béchamel

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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.

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

Ingredients
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.

Method
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.

The Saturation of the Garde-Manger

When we talk about cooking at home (when Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and the like talk about cooking at home,) one of the most important elements discussed is the upkeep of a plentiful pantry. If you have a few tools to work with in your pantry, you can always make a home-cooked meal for a few people. In my opinion, here are some of the must-haves:

  • canned tomatoes
  • canned fish
  • cooking oils (olive, veg)
  • onions, garlic, shallots
  • hard cheeses (parmesan, grana padano)
  • a few herbs – dried, frozen, or outside (parsley, thyme, oregano)
  • grains (quinoa, rice, bulghur)
  • pasta
  • bouillon cubes or broth

I could keep going but I’ll stop there, because I am learning the hard way that there is such a thing as pantry saturation.

Pantry Saturation

Pantry Saturation

My pantry is a sweet little cupboard called a “garde-manger” in French (literal translation: “keep-to eat.”) It’s tucked along the wall in my kitchen, adjacent to the outside wall of my building. There is a little vent in the back letting in the cool, damp air from the outside.

The other day, while frosting Christmas bread (recipe coming soon, photos here), I began hunting for the slivered almonds to top the bread. Among the various bags and jars in the pantry I dug, dove, slid. I creaked my neck in and peered in the back. They were nowhere to be found. I was nearly certain I hadn’t finished them (I’ve developed this cook’s six-sense, always knowing when a key ingredient has been used up, and whether or not it’s been restocked…) In despair I topped the bread a different way – adding the end of a jar of marmalade to the icing. It wasn’t bad but not perfect, either.

Watch your neck

Watch your neck

Later that day I pulled something else out of the pantry and hiding behind, tada! There were my slivered almonds. Drats.

I come to you today asking for help. How do you organize your pantry? Big, open shelves with identical storage boxes, cleverly marked with a label maker? Alphabetically classified ziplock bags? Or better yet – an excel spreadsheet inventory printed out and taped on the pantry door? I’m leaning towards option number three, but so far I’ve been too lazy to spend a whole day compiling the list.

As an annex to this post, I give you a list of some of the contents of my over-stocked pantry, and invite recipe suggestions to use some of this stuff (especially the sunflower seeds!) Continue reading