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.

FiorDiFesta

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…)

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

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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.)

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

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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:

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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.