Secret Life of an Expat: Bechamel Wars
a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach
What the heck is bechamel sauce anyway?
A white sauce, I’m told. Does that mean it’s made of cream? What does it taste like? What do you use it for?
Apparently, if you want my stepkids to eat cauliflower, you smother it in bechamel.
As a new step-mom I’d been quietly resisting cooking anything too complicated. I’d seen their tantrums over vegetables in the wrong state (cooked, uncooked, too big), their panic and tears when presented a plate of shellfish. So I used a time-proven weekly menu of pastas, purées, and fish sticks that never fostered fussing. And the kids were getting bored.
So, for Christmas, I received a le saucier. A glorious counter-top appliance consisting of a hot plate and a sauce pan with a plastic paddle perched in the middle of it. The paddle turns, scooping along the bottom of the pan, to insure your sauce never burns or gets lumpy. It has three buttons, and comes with a recipe book in French and German.
Bechamel, listed under White Sauce, is made of butter, flour and milk.
You put in the butter, it turns and melts. Then you add the flour. It turns and cooks. Then you add the milk and it turns and turns and turns until there is a thick white sauce in the pan. M told me they usually put some vinegar in at the end. How much? He didn’t know.
So I made the sauce, and I added some cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
The kids didn’t like it. It was a bit bland. Seriously, white sauce on white cauliflower? Bland.But after tasting it, I realized that bechamel was the white sauce oozing out of the delicious lasagna sold by the Italian guys at our open air market. It’s simply a matter of context. So I decided to try making a lasagna Bolognaise. The recipe I used called for such a large amount of bechamel that I couldn’t use le saucier.
This recipe was also much more complicated. With shallots and herbs, with boiling the milk, and straining it at the end. On my first attempt, I burnt a thick layer of milk onto the bottom of the pan. It charred black, and ridged all the way across with the little craters of bubbles that had formed as it burnt. I had one of those gagging reactions like I sometimes do to moldy food, and, with my eyes closed I scraped off the stubborn char with the metal lid of a tomato can.
The second time around I never stopped stirring, and after 30 minutes of trying to get it to boil without burning it, I gave up and set it to simmer, hoping it would thicken up enough for the lasagna.
It did, and it was delicious. So much better than the flour, milk, and butter recipe from the le saucier cookbook. But when I had M taste it, floral with subtle hints of fresh thyme, shallot, and bay leaf, he said it tasted fine for lasagna but not right for cauliflower.
I later learned that I have steep competition. The kids’ (French) mom loves bechamel, and has been making it all her life. She has the same le saucier that I do (except mine is in the fancy new blue color). Does she use the same recipe, or does she add shallots and thyme? If not, how could she mix flour, milk and butter differently than I did?
A few weeks ago, I didn’t know what the sauce even tasted like, now I’m in a bechamel battle I’ll never win. Perhaps it’s time to find a veggie/sauce combination that only I can do. Who’s up for baby carrots and ranch dressing? Chips and salsa?