Two of my best friends from Sydney are arriving on Friday to stay for the weekend before we set off for a week of island hopping on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. They will be arriving very early at Heathrow and, although they are both well known for their stamina, I figured it would be best to plan activities for the daytime, rather than evening, so that we will be homeward bound by the time the jetlag starts to kick in.
Since one of these activities is lunch at one of the world’s top restaurants, I have decided that the usual four course dinner with which I like to treat my guests will probably not be necessary or even desired that evening, and after a couple of bottles of wine I won’t really be in a fit state to make such a feast. As such, I have decided to make a moussaka tomorrow night or Friday morning, so that there is something to pop in the oven when we get home from our outing. Just in case you were starting to wonder how this was ever going to get round to the topic of white sauces, every good moussaka needs a béchamel!
I was going to try and keep this brief, but believe or not, there is a surprising amount to say on the subject. I decided to turn once again to Mastering the Art of French Cooking to check whether my recipe stood up to its classical origins and was shocked to find not one or two, but six pages on béchamel sauce and veloute, and that is before they even get into the variations which use these as their base. Looking for something more succinct, I turned to Larousse Gastronomique, but instead of simplifying things, this just gave me another recipe to contend with, not to mention a history lesson.
As with all classical dishes, the origins of béchamel sauce are debated, but I think the Larousse as a veritable encyclopaedia of gastronomy probably holds the most weight in piecing together the various theories floating about. The Larousse confirms that the sauce owes its name to the Louis de Bechameil, Marquis of Nointel, who became major domo to Louis XIV. In keeping with another of the theories, it suggests that it is unlikely that he created the sauce that bears his name, but instead that it is "probably an improvement of an older recipe by one of the King’s cooks, who dedicated his discovery to the King’s major domo".
The recipe for béchamel provided by Larousse is classic in the truest sense, including instructions to flavour the milk with a bay leaf, onion and mace or nutmeg. Many modern recipes, including the one in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, omit this step, but if it takes your fancy, I am sure it gives the sauce a wonderful rounded flavour and aromatic quality that may be lacking in the modern version:
Gently heat 500ml (17 fl oz, 2 cups) milk with 1 bay leaf, a thick slice of onion and 1 blade of mace. Remove from the heat just as the milk boils, cover the pan and set aside for at least 30 minutes. Strain the milk and discard the flavouring ingredients. Melt 40g (1 ½ oz, 3 tablespoons) butter over a low heat in a heavy based saucepan. Add 40g (1 ½ oz, 6 tablespoons) flour and stir briskly until the mixture is smoothly blended, without allowing it to change colour. Gradually stir in the milk and bring to the boil, beating well to prevent any lumps forming. Season with salt and black pepper and (according to the use for which the sauce is destined) a little grated nutmeg. Simmer the sauce gently for 3-5 minutes, stirring from time to time.
I had originally intended to share my own recipe for white sauce, however given that it looks much the same as the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I thought it would be more helpful to share that version, since it includes many useful hints. Below is an abbreviated version of the recipe for béchamel and veloute, followed by some of the more valuable tips.
White sauces from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Child, Bertholle and Beck (abbreviated)
For ¾ pint (medium thickness)
1 oz butter
1 oz flour
In [a heavy bottomed] saucepan, melt the butter over a low heat. Blend in the flour, and cook slowly, stirring, until the butter and flour froth together for 2 minutes without colouring. This is now a white roux.
¾ pint milk and ¼ tsp salt, heated to the boil in a small saucepan
Or ¾ pint boiling white stock [for veloute]
Remove roux from heat. As soon as the roux has stopped bubbling, pour in all the hot liquid at once. Immediately beat vigorously with a wire whisk to blend liquid and roux, gathering in all bits of roux from the inside edges of the pan. Set saucepan over moderately high heat and stir with wire whisk until the sauce comes to the boil. Boil for 1 minute stirring.
Salt and white pepper
Remove from heat, and beat in salt and pepper to taste. Sauce is now ready for final flavourings and additions.
- For a medium, general-purpose sauce, ¾ oz flour per ½ pint liquid should be added; for a thick sauce, 1 oz per ½ pint of liquid should be added
- “White sauces should always be made in a heavy-bottomed enamelled, stainless steel, or tin-lined copper saucepan. If a thin-bottomed pan is used, it is a poor heat conductor and the sauce may scorch in the bottom of the pan. Aluminium tends to discolour a white sauce”
- “To prevent a skin forming on its surface, float a thin film of milk, stock, or melted butter on top”
- If the sauce is lumpy, press through a fine sieve; if it is too thick, bring it back to simmering point and thin out with milk, cream or stock, added one tablespoon at a time; if it is too thin either boil it down over a moderately high heat to reduce or add a new roux the sauce
This modern French recipe is much more similar to the one that I have used, the only difference with mine is that, as ever, I have never been too strict about the measurements, usually using about 2 tbsp butter and flour and then pouring the milk in until it reaches the desired consistency. I have also been lazy about boiling the milk first, sometimes even using milk straight from the fridge. I have found the latter works fine, but that it takes longer to form a smooth consistency once the sauce is put back over the heat.
A plain béchamel or veloute can be enriched with butter (whisked in just before serving), cream (whisked in whilst simmering with a few drops of lemon juice) or egg yolks and cream (where the hot sauce is slowly poured and beaten into the cream and egg yolks and then brought to the boil again). This basic sauce can then be turned into numerous others by adding additional ingredients, such as herbs, cheese, mustard, or tomato... but for now I think that is plenty on the subject.