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Try making a Mornay sauce by adding Gruyere to béchamel. For the best mac & cheese you’ve ever eaten, experiment by mixing cheeses with a particular one in the sauce and another on top.
The temps dropped into the 40s only hours after a sweaty performance at the Stapleton Bluegrass Festival. I awoke to chilly kitchen tiles and hardwood floors as I started the kettle for a morning pour over, prior to a 5K hike through midtown. I thought spring had sprung, but this was an indication we were outlasting the groundhog’s prediction.
The fast-paced walk got the blood flowing and my conversation with Katie turned to lunch and dinner plans. I’m a “soup all year” kind of guy, but I knew this may be the last chance to get in a colder-weather classic such as ham and potato. We still had leftover ham from Easter and a sack of potatoes that had lingered long enough. It was agreed dinner for four would be on the cheap with some of our favorites.
As I cooked the ham, potatoes, celery, onions and carrots in chicken stock, I started making a béchamel sauce to thicken my already reducing pot. It hit me that we certainly use béchamel for a lot of things. It’s one of the greatest of the five mother sauces (see my article on lagniappemobile.com “The mother lode: a deeper look at the Five Mother Sauces,” September 3, 2014), if not the greatest. You find béchamel everywhere you look. Here I was simply thickening potato soup when my gears began to turn and I knew there was a story in this one sauce.
Let’s first understand what it is. Béchamel is simply a butter and flour roux with milk. For example, in my soup I was using half a stick of melted butter, ¼ cup of flour and 2 cups of milk. In a small saucepan, I cooked the flour for only a minute or two, making sure the roux stayed blonde. After that I slowly added the milk, stirring constantly over medium heat until the sauce began to thicken around the four-minute mark. This was plenty thick for my soup and perhaps too thick for other applications. For a thinner sauce, add more milk.
The soup was my second encounter with this simply wonderful sauce in three days. I’d just had it on an incredible version of moussaka prepared by the lovely Carol Davis. Carol was visiting Mobile with her son and felt I shouldn’t have to cook one night. Far better than the one I’ve made from a Mediterranean cookbook I got from Cliff Fulkerson almost 20 years ago, her moussaka was eggplant with ground beef (there were no leftovers from her Easter lamb), tomatoes and, you guessed it, béchamel on top. By adding a mild cheddar she created basically a Mornay sauce. It was great the night she made it, but better the day after.
True Mornay is a béchamel with Gruyere, a fantastic cheese. Many of you have made macaroni and cheese with cheddar, but next time try the original. Experiment by mixing cheeses with a particular one in the sauce and another on top. In this sauce you may need to thin it down more than I did in the potato soup. A good base would be to plan on one tablespoon of flour and one tablespoon of butter to thicken one cup of milk. Compared to my previous recipe, you’d need to double the milk.
White gravy is basically béchamel. You could go simpler and just use milk and flour, but to me gravy isn’t gravy until the flour hits some sort of fat before liquid is added. In a white gravy (or sawmill gravy), keep the mixture pretty thick and add black pepper and ingredients of your choosing. This is for things like chicken fried steak or biscuits and gravy.
You may be breaking some kind of béchamel law if you use the grease from your sausage instead of butter, but I won’t tell. If it makes you feel a little less criminal, add the ground sausage after the fact. You could also use crumbled bacon, chopped Tasso or country ham.
Anything gratin has to start with our favorite sauce. I grew up with potatoes au gratin but now will do just about anything seasonal. It doesn’t even have to be veggies. Ever heard of crabmeat au gratin? Boom! I’ll give you a guess as to how the sauce is made.
The Croque Monsieur is covered in béchamel. This classic ham sandwich is underrated, with its cheese melted on the inside with the sauce on top. Make it a Croque Madame with a runny-yolk fried egg on top of the sauce. Without the béchamel this sandwich would be far less sophisticated and nowhere near as good.
It’s easy to think of béchamel as a French thing, with its popularity associated with the French style of cooking, but we largely associate it with one of Catherine de Medici’s chefs whose last name was Béchamel, thus exposing it as a Florence-born sauce that became French by way of marriage. You’ll notice that ordering anything Florentine will come with spinach and is almost always accompanied by béchamel or Mornay sauce. Eggs Florentine differ from Benedict by replacing the ham with spinach and the hollandaise with Mornay.
Think of all the uses. Any “cream of …” soup must start with a béchamel. That was my first exposure to it in college. It’s considered the “glue” sauce that can hold everything together, from casseroles and lasagna to the previously mentioned moussaka. Try melting straight cheese onto anything and it likely won’t work. If you want a cheese sauce, it has to start with béchamel.
There is no question that all of the mother sauces have their importance, but if I had to give them up one at a time, béchamel or velouté (like béchamel but with stock instead of milk) would likely be the last to go.
Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see it all around. If you’ve never made one, start practicing now.