White sauce, bechamel and the humble gratin
I say this not as a boast (for it would be a rather limp one) but as a statement of fact, I make a very good white sauce. A skill that in today's cookery game grants me very little kudos.
For the uninitated, Bechamel sauce, also known as white sauce, is a classic sauce of French cuisine. Originating in the late 17th century, it was named after Louis de Bechamel, the chief steward of Louis XIV, who is credited with inventing the sauce.
One suspects Louis de Bechamel was quite a specimen, as one also suspects that white sauce existed long before he cooked it and presented it in front of his king, but he clearly had no issue taking full credit for it like the sneaky little greasy-pole climber one assumes he was. Once Louis plagiarised the sauce and allowed it to be released into the world under his own moniker, Bechamel quickly became a staple of French cuisine and was used ubiquitously, much as Kewpie, Sriracha and Lao Gan Ma crispy chilli have been adopted so vociferously in the last decade.
Have you ever made white sauce? I’ve spent the morning scanning through social media and my shelves of cookbooks, and it seems that only a very ‘old fashioned’ or ‘quaint’ recipe calls for the skills of a white sauce maker. In its stead, there are inventions of every creed and dairy-based hue for white sauce workarounds and substitutes, all of which seem designed to liberate the cook from the arduous strains of knocking up a basic white sauce, many of which end up more complex and open to failure than if the same time was given to expounding on the blissful simplicity and ease of a white sauce.
Why worry, you might rightly query, and all I can say in reply is that the white sauce or bechamel or any roux-thickened sauce for that matter, is one of the finest vehicles for carrying and imparting flavour to a dish you'll likely come across, and it avoids the fat-on-fat-on-fat-on-egg-yolk type workaround that brings plenty of fat and creaminess to a gratin or lasagna or macaroni cheese or mousaka or pie filling, but none of the stabilising, bolstering support that a bechamel brings as part of its default armoury.
I can trace the root of this anxiety on my part to a much-loved vegetarian lasagna that I make a few times a month. I was originally put onto the recipe when a friend's father died and I offered to make a few trays of meals to help ease the burden of worrying about feeding oneself and those who’ve gathered during a period of intense grieving. They had one request and sent me a photo of the recipe for this beautifully simple family staple, a recipe for this spinach lasagna. The recipe had been annotated over the years to presumably improve it on the one hand, and simplify it on the other. The white sauce had hit the cutting room floor, and ricotta and parmesan were beaten together instead.
My bechamel idol is Lulu Peyraud. That makes it sound like I knew her. I did not. I know the book to which she has given her name and the best bits of her legacy, Richard Olney’s Lulu’s Provencal Table, possibly the most referenced book across my cooking and my newsletters. Lulu, it turns out, much to my glee, is a gratinator of quite some repute. She is French, I suppose, after all, and the French know better than most how bechamel + good seasonal ingredient + hot hot heat = unbridled joy. Listed in the index of Lulu’s Provencal Kitchen are no less than seven gratin recipes (aubergine and tomato, swiss chard, celeriac, squash, courgettes, potato and sorrel and, finally, mussels and spinach.) It must be noted that some do not involve a roux or a bechamel at all, some though, most notably the chard gratin and the mussel and spinach gratin, ensure the bechamel is prevalent and relevant and the carrier of the bulk of the joy.
Before meeting Lulu, so to speak, my white sauce knowledge had come from a short course I took at Leith’s culinary school as an eighteen-year-old. Under threat of the cane, or at least that is how it felt, I was taught how to melt the butter just so, to add the flour and cook it out to a biscuit-coloured and scented cookedness before carefully adding milk and/or cream gently-gently so as to avoid any lumps. Lumps were the thing. Lumps in anything were deemed evil, a failure, a blot on your copybook as a cook and as a person.
Lulu subverts the properness of a Leith’s white sauce like you wouldn’t believe. Most often, unreasonable amounts of garlic are sweated in plenty of butter until its scent fills not only your kitchen, nor your house, but your whole community. Something tasty is normally added to this and cooked beyond what we might consider proper, tender spinach for 10 minutes, swiss chard for 30 minutes, chopped squash for 45, before the flour is added and stirred for a minute or two with the pleasingly yielding veg before milk is added as you beat the whole thing to a thick sauce. By the time Lulu’s gratins get topped with breadcrumbs and popped into the oven they've given up almost all hope of delivering discernable vegetable content, instead, they are a joyful mass of flavour and they shouldn’t be anything else. The point is Lulu doesn’t refer to a bechamel as a distinct entity, she doesn’t bore on about the cookedness of a roux, she doesn’t concern herself with small-mindedness about lumps, but a roux is exactly what she is making, a lump less bechamel exactly what ensues.
Liberated as I am, now anything that has been cooked in oil or butter can have a tablespoon or two of flour added to it before stock or milk is similarly incorporated and an on-the-hoof white sauce made without a murmur of fuss or stress.
Probably the greatest modern British proponent of the bechamel and the gratin is Nigel Slater. A quick flick through my mental recipe index brings up memories of Mr Slater leading me to gratinating broccoli and smoked mackerel, smoked haddock and potato, brussel sprouts, kale and almonds, mushroom and spinach, the noble swiss chard, fennel, chicory, leeks and asparagus, not to mention cauliflower gratin and a really very good parsley sauce that is worth digging out alone. All very good, all reliant in one way or another on a white sauce or bechamel.
If I can return then to the vegetarian lasagna that I mention at the start, it is easy to see how the bechamel has been quietly moved aside so that simpler sauce-ish components such as creme fraiche, mascarpone, cream cheese, ricotta and double cream have been moved in, either on their own or in combination, and have taken the territory of creamy sauce or rich cheesy layer as their own, leaving Messrs white sauce and bechamel as quaint throwbacks in the mould of wind-up watch mechanisms and terry towelling nappies - nice ideas that certainly have their reasoning, but fiddly and annoying all the same. If you’re making say a pie, though, be it meat veg or fish, then a white sauce is the thing to bring it all together. We can substitute it for other things, recipe developers of the last ten years certainly have, but we shouldn't, it’s lesser for it. So in this spirit, I’ve added white sauce back to that vegetarian lasagna recipe from all those years ago, and it is immeasurably enhanced for the doing so.
I’m aware now that this really is all just a long-winded way of me saying I improved a recipe once. And the medium for doing so was bechamel. So I guess this is just a boast after all.
Below are recipes for my perfectly simple white sauce, for the vegetarian lasagna of dreams, which also happens to be the best lasagna recipe I know, bar none, and Lulu’s swiss chard gratin recipe - verbatim.
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