I got my first cooking lesson the week before I left for college. My mother had always fiercely guarded her domain, the kitchen, and didn’t like us mucking it up with our experiments. But she realized that I needed to know something beyond ramen noodles and scrambled eggs, so she taught me how to make a béchamel sauce.
The béchamel sauce, also known as a white sauce, is one of the great “mother,” or fundamental sauces in western cooking. Once you have the basic sauce you can add any number of seasonings, flavors, or other foods to make all sorts of sauces. Throw in some grated cheese and you have a cheese sauce. You can use the béchamel for a curry sauce or a mustard sauce.
The basic proportions are: 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon flour, 2/3 cup milk (the milk proportion can vary depending on desired thickness). You start by melting the butter in a saucepan on low heat. Add the flour and stir together, cooking the mixture for about a minute. Gradually pour in the milk, mixing well as you go. Raise the heat and stir until the sauce thickens. This usually takes just a couple of minutes. If you need more sauce start out with larger proportions, say, 3 tablespoons of butter, 3 tablespoons of flour, and 2 cups of milk.
You can use béchamel as the base for a soup as well by making a thinner sauce: 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour to a cup and 1/3 (or more) or milk. Add pureed vegetables. If, on the other hand, you want a very thick sauce simply reverse the proportions. Try 3 tablespoons each of butter and flour to 2/3 cup milk. Experiment until you come upon your favorite proportions.
My favorite use for béchamel sauce is as a spread for croque monsieurs. Sounds fancy, but they’re really just grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. I add some salt and a little grated nutmeg to my sauce before starting. Then I heat two skillets.
Generously butter both slices of bread (I like to use a crusty artisanal loaf, but sandwich bread will also work). On the other sides spread the béchamel sauce on one slice and Dijion mustard on the other slice. Layer slices of ham and thinly-sliced gruyere cheese.
Place your assembled sandwich on one skillet butter-side down, then place the other skillet on top and press with a heavy pot. Grill until golden brown, about five minutes on medium heat.
Once I’ve gone through the trouble of making the béchamel sauce I like to cheat a little and serve it with this boxed tomato soup, which we love. When we had the sandwiches the other night I also made a simple salad of baby arugula tossed with freshly-squeezed Meyer lemon juice and olive oil and topped with some candied pumpkin seeds I made back around Thanksgiving.
Why not just use mayonnaise on the sandwich? That would also be good, but you don’t need the added richness of an egg-based sauce (which is what mayonnaise is) with melted cheese and all that butter. Béchamel adds just a little more creaminess, and the nutmeg gives the mellow ham and cheese an extra kick. Add some hot soup and a salad and you have the perfect warm and toasty, super-easy midwinter supper.
P.S. — How to make Euro S’mores.
Credits: Written by Adriana Velez