Graduation Gifts Ideas

I received two graduation related questions — one for males, one for females — that I’ll try to answer in the same post. Question #1: My sister (who I’m very close to) is graduating from high school next week. I’m a little late to thinking about it, but I wondered if you had any ideas for not too expensive gifts that would be nice and meaningful as she steps into another phase of her life. I was going to make her something that celebrated our relationship, but time is running out, so I’ll have to find something that is meaningful that I can purchase and mail. Thanks! — Laura Question #2: I guess my question is this: I’m looking for a graduation present for my husband who is graduating from medical school. I think presents for guys are hard in general, but congratulatory presents always seem to stump me. You want them to be something nice that he can remember he got for graduation, but he’s not especially sentimental. We’re moving soon, so I don’t want something I have to work on or put time into creating, I just want to buy something nice that he can keep, not ridiculously expensive, but I’m willing to spend money if it’s worth it. Got any ideas? Thanks a ton! — Jen Design Mom Answer: Graduation gifts! So fun! Thank you for the questions, Jen and Laura. The comments are full of brilliant ideas. I have only 2 things to add: First, for my high school graduation I was given a 1/2 gallon of my favorite ice cream (Snelgrove’s Canadian Vanilla) and I didn’t have to share a single bite with my siblings — which was luxurious. My point? Even a simple gift, if thoughtful, is memorable. Second, I was just introduced to a book called Get A Hobby. It’s very well put together and well designed with a basic introduction, history and sources on 101 hobbies. Plus you can take a personality quiz to see which hobbies would be a good fit. There’s something about graduating, going to the next phase, being a little unsure of what’s coming, that brings to mind possibilities. Like, “I’ve finished what I committed to. Now. If I could do anything, how would I spend my time?” that seems like the perfect moment to introduce a hobby. Perhaps this book, plus the materials to start a new hobby could make an excellent gift.

What It’s Like to Parent Two Deaf Children

Hailey Meyer Liechty is a parent of 5 kids — and the two youngest are deaf and have cochlear implants. I asked her to share her thoughts on parenting deaf children. Here’s what Hailey says: Let’s start with the DMV. I went there dreading the ordeal. The photos. The test. The waiting. None of that happened. I didn’t need the test, the lines were reasonable and the woman who took the photo was very nice, cracked a joke or two, smiled and commented on my first photo. She showed it to me and then asked if I wanted to take it again. She loved my scarf. My mom gave it to me. I love all the colors — and it sparkles too! She took my picture 3 times and let me choose the best. I like the picture. I really like pulling out my ID. She asked me questions on the Drivers License application. Address correct? Yes. Age? Yes. Donor? Yes. Is it correct that you want to donate $2.00 to the blind? Yes. At this point I became a bit more friendly, taking her cue, and said, “I wonder why they don’t have a donation spot for the deaf? Why the blind and not the deaf?” I wondered out loud. Her response was, “Yeah, I don’t know. Especially since it is much, much, much, much, much, much, much worse to be deaf than blind.” I paused, then said, “Well, I think it is only much worse. You can keep a few of the much-es.” She went on to explain the social barriers of deafness. She was kind. Finally I said something like, “Two of my children are deaf and it can be a drag, a big repetitive drag, but it is not the worst thing and I don’t think it is worse than being blind. My children can do anything — play, read, use the computer, run, draw, cook. With fantastic modern technology they can listen and with therapy speak very very well, and eventually drive.” She gave this friendly apology/explanation for what she had said, and for me having 2 deaf children. She then asked a few more DMV questions, collected my money and I went on my way. This story perhaps is unusual because it is about a kind and generous DMV worker, but it is so typical of my daily experiences. I meet many friendly people, others who stare, or let their children stare, at my children until I explain to them they my children are deaf and have COCHLEAR IMPLANTS. The cochlear implant helps them hear. Other people, not professional speech therapists, act as though they know more than I do; as in a relative telling me my son has “bunched Rs,” he doesn’t. Many people like to share their opinion about deafness and how beautiful sign language is. Why don’t we sign more? I explain that a child can really only learn to talk in the first 6 years of life, the earlier the better. After that spoken language will always be like speaking a foreign language. My children will probably learn sign language at some point and that is fine with us. People like to share assumptions about a deaf person’s abilities, comparisons to other disabilities and stories of family members. I hear dire stories of unethical audiologists selling over priced hearing aids and self-interested insurance companies denying coverage to children, and adults, for anything related to deafness. (We personally have dealt with medical insurance issues a lot.) Whether it is deafness, cochlear implants, how cochlear implants work, why and how my children need them, genetics and our family history, or schools my children attend (Nathan, age 6, is the top of his mainstream class), it can be tiresome. I really don’t mind. I have to explain everything to everyone, all the time. My favorite, and perhaps the most surprising thing, I need to explain to people is why we want to give our deaf children the gift of spoken language and why, when at home and out and about, I must repeat myself over and over, again and again, with speech and sign. This is not redundant. It is educational, to help my children (hearing or not) perceive the subtle nuances of sound so they can learn to express themselves beautifully and at the same time educate everyone who asks, or looks at them askew. —- Thank you for the beautiful, informative write up, Hailey. Tell me Dear Readers, do you have any children in your life who experience deafness or extreme hearing loss? How is your experience similar or different than Hailey’s?  
Sources: Antique ear illustration.

Teacher Appreciation Week Ideas

teacher appreciation week ideas For those of you with kids in school, you may already know that it’s Teacher Appreciation Week. If you’re in the mood to make something special for the educators in your life, there’s a really great list of 39 ideas here. A few examples: – “You are out of this world” tag attached to a Milky Way or Mars candy bar – “You deserve an extra payday!” tag attached to a Payday candy bar – “There is no ‘sub’stitute for you!” tag attached to a gift card for the local sub shop – “You are ‘extra’ special” tag with a pack of Extra Gum – “Thanks for helping Blake ‘bloom’” tag with a bouquet of flowers – “We appreciate the ‘mounds’ of work you do!” tag attached to a Mounds candy bar – “Thanks for giving Blake a hand” tag with hand lotion “Thanks a ‘latte’!” tag with a gift card from local coffee shop, special coffees or travel mug That’s 8 from a long list of dozens of Teacher Appreciation Week ideas. Lots of good options! Go see. P.S. — These DIY Monogram Soap Bottles also make a cute teacher gift.

A First Birthday Celebration for a Fifth Baby

Amazing. Betty Blair was born a year ago today. I can’t imagine an easier baby. She has been nothing but a delight. These pictures are of Betty feeding herself Cheerios this morning (and trying to share with Daddy, the camera man). When you’re celebrating your first baby’s first birthday the party is fantastic. A big bash where baby is the star, eating cake and generally charming everyone, and the guests are all adults. And you can put in as much time and energy into the celebration as you’d like . When you’re celebrating your fifth baby’s first birthday, you almost forget to do anything at all until your older kids remind you. Not that Betty is aware of it yet, but being a fifth baby is not always a picnic. So Ben and I and the kids want to do something extra-fun for Betty’s birthday. We’re thinking maybe a party based on being the fifth. Held at our home: house number 5. Where we can celebrate all the good things associated with the number 5. Of course, it won’t happen today: cub scouts and a daddy-daughter kickball game are already on the schedule. But it will happen soon. And for today, these photos and a sweet little birthday cake to share with her brothers and sisters, will be just right. Happy Birthday Betty Blair! P.S. — A round and round party.

Design Mom Feature in Popular Brazilian Parenting Magazine

Awhile back I mentioned meeting up with Paula, the Editor-in-Chief for Crescer, the big parenting magazine in Brazil, and how she asked me to write an article for their publication. Well, the issue with my article came out today. (Hooray!) I can’t believe I have a byline. I can’t wait to get my hands on a hard copy. My kids are going to think they’re famous. Hah! Since I don’t read Portuguese, I’m going to need to look up the essay I sent over and remind myself what I wrote — I hope it was good. P.S. — Don’t miss our family photo shoot in Central Park.

Stone Barns

Last weekend, we took the kids and met some friends at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills — about 30 minutes outside the city. Housed on the stunning grounds of what was once a Rockefeller farm, Stone Barns is a working farm attempting to be as self-sufficient as possible. I’m not exaggerating when I talk about the grounds. They’re spectacular. And there is a generous courtyard where the kids could run free. After some initial exploring we ate lunch at the Blue Hill Café. Everything they serve is grown on the grounds or purchased from nearby farms. It’s the best lunch I’ve had in ages. We just devoured everything. I haven’t had a backyard garden for years, and I was surprised how good fresh-from-the-farm salad greens taste. When lunch was finished, we hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked. The kids loved it. We hiked to a lake to search for turtles. We dared Ralph to dunk his head in the very cold water — and he took the dare. We searched out the pigs and gave them water. We saw picturesque views of rolling farmland with cattle grazing. It was one of those outings that was great for the kids and great for the parents. No lines, no hurrying, no shushing. In addition to roaming free around the farm, you can take gardening classes, cooking classes or guided tours. On my next trip, I’d really like to hit the Weekly Farm Market. And if I can remember to make reservations two months in advance, I’d love to go to dinner with Ben at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Ask Design Mom: 1-year-old Birthday Gift

best first birthday gift Design Mom Question: Dear Design Mom, we are looking for a good gift for our soon-to-be one year old boy’s birthday. Since he is the fourth child, we have many toys that he is content to play with. Same with clothes. We want to give him something that will be fun to open and play with on his birthday — something that is unique and age-appropriate as well. Any suggestions? — Kathryn Design Mom Answer: What a great question, Kathryn. Thanks for sending it in. There are so many neato toy stores around these days, that my first instinct was to send you somewhere to shop. But then I gave it some more thought and reminded myself that the wants of a one-year-old are pretty darn simple. I have tried many different first-birthday gifts over the years — for my own kids and for children of friends — but I think the best first birthday gift was received on my oldest child, Ralph’s, first birthday. My sister-in-law Traci who was already a experienced mother at this point, brought him a shiny, mylar helium balloon on a ribbon, with a small weight attached to keep the balloon from floating away. I could see within minutes of the balloon’s arrival that Traci was a super-genius-gift-giver. Ralph sat on the grass and used the string to pull the balloon down and then release it for a half an hour — a long-time for a newly one-year-old. The balloon lasted for days and it’s charms never faded for Ralph. When it finally lost its float, I could discard it with no guilt and without having to find a new home for it. Lovely. This kind of gift seems especially appropriate for a house like yours with plenty of toys. Design Mom Readers, what’s the best first birthday gift you like to give or receive?

Dyed Easter Eggs With Decoupaged Cutouts

decoupaged easter eggs Yesterday, the older 3 kids and I dyed, then découpaged our Easter eggs. For the dye, we used food coloring drops, boiling water and vinegar, mixed. We also gave the boiled eggs a rubdown with vinegar before putting them in the dyebath, and they seemed to take the color more intensely. For the découpage, we used my daughter Maude’s origami paper and two sizes of shaped hole punches. The origami paper was just the right weight. We punched out shapes in the spectrum of colors, then put a bowl of Mod Podge in the middle of the table. Each child had their own sponge brush and they just went to town. <img src="" alt="decoupaged easter eggs" We went through 4 dozen eggs and were still going strong, but the babies woke up from their naps which meant the whole production had to be put away. I wish I had reserved a dozen eggs to work on tonight just by myself. It was very therapeutic. And pretty much every color combination and pattern had some merit about it, so the work was very satisfying as well.

DIY Plywood Modern Bench

I think this project from Andy Lee is fantastic — full, simple instructions on how to build this well-proportioned coffee table. A sheet of plywood and a table saw and it’s yours. Imagine it with a coat of fire engine red paint. I think it would make a cute bench in a playroom.

Recipe: French Custard Ice Cream

french custard ice cream recipe When my husband bought me an ice cream maker several years ago, we were both a lot thinner. But we also felt like slaves to store-bought ice cream. Do we like store-bought ice cream? Yes. Do we still eat store-bought ice cream? Yes. However, it was a turning point in our lives when my husband bought some chocolate Haagan-Daz one day and found it to be unpalatable. Was it a carton past its prime? Nope. I’d spoiled him with my homemade Bittersweet Chocolate Ice Cream. (It’s really that yummy.) Here’s a basic recipe for a custard-based homemade ice cream. (You can see detailed photos here.)

French Custard Ice Cream Recipe

Ingredients 2 cups milk (whole or 2% work best) 2/3-3/4 cup white sugar (depending on how sweet you like it) 5-8 egg yolks 2 cups very cold heavy cream Vanilla to taste Pinch of salt (optional — add at the end) Directions Heat milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan (3 quart is a good size) until steam rises off the top and bubble form along the edge of the pan, but don’t let it boil. In a large mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until thick, homogeneous, and light yellow. The sugar will start to dissolve. You can also use a hand mixer for this. It will fall back on itself in ribbons when it’s been whisked enough. Slowly pour a little of the hot milk into the eggs and sugar. Whisk. Pour the rest of the milk very slowly into the eggs and sugar while continuously whisking. Pour back into the pan. Cook over low to medium heat until the custard registers 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer and is thickened. Use a fine mesh sieve to strain custard into a clean bowl. Add the cold cream and stir in vanilla extract. Refrigerate until very cold. Freeze according to manufacturer’s directions. Yields: approximately 1 1/2 quarts. From there, the sky’s the limit. You can add fresh fruit purees or juice. Add different extracts, such as almond. Add chocolate. Anything your little heart desires. By the way, if you need an ice cream maker, these Cuisinart Ice Cream Makers can be found here for a great price and with customer reviews — along with other brands. But, might I suggest a Cuisinart? I adore mine. The Krups has gotten good reviews from America’s Test Kitchen. Kitchen Aid even makes a bowl attachment for their mixers. Like most ice cream makers these days, you just have to freeze the bowl. No more rock salt and ice. P.S. — No churn, berry ripple cheesecake ice cream.  
Credits: Photo and recipe by Lindsey Rose Johnson.

Cake Decorating How To for Beginners

cake decorating how to In honor of my 26th birthday, I present to you this cake decorating how to for beginners. Think of it as an amateur’s guide to Birthday Cake Decorating. I made my first cake when I was 6 years old. I bought a cookbook for kids from a Scholastic book order. It wasn’t the best cake. Over the past 20 years, I’ve picked up a few tips here and there. I am all for the whimsical, non-traditional birthday cakes. I’ve been turned off lately by perfectly shaped flowers ala grocery store bakery cakes. (Maybe this is because I have no clue how to make one?) I love the idea of a cake looking somewhat “rough” and homemade. When I decided one day to make my own wedding cake, I realized that I needed to do a little research on cake decorating. I went to my local library and checked out every book I could on cake decorating. Then my step-mother graciously gave me her set of Wilton tips and gel icing colors. It wasn’t perfect, but I did it. And it was very special. Since then I have done a number of commissioned cakes for friends, family, and neighbors. Each time I learn what to do differently the next time and get a little better. cake decorating how to Here is where I would start: -Buy some decorator tips—not a whole set, just a few basic ones to start. Wilton is a great source for that. Find them online or in any craft of party supply store. -Don’t worry about buying expensive pastry bags. I often use freezer Ziploc bags (because they are a little heavier). It makes for very easy clean-up. -Find a picture of a cake you like and copy it. cake decorating how to -Practice! Make some icing and practice piping on a piece of parchment paper. Get a feel for which tips you like and the pressure you need to have on a bag and the consistency of icing. -Experiment with different kinds of icings—it’s not all about piping. Not all icing is meant to be piped. -Look for these icing recipes: Seven-minute Cream cheese Chocolate Fudge Ganaches Glazes -Play around with different types of cakes, too. Experiment with different fillings. -Be creative! Explore! Personalize your cakes according to your own tastes and interests! If I can do it, you can TOTALLY do it. It’s fun — like art class. Only you can lick your fingers! And this cake decorating how-to is only the beginning. Pretty soon it will be a “piece of cake.”  
Credits: Written by Lindsey Rose Johnson. Photos too! Don’t miss Lindsey’s full birthday cake tutorial with lots of photos.

Would You Ever Install a Trough Sink?

The read an article about a family with several young sons, and when renovating their bathroom, the mother had a trough sink built. I’m not sure why this is so much more appealing to me than a traditional counter with two or three sinks, but it is. I love the idea of seeing a few of my kids brushing their teeth at the same time. And I love that the sink is really big — perfect for teenage girls who are helping their friends experiment with hair color. Also, I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’m an advocate of hooks for towels in the bathroom as compared to standard towel rods. You can fit many more towels in the same space, and kids can easily hang the towels themselves. In humid areas, they seem to dry out better this way as well.

Happy Birthday Benjamin Blair

Today is my husband’s birthday. He is 34. One of the things I love best about Ben Blair is that he only wishes good things for everyone he knows. This seems like it would be a common attribute among most people, but strangely it’s not. In my experience, people often react to good news for their friends as if it’s bad news for themselves. As if a success for you equals failure for me. But not Ben Blair. He totally gets that there is enough happiness and good out there for everybody. He’s so fun to share good news with because he’s so happy to hear it and so sure that you deserve every bit of happiness you’re receiving. If you were to win a major award, and you told Ben Blair, I swear he’d feel the same amount of happiness as if he’d won the prize himself. He would call friends and family to share the news: Hey! My friend (who you don’t know and may never have heard of) just won a major award! He would walk around all day or all week on cloud nine. He would genuinely be delighted for you and not feel even a smidgen of envy. He’d just be so glad your hard work was being recognized. That’s just one of the many, many things I love about Ben Blair.

Happy Birthday to Maude

Yesterday, Maude turned 8. She was only 2 — and the youngest — when we moved to New York and it is amazing to see her so grown-up and taking the role of second mom to her younger siblings. Because events that occur early in the month tend to sneak up on me, I’ve scheduled Maude’s birthday party festivities to happen in a couple of weeks. So yesterday we just celebrated as a family. Birthdays at our house start with breakfast in bed. Maude picked the menu: scrambled eggs, sausage, waffles, strawberries with whip cream and milk. In the evening, we had her favorite dinner and then put candles in strawberry shortcake and opened presents. Maude was delighted with her day — the highlight seemed to be the yoga mat she received. In fact, it is 6:15 am and she is upstairs now offering a kids yoga class to her brothers and sisters. My husband’s favorite part was the strawberry shortcake. It was yummy. I used my friend Heidi’s idea: make a regular white cake mix, but add a cup of sour cream before your blend it up, then bake small individual cakes in pretty shapes. When the cakes are done, Heidi adds a thin milk/powdered sugar/vanilla/butter glaze. Each guest receives their own little cake and she serves berries and fresh whip cream on the side. The cakes were really pretty. I’d been wanting to make these little cakes for awhile and finally picked up a cute pan at Target. It’s a pan with 6 cakes in 3 different flower patterns. I couldn’t find a picture or source of mine online, but there are lots of other cute mini-cake pans available.

Easy Valentine’s Day Bookmarks for Classmates

Ralph and Maude wanted to make (instead of buy) Valentines for their classmates this year. They ended up making Valentine’s Day Bookmarks. We bought a stack of pre-cut bookmarks from the craft store. Punched holes and added ribbon. Then Ralph and Maude went at them with markers and colored pencils and cut paper. The “to” and “from” went on the back. When Maude was getting distressed about 4 bookmarks in — because she was doing a lot of cut paper details and it was taking a long time for each bookmark — we pulled out the handy dandy Valentine stickers that Grandma sent last year and that have been waiting patiently in the Valentine box the whole time for their turn to shine. The stickers sped things up considerably. Though Maude was careful to set aside any bookmarks with “kiss” stickers to make sure they weren’t addressed to any male classmates. Easiest Valentine’s Day Bookmarks ever! Both Ralph and Maude were delighted with the results. And so was I. As always, I’m a big fan of projects they can handle basically on their own. P.S. — More classmate Valentine ideas.

Ask Design Mom: Organizing Kids’ Art Supplies

Ask-Design-Mom Question: Help Design Mom! We can’t figure out how to organize our kids’ art supplies! I don’t want to use those catch-all plastic bin/drawer things, but we need to come up with something to (A) tame the clutter of reams of paper, notebooks, crayons, markers, stickers, paints, googly eyes, et al, and (B) keep it where the kids can get to it without our help (in other words, store it in such a way that it doesn’t stifle creativity). Any and all suggestions (from you and your awesome readers) would be so greatly appreciated. I’ve only recently reached the end of my rope with our current non-methods. Thanks a million, in advance, Laurie Design Mom Answer: What a great question, Laurie. I’ll bet 90% of moms have had to deal with art supply organization in one way or another. So I’ll start, but I’m positive Design Mom readers will have loads of smart ideas. At our house we happen to have an old built in pantry cupboard in the dining area that houses all kid’s art supplies — Mom’s art supplies are in a completely separate space. The papers, a ream of white and a pad of construction, sit in neat stacks, and next to them are assorted bins for markers, crayons, feathers, glue, etc. Everything is on the lower two shelves providing easy access for all ages. Some of the bins are cute, some are practical. Some have lids, some are open-faced. Because I can hide it all behind the cupboard doors, I haven’t had to think hard about my containers. Aware that most moms are not going to have access to a handy cupboard, I’d love to tell you about the best looking art supply storage I’ve come upon thus far: In a friend’s home I saw a row of medium size galvanized buckets (similar to the ones pictured above) sitting happily in a row on a shelf. The buckets were maybe 7 or 8 inches tall, with handles, but no lids. The children of the home had done some quick and dirty decoupaging of the buckets with crepe paper, stickers, tissue papers, etc. Each one was bright and cute and random, endearingly done by small hands. In the buckets went the art supplies. The buckets actually made two rows. One row sitting on the shelf, and one row hanging above the sitting ones. The homeowner attached a wooden dowel to the upper shelf to make a hanging rod, then just slipped some s-hooks onto the rod and hung additional buckets using their handles. The hanging buckets ideas is so clever — easily adaptable to a storage situation where cupboards or shelves are not available or feasible. Just hang a cute café curtain rod on a wall within your child’s reach and hang the buckets there. Not into decoupaging? The buckets would also be cute as their unadorned matte silver selves. Or, you could get them pre-decorated.  For paper storage, you could install a wall-mount organizer next to the café rod. That’s a start. Now for the good stuff: Dear Design Mom Readers, how do you handle your art supplies?

Valentine’s Day Breakfast Tradition

At our house, the main Valentine’s Day traditions and celebrations happen at breakfast. I get up early and set a table the kids will think is elegant (read: I use linen and goblets). I light some tea lights and sprinkle heart confetti.

The menu varies and can contain pretty much anything we might normally eat for breakfast, but with a romantic/heart/pink spin. The milk is blended with raspberries and sugar. The waffles are topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. The toast is heart shaped. The pancakes have a few drops of red food-coloring added to the batter. Oatmeal is served with brown sugar sprinkled to form a heart. And I’ve yet to try it, but the egg-in-a-heart-form idea would be perfect.

I also leave a small valentine/gift on each child’s plate — and I mean small. A tiny box with some new lip balm/gloss for their coat pocket. Or a new beaded bracelet. One year it was a box of band-aids for each child. This breakfast is no stress for me and has turned into a perfect tradition for our family.

Other ideas I am loving:
In a conversation with some fellow mothers a couple of weeks ago, we exchanged Valentine’s Day traditions from the homes we grew up in.

-One family would wake to find a Valentine surprise under their pillows.
-Another family gave a book (in lieu of candy or trinkets) to each child on Valentine’s Day.
-In a third family, the father would bring flowers to each of the daughters — Mom would get a big arrangement and the girls might get a single stem. The mother would give something traditional, say chocolate, to the sons.

The flower idea was also something my own father did and I loved it. In junior high and high school, when it seemed like it would be wonderful to have a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day, it was reassuring to know there would be flowers waiting for me at home.

What about you? What are your Valentine’s Day Traditions?

P.S. — More sweet Valentine’s Day ideas.

Rachel’s Romantic Retreat

The home tour I posted last week was so inspiring that more Design Mom readers have volunteered to share their homes (yeah!). Today, I’m featuring Rachel’s house because it’s romantic and feminine and charming and the perfect place to live with Valentine’s Day around the corner. When Rachel sent the lovely photos of her house she mentioned, “I wish I could narrate these, because literally everything we have either painted or stained. Nearly ALL soft goods you see, like bedding, window treatments, fabric on furniture, I made. The little loveseat in the light pink room (our morning room, or we call it the sun room) I got FOR FREE from someone on Freecycle. Spent literally $20 on fabric for it and about $5 for the trim. Added a couple pillows and a throw. SWEET!” We’re so happy you shared, Rachel. I’m going to showcase of few of my favorite shots in this post (check out that stunning piano!), but you can find the whole photo tour here.

Croque Monsieur Recipe (And Why You Need to Master Making a Béchamel Sauce)

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
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