Friday, January 21, 2011

Back to Basics: Béchamel

In The Making of a Chef , Michael Ruhlman recalls that nearly everyone in his Skills One class at the Culinary Institute of America scorched the first béchamel sauce that they attempted. He vividly describes the mountain of pots lined with scorched flour/butter/milk piled in the sink. Upon reading this, I smiled to myself:

“Oh, I remember that.”

I cannot count the number of times during college that I stood (highly annoyed) scrubbing stuck-on roux off of the bottom of my only saucepan. Irritated, I’d grab On Cooking off of my bookshelf and wonder, “What did I do wrong this time?” The number of things that could go wrong with such a simple sauce astounded me: Wrong pan. Pan too hot. Milk too cold. Milk too hot. Flour and butter not cooked enough. Gritty consistency. Raw floury taste. Burnt taste.

I hope to help my dear readers avoid that angst. This is how I make my white sauce and, inspired by the passage from Ruhlman's book, I thought it was worth sharing.

Carl Sagan once wrote that “if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” I say that if you want to make the perfect macaroni and cheese, you must first create the béchamel.

Unlike other mother sauces that begin with long-cooking stock, the beauty of béchamel is in its simplicity and relatively short cooking time. It is a post-work weeknight sauce.

Begin by pouring one cup of milk—in my opinion, 2% yields the best consistency and mouth feel—into a small saucepan. Add a bay leaf, bring the milk to a boil and then remove the pan from the heat and cover it.

In a medium saucepan, combine 1 oz. of butter and 1 oz. of flour over very low heat to make a roux. The roux will act as the thickener in this sauce. Using a pan with sloped sides is very important. You don’t want your roux getting stuck in the corners of a straight-sided pan and scorching. Not only will that undoubtedly ruin the flavor of your sauce, but lost roux means a watery, runny consistency.

As the butter melts, mix it with the flour to form a paste. There are various stages of cooking a roux. For béchamel sauce, cook on low heat only until it is just golden. The more a roux is cooked, the more flavor it develops, but the trade-off is that it loses its thickening ability. Darker roux are frequently used for brown sauces, gumbos and stews.

Now it is time to add the milk to the roux. Patience is the key here. Think about making an emulsion. If you’ve ever made mayonnaise you know that if you add the oil to the egg yolks too fast, the mixture will break and you will be left with a messy oil slick instead of a creamy mayonnaise. In this case, if you add the milk too quickly (or use cold milk) the sauce will be lumpy and/or grainy. How sad. So begin whisking the roux before any milk even touches the pan and add the scalded milk in a thin, steady stream.

Whisk, whisk, whisk. Turn the heat up to medium and do not stop whisking. Within a few minutes, the sauce will thicken and begin to bubble. At this point, add a few pinches of salt and taste the sauce. It will probably still have a little bit of raw, starchy taste. Cook, stirring continuously for 5-6 more minutes until the sauce is velvety and coats the back of a spoon. Add a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, stir, and taste again. If you like how it tastes, stop there.

Think, I mean really think, about how your sauce tastes. Yes, béchamel is often just a base, but it’s like building house: If you don’t have a good foundation, the rest is just going to crumble. So take time to make your base well and the final product will reward your taste buds. Taste, season, and taste again. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Now you have your béchamel, or white sauce, and you can get creative. Add a handful of your favorite cheese and stir until it melts—that goes great over pasta and vegetables (I LOVE it on broccoli), use it unadulterated as lasagna or moussaka filling, or add a small onion that has been very finely diced and sweated in butter to make sauce soubise—which is excellent with grilled meat.

So there you have it: Delicious white sauce that takes less than 20 minutes to make. Experiment and enjoy.

Ciao for now,

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ms. MLIS and the 114 Dozen Treats

Happy New Year from Neen’s Notes!

I took a hiatus from blogging in December for a multitude of reasons. The first was to focus on completing my final projects for graduate school. You may recall such posts where I defeated the Great Perl Dragon and other beasts along the way, but this was (to put it in super-nerd terms) the true Boss Battle. And yes, I won the game of graduate school. I’m now a bonafide library and information scientist.

And then came the baking and candy making. Once the final papers were off to my instructors, I suddenly had…time. It’s not as though I never had free time while I was in school, but I always had a lingering, “I really should be working on (blank)” feeling whenever I tried to take some down time. Last December, when I was only a little more than half-way through school I made 65 dozen cookies for friends and family. I did not anticipate ever coming close to breaking that record. After all, I only have two cookie sheets and two 9x13 in. pans.

Armed with my favorite recipes from last year and a brand new confectionery book, I warned my family not to bake and that I’d bring more than enough home for Christmas. I’m not sure they anticipated quite how excited I was to be back in the kitchen.

Here’s the final tally:

7 dozen peanut butter cups
3 dozen Nutella cups
6 dozen orange chocolate truffles
6 dozen gingersnaps
4 dozen thumbprints
6 dozen peanut butter blossoms
3 dozen chocolate almond coconut biscotti
4 dozen chocolate cherry walnut biscotti
4 dozen cranberry orange pecan biscotti
8 dozen Russian tea cakes
10 dozen coconut joys
17 dozen walnut caramels
7 dozen torrone
10 dozen chocolate marshmallows (for Folger party)
12 dozen vanilla-almond spritz cookies
3 dozen walnut-coconut patties
4 cups sweet and spicy pecans
4 cups sweet and spicy peanuts

Total? Not counting the candied nuts, 114 dozen. I should go into business! If you have a request for any of the recipes above, let me know. There may be photo-tutorials for some of them in the coming weeks. Candy is so temperamental that it can be hard to get pictures of the process, but I’m getting better at setting the timer/one-handed photography.

My final reason for a blogging hiatus? Pittsburgh, of course! I can’t believe that I somehow didn’t write about the fact that (back in October) Joe got us tickets to the Steelers’ last home game of the season as an anniversary gift. The game was 2 days before Christmas and so we decided to spend the first week of our holiday up in PA.

Joe has taken me to a few Steelers games when they’ve played down here at Fedex Field, but I had never been to a home game at Heinz Field. In fact, the only home game I had ever gone to was a game at Three Rivers Stadium when I was…12ish? Needless to say, my anticipation was building for a very long time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers 27-3 from Section 223, Row K, and it was incredible. My favorite part of the stadium was the Great Hall, where memorabilia (including all of the Lombardi trophies!) from Steelers and Pitt Panther stand-outs are on display for all fans to see. A live band, members dressed in black and gold and donning Polamalu wigs, blasted rock music to get the crowd milling around excited and ready to go. Fans wore jerseys from every era emblazoned with names like Lambert, Greene, Harris, Bettis, Stallworth, Bleier, and Swann. Of course, current players were heavily represented as well, and even some…interesting throwbacks like Kordell Stewart. I did not, however, witness any Neil O’Donnell jerseys and do not believe I ever will. 

And everyone, I mean everyone carried a Terrible Towel. Even before the announcer could start naming the players who ran onto the field, the crowd looked like a sea of Vegas-gold waves. The experience of being in a place where 60,000 people are excited and proud of the same thing was unbelievable. The players on the sidelines too, waved their Terrible Towels to liven up the crowd during crucial moments. (The glorious noise forced 2 Carolina time outs and contributed to 3 false starts. Hope we helped, boys!)

I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire evening. Thank you again, Joe, for making yet another one of my dreams come true!

Yet, that was only the very beginning of our vacation. You’d think it couldn’t get any better but it did. We spent the next 4 days celebrating with family we don’t see nearly enough. There are few things that make me happier than just having time to spend with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, and Joe. We had some wonderful meals together, wandered the Strip District, and just caught up on life over wine and board games. Cigars, too. Oh, and cookies…days and days of cookies. I feel like we should install a fire-extinguisher type case in each family member's house that contains a tray of cookies: "Break glass in case of celebration."

I hope your holiday held wonderful memories as well. My hope for this year is that I may continue learning how to have more compassion for both others and myself, to remove the ego and respect what my body and mind can do on each day that I am alive, and to live with a sense of respect for all that this amazing planet provides each day.

Happy 2011—Ciao for now!