One of the mother sauces of French cuisine, béchamel forms the base of a number of classic French sauces and can be made even more marvellous with the addition of butter, egg yolks and cream. While the white sauce has been celebrated in France since the 17th century, its roots like in Renaissance Tuscany, where is was known as ‘salsa colla’ due to its thick, gluey texture. The sauce was brought to France in 1553 by Catherine de Medici’s talented troop of chefs.
Béchamel is named after Louis de Béchamel, Marquis de Nointel, a French financier with a side hustle as Louis XIV’s chef, who weaved the white sauce into the king’s dishes. Back then it was a more elaborate affair, made with milk, veal velouté and cream. Its modern incarnation is easy to make – the tricky part is nailing the consistency. First you have to make a roux by mixing melted butter with flour on a low heat until it becomes frothy. Once it’s bubbling away you have to take it off the heat, pour in just boiled milk then whisk the sauce to within an inch of its life.
The magic happens when you put the sauce back on the heat and continue to whisk – as it comes to the boil the flour within the sauce helps it to thicken into a creamy canvas upon which to add an array of flavours depending on where the sauce is destined to end up. A simple béchamel just needs a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Add an indecent amount of Swiss cheese and you’ve got sauce Mornay – the base for soufflés. If you make it in advance, you’ll need to give it a good whisk when bringing it back to the boil as it has a tendency to go lumpy when left to cool.
What to do with the sauce? Béchamel is used in all sorts of dishes, from lasagna to the glorious gooey filling of croquettes. With limited supplies in my kitchen, I decided to whip up a potato gratin dotted with garlic and topped with emmantal and Panko breadcrumbs. Try not to lose the will to live when peeling and finely chopping the potatoes – it’s tediously repetitive but well worth the effort.
After 40 minutes in the oven the golden gratin bubbled away like a freshly popped glass of Champagne. Impossibly creamy with a crunchy coating, food doesn’t get more comforting than this – I devoured half the dish in a matter of moments. With the amount of butter and cream used in Julia Child’s dishes, I fear I may be the size of a house by the end of the year, but butter makes everything better.