White sauce was the first thing I learnt how to cook and is, ostensibly, a very easy thing to make. However, it took me a surprisingly long time to be able to accomplish. I’d burn it, or it’d be lumpy, or too thick. Largely because when you’re seven years old, simply stirring and being patient for more than ten seconds, no matter how hard you concentrate, are skills that don’t come easily.
Call me rash but I assume most of The Kentishtowner’s readership will have passed these developmental milestones by now, so I don’t think you’ll encounter quite the same problems I had. The reason I wanted to know how to make it from such a tender age was to do macaroni cheese like my mum. It was pretty much my favourite food – and white sauce is a key ingredient.
Béchamel starts with a roux, which is flour cooked gently in butter and is the starting point for a lot of sauces. To make béchamel you then add infused milk, in increments, to the roux, until the desired consistency is achieved. How much liquid you add depends on what you’re using it for and it will thicken as it cooks, so a little experience helps and you may need to add a bit more towards the end if it’s too thick. Many croquetas are made with a béchamel sauce and this will need to be thicker so it can be cooled, shaped, breaded and fried without coming apart or melting too much. Béchamel for lasagne or mac ‘n’ cheese need to be thinner, a bit saucier, and veloutes are, in essence, soups made by thinning a roux with stock until a soup consistency is achieved, so really quite thin in comparison.
Many classic recipes, such as the one from the legendary ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ by Mms. Beck, Bertholle and Child, and, if memory serves, the one in Larousse, will use equal amounts of flour and butter and ¾ of a pint of milk per ounce of each. I generally go with a 5:4 ratio – butter to flour – with a bit more milk, but many recipes will recommend about ½ the flour to butter, such as the very good one in ‘The Silver Spoon’, with about a pint of milk or so for 50 grams of butter. However, although the proportions change with the style of cooking, the technique is pretty much the same.
First infuse your milk by putting it in the pan with bay, pepper corns and half a very roughly chopped onion, bring to a gentle simmer and remove it from the heat. Leave this to rest for ten minutes or so and strain it. Put the butter in a pan, melt it gently, add the flour, mix them thoroughly with a wooden spoon and cook them together over a low heat for two or three minutes, stirring frequently. This stage is very important and stops the final result from tasting floury. Then add your still warm milk a healthy splash at a time, stirring or whisking it into the roux as you go. When you’ve incorporated all of the milk, give it a good whisk, return it to the heat and cook it gently, stirring quite often, for five more minutes or so. If you need to you can add a dash of milk to thin it, or you can cook for longer if it needs thickening. Season well with salt, pepper and nutmeg. The result should be a smooth, glossy sauce which can be made very well ahead of time and chilled to be used later. If doing so make sure you put a piece of buttered paper or clingfilm on the surface to stop a skin forming.
Words: Oliver Rowe
Photo: Ed Park, courtesy Phaidon Press / The Silver Spoon New Edition
Oliver Rowe has lived in Camden/Kentish forever and was chef-patron of the acclaimed Konstam restaurant in King’s Cross, which closed last year. He is doing an apple festival demo for Apple Week down at Portobello Market today, Saturday 20.