A béchamel is one of the five classic French sauces. A trick I learned is that to make a smooth béchamel, either the roux or the liquid should be cool. If the roux is hot the liquid is cool. If the roux is cool, the liquid should be hot. Also, add the liquid to the roux about a third of the volume at a time whisking constantly.
This white sauce is also a building block for other variations down the road. The first variation is really a short jaunt because with the addition of grated cheese, such as Gruyère or Emmental, it becomes a Mornay sauce. Incidentally, adding grated cheddar makes it the perfect sauce for Mac & Cheese.
4 whole cloves
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled
1 – 1 1/2 cups (8-12 oz / 350-475 ml) whole milk
1 – 2 whole garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white peppercorns, coarsely crushed
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons (1 ½ oz / 40 g) unsalted butter
1/3 cup (1 1/2 oz / 40 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 – 3/4 cup (2-3 oz / 60-80 g) grated Comté cheese (or any of your favorite hard cheese)
1/2 – 3/4 cup ( 2-3 oz / 60-80 g) grated parmesan cheese
A small handful of fresh breadcrumbs (one slice of bread will do)
If making a gratin using the béchamel, preheat oven 400 degrees F.
For the béchamel sauce:
Poke the cloves in the onion. Place a saucepan over low heat and add the clove studded onion, milk, garlic, nutmeg, salt, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Slowly bring the milk to the boil. As soon as the milk boils turn the heat off and leave to infuse while making the roux or allow to infuse for up to a half hour before starting the roux.
When ready to proceed in a medium saucepan gently melt butter over low heat. After the butter is melted add the flour and mix well using a whisk.
When the flour and butter are blended keep whisking for 2 to 3 minutes keeping the heat very low and making sure that the mixture takes on no coloration (it should stay a creamy white color). After it’s cooked remove from the heat and set aside.
After the milk has been infused with the aromatics return the pan with the roux to the stove and heat on low. After the roux is hot using a sieve pour about 1/2 cup of the warm milk over the roux and whisk to incorporate. Continue adding about a 1/2 cup at a time until all the milk has all been whisked into the roux. Turn the heat to medium and keep whisking until the sauce thickens and reaches the boil.
Once the sauce reaches a boil, turn the heat back to very low and keep cooking the béchamel for another 2 -3 minutes, stirring continuously (this is to ensure that all floury taste has been removed from the sauce).
Once cooked turn the heat off, taste and adjust seasonings. Add grated Comté and parmesan cheese; mixing until melted. Pour over steamed vegetables or use as part of any recipe calling for a béchamel (if the cheese is omitted) or Mornay sauce (if the cheese is added).
Making an Asparagus Gratin
1 bunch (about 1pound) fresh asparagus
butter for greasing baking dish
Wash the asparagus under cool running water and trim away the bottom 1/3 of the stalk. With a vegetable peeler, peel off the rough part (leave the tip intact).
Fill a medium to large saucepan with water, about halfway to the top. Add salt and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus and reduce heat slightly cooking for about 10 minutes, or until crisp and tender, depending on thickness of asparagus.
Drain and place on a buttered oven-proof dish. Pour béchamel sauce over asparagus, drizzle with breadcrumbs. Cook in a preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until golden. You can place dish under the broiler for a couple of minutes towards the end if you prefer (it will brown faster).