I think it’s a good idea to start with the basics. I don’t rush my students straight into composing multi-source research papers; starting a new project here seemed to hold to the same strictures. I’m not racing right into hollandaise. I’m not drenching your January palates with demi-glace, homemade mayonnaise, or even beurre blanc (though these are coming, have no fear). No, we’re going to start with something foundational, and at least for me, something familiar: bechamel.
Here’s the thing, though. As I’ve dipped my toe tentatively into the field of culinary history (side note: one of my new secret pretend-careers is culinary historian – fascinating!), what stands out more and more brightly to me is how rarely familiar actually is. Bechamel is an excellent example. It’s a white sauce. It’s one of the classic mother sauces. It forms a base for numerous other sauces: the luscious cheddar and beer laced concoction you drape over toast to make Welsh rarebit. The silky, creamy mess redolent of parmesan that becomes alfredo. Even the simple melting glory you toss with elbow noodles to make macaroni and cheese (can you tell we’ll be delving into cheese sauces?!). But its history is not without contradictions. Even the Medici family figure into it! According to some Catherine de Medici brought a retinue of Italian chefs with her into France when she married Henri, Duke of Orleans, and bechamel sauce flowed straight from their kitchens out into the rest of France. There are stories that it was invented by (though more likely named for) a steward called the Marquis Louise de Bechameil. The tradition of reducing cream sauces probably began in 18th century France, but the “mother sauces,” of which bechamel is one, were created in the 17th century. And boiling or simmering food items in milk, as some bechamels do, goes back to medieval cuisine.
National and temporal origins aside, there are even disputes about what goes into it. I’ve always made a bechamel sauce from three main ingredients: butter, flour, and milk. But there are thoughts about what kind of dairy should be used, and which flavoring agents are permissible, and some traditional recipes even call for sticking an onion with cloves and letting this flavor the milk as it heats.
Lest we get confused right out of the gate, however, I’m going to stick with what feels familiar and comfortable. Butter, flour, milk. A pinch of salt. A grind or two of pepper. French traditionalists would have me use white pepper, since it won’t disrupt the homogenous ivory color of the sauce, but I like seeing those little specks of flavor. Not to mention, I didn’t have any white pepper in my kitchen. A sauce made of butter, flour, and milk can only taste like so much, so I’ve also adopted the Italian addition of some nutmeg, freshly ground, to amp up the flavor. Now we have a lightly speckled pool of creaminess, like the slight freckles on a fresh egg.
Here’s how a bechamel works: you melt butter, add an equal portion of flour, and cook for a minute or two to allow the flour to dissolve and distribute. This combination – equal parts butter and flour – is called a roux, and it is the classic thickening agent. Everything from gumbo to cream gravy is thickened with roux.
To transform the roux into a sauce, then, you have to add liquid. For bechamel, that’s milk. So we add a quantity of milk, preferably warm, a little at a time, whisking and whisking until a velvet smooth sauce forms. The quantity of milk added depends on the desired thickness of the final end product. Being sure the milk is warm, and adding it slowly, guards against lumps. This sauce is about luscious smoothness and creamy thickness. Lumps won’t do.
The magic of bechamel is that you won’t know how thick it is going to be until it starts to simmer. It takes a bit of time for the flour granules to hydrate, and only once they are fully incorporated and warm enough to bubble will the true viscosity of the sauce reveal itself. The one we are going to produce here gets just a touch thicker than a pool of melted ice cream. It’s easily pourable, but it will also coat the back of a spoon, clinging in a smooth layer until you, say, run a finger through it to have a taste.
You can do a lot with a bechamel. As I noted earlier, it is the foundational component of a good cheese sauce. It’s also the classic white sauce component in a traditional lasagna. It can be draped over steamed vegetables, or make the base for a chowder or other cream soup, or even rest gently over a pounded, breaded, pan-fried chicken cutlet. But since I am working with classic and simple here, I wanted to go with a dish that really lets you experience the creamy loveliness of a bechamel: croque monsieur.
Now you’re raising your eyebrows. I know; croque monsieur is essentially a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Ham and swiss, to be specific. It’s a name taken from the French verb croquer, which means “to crunch” or “to munch.” Thus the sandwich is, if I dare, a Mister Crunch. N. loved this. He’s been calling the sauce in question a “bleckmel” to make me laugh; he knows full well how to pronounce it (he did take French, after all), and he was so delighted by the literal translation of our dinner that he started to call it a “Crunchy Human” sandwich, eliminating the gendered title: a sandwich for everyone! (I should note, however, that there is a “female” version of this sandwich: a croque madame is the same grilled ham and swiss, with the addition of a gently fried egg on top.)
So let’s do this. A perfectly crunchy sandwich, laden with melting swiss and a thin layer of smoky, salty ham, topped with spoonfuls of perfectly creamy bechamel, sprinkled with more cheese, and broiled until golden bubbles swell on the surface. It’s a fork-and-knife sandwich, and it’s far from a light lunch, but it is, I think, a good way to start.
Makes approximately 1 ½ cups
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 ½ cups whole milk, warmed slightly in a saucepan or in the microwave
a pinch each salt, pepper (white is traditional, but I used black), and nutmeg (freshly ground is preferable)
- In a medium pan, melt the butter over medium to medium-low heat.
- Add the flour, sprinkling it in around the pan rather than dumping it all in one spot; this will help it incorporate easily and quickly. Stir it around with a whisk, letting it mix with the butter to form golden clumps, which will slowly collapse into a pale yellow, lightly bubbling mass. This will take 1-2 minutes.
- Once the flour and butter have cooked together for 1-2 minutes, begin adding the milk. Pour in only about ¼ cup at a time, whisking constantly during and after each addition. The butter and flour mixture will get quite thick and pasty with the first few additions of milk. That’s fine – just keep whisking, fully incorporating before each additional pour of liquid.
- After a few additions, the mixture will begin to resemble a sauce, thinning out and liquifying. Keep whisking. Inattendance will result in unincorporated hunks of flour, and thus a lumpy sauce.
- Once you have added all of the milk, you won’t have to whisk as vigorously. Just keep turning your whisk through the sauce in lazy figure eights, dreaming about your weekend or the tropics or the lecture you are planning on Anglo-Saxon England (that might be just me), as it heats through.
- When your sauce is slightly thickened, approaching the texture of melted ice cream, add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. You want just a nice little sprinkle of each, to add subtle flavor.
- Continue your lazy whisking until the sauce barely begins to bubble. It will be just a touch thicker than melted ice cream now – something like a thick royal icing or even a powdered sugar glaze.
- Lower or turn off the heat until you are ready to apply the sauce.
- Bechamel behaves best when warm. As it cools, it clumps and forms a skin like you’d find on a pudding. It can be stored in the refrigerator, covered tightly, and reheated in a pan if needed, but will be best on the day it is made.
Quantities are per sandwich. Make as many as you wish!
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 slices of bread (a french loaf would be traditional; I used sourdough, because I’m not)
2-3 thin slices of good ham
½ cup grated swiss cheese, divided (I like Gruyere. Emmantaler would also be lovely)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
2-3 tablespoons bechamel sauce
- Spread the inside of each slice of bread with dijon mustard. You might want more than a teaspoon, but I tend to prefer my sandwiches light on the mustard.
- On top of the mustard, mound all but 2 tablespoons of the grated swiss cheese, then spread it carefully and gently over the bread to form an even layer.
- Add the slices of ham on top of the cheese, folding or manipulating their shape where necessary so they aren’t hanging over the sides. Top with the remaining piece of bread.
- Spread the outsides of both pieces of bread with the butter. I like to do this by placing the sandwich in the cold skillet I’ll be toasting it in. That way, when I flip the sandwich over to butter the other side, I won’t make a mess or lose any of the butter – it will just be resting against the cooking surface.
- With the sandwich in the skillet, heat it over medium heat. Don’t go any hotter than this! You’ll be tempted to crank the heat up. But it takes a while for the cheese to melt, and we don’t want the bread to burn in the meantime. Slow and steady.
- Toast the sandwich until the bread is golden and crisp, and the cheese inside is well melted: 4-5 minutes per side over medium or even medium-low heat. Meanwhile, preheat your broiler.
- When the sandwich is nicely toasted, turn off the stove. Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of warm bechamel over the top slice of bread. Use the back of the spoon to spread it out – you want an even layer, completely covering the slice. Corners and edges poking out will get too dark under the intense heat of the broiler.
- Once you have an even layer of bechamel, sprinkle the remaining swiss cheese and all of the grated parmesan right over the top, again trying to create an even, complete layer.
- Carefully place the skillet into your broiler (if you have handles on the skillet made of anything but metal, be sure to wrap them in aluminum foil first) and broil for 3-5 minutes, until the sauce and cheese on top melt, bubble, and attain a slightly crunchy bronzed layer on top.
- Remove from the broiler (be careful – the handle of your skillet is now incredibly hot. Don’t ask me how I know this), plate, and serve bubbling hot! You can cut the sandwich in half if you like, but since you are probably going to be eating it with a fork and knife, pre-slicing might not be necessary.