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A Whiter Shade of Sauce


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#1 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 12:03 PM

hspace="5" align="left">by Margaret McArthur

It’s never inspired a wild fandango, let alone cartwheels 'cross the floor. Calling it Béchamel doesn’t make it chic and rolling the "l"s in balsamella won’t make it sexy. It’s White Sauce, pale, pure and reliable, the Vestal Virgin of Escoffier’s Mother Sauces.

It’s a Mama sauce, a Maman sauce, a Mom and Mummy sauce. There’s no macaroni and cheese, no creamed spinach, no creamed potatoes or onions without White Sauce. No lasagna, no rissoles; barely a scalloped potato. No soufflés. No crap on clapboard. No sauce for chicken-fried steak or salmon patties. No choufleur gratinée or cute little coffins of chicken a la King. No éclairs, cream puffs, or Boston Cream Pie, because isn’t pastry cream white sauce with sugar, egg and vanilla?

In this order, place butter, flour and milk in a saucepan, some salt, maybe a twist of beige from the nutmeg grinder -- all it calls for is some attention with the wooden spoon and an eye to the size and activity of the bubbles. The proportions are way simpler than the multiplication flashcards my father drilled me with in third grade. My mother called them out over her shoulder as she chopped parsley and cleaned the big can of salmon.

I remember: “One tablespoon each of butter and flour for thin, two for medium, three for thick. Keep stirring. Watch the heat -- you don’t want to burn it.” Some Maternal Units would never besmirch the snowy stuff with black pepper -- though not my mother, Julia Child was passionate about the white pepper only rule. I like the black specks, (always) a grating of nutmeg, and (often) a pinch of cayenne. When I have extra time I add a fillip of my own: I throw a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, and a few fresh tarragon leaves into the milk, warm it up to the small bubble stage, then let it cool down and infuse. I strain out the herbs before I add the milk to the roux, pondering the greatness of the bouquet garni, and what a clever cook I am.

+ + +

It will surprise no one who buys that story that all French cooking started as Italian cooking that Catherine di Medici‘s Italian cooks introduced it to the French when she married Henri II in 1533. Well, could be -- but why do Italians call it balsamella, not caterina? Larousse Gastronomique relates the tale of Louis de Béchameil, Marquis de Nointel, who got a plum job as Louis XIV’s Steward of the Royal Household. "The invention of béchamel sauce is attributed to him, but it had, no doubt, been known for a long time under another name. It was more likely to be the invention of a court chef who must have dedicated it to Bechemeil as a compliment."

And who was Louis’s chef de cuisine? You might have heard of him: a chap by the name of Varenne. Francois Pierre de la Varenne (1615-1678) included a recipe for Sauce Béchamel in his Le Cuisiner Francais. I wonder if it was a printing error in the first edition that dropped the "i" in the Marquis’s name? (One hopes the Marquis was flattered enough to give Francois a shift off.)

My research was heaped on the kitchen table (otherwise known as my study). I pulled books from the stack at random, checking recipes. The room hummed harder; the ceiling of my self-respect as a food historian flew away. Careme’s formula for a white roux and milk sauce reads like a formula for papier mache binder. He starts with a veloute made from white veal stock then pumps it up with a liaison of eggs yolks and cream, a walnut-sized piece of butter and "a few tablespoons of very thick double cream to make it whiter. Then add a pinch of grated nutmeg, pass it though a white tammy [sic] and keep hot in a bain marie."

Fast-forward eighty-odd years to Escoffier’s Le Guide Cuilinaire (1907) translated by H.L Cracknel and R.J. Kaufmann (John Wiley and Sons, 1979). Um: meat? Yes, the ‘Scoff adds chopped lean veal, two sliced onions and thyme to the roux and milk mixture, allows "them to simmer gently for two hours, and pass through a fine strainer." Maybe Cesar Ritz liked the veal gelatin.

While Escoffier was wowing London, Charles Ranhofer was chef de everything at Delmonico’s in New York; the late nineteenth century’s Achatz, Keller and Waters combined. He was a white-whiskered tyrant with more energy than a grill cook at the Billy Goat Tavern under Wacker Drive. Here’s his take on béchamel, on page 293 of his 1183-page master opus The Epicurean:

"This is made by preparing a roux of butter and flour, and letting it cook for a few minutes while stirring, not allowing it to color in the slightest; remove it to a slower fire and leave it to complete cooking for a quarter of an hour, then dilute it gradually with half boiled milk and half veal blond. Stir the liquid on the fire until it boils, then mingle in with it a mirepoix of roots and onions, fried separately in butter, some mushroom peelings and a bunch of parsley; let it cook on a slower fire and let cook for twenty-five minutes without ceasing to stir so as to avoid its adhering to the bottom; it must be rather more consistent than light. Strain it through a fine sieve then through a tammy [sic] into a vessel."

Not content with the veal presence and the mushroom peelings, Ranhofer adds a mirepoix of root vegetables? Will the madness never end?

Let’s jump ahead another thirty years and hop the train from Manhattan to Boston to check out cooking school of Mrs. Fanny Merrit Farmer, and her The Boston Cooking School Cookbook -- my edition’s from 1913. Fanny infuses a cup and a half of veal stock with carrots, onion, bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns for twenty minutes. (So much for any pretensions to originality I may have had about steeping a few herbs in the milk.) "Melt the butter, add flour, and gradually hot stock and milk. Season with salt and pepper."

James Peterson’s recipe in Glorious French Food (2002) requires shallots, celery, a carrot, a garlic clove, thyme, bay leaf and "4 oz. (115 g.) of prosciutto end, pancetta or veal and pork trimmings." C’mon Jim, am I making a sauce or a stuffing for ravioli?
The Rombauer Ladies don’t include a recipe for béchamel in the 1975 Joy of Cooking. If you look it up in the index you’ll find “Bechamel sauce, see White Sauce.” You know, the recipe with the roux and milk and salt and pepper? What I’ve called Béchamel since I was a hoity-toity teenager in the kitchen? Maybe Joy set the modern formula for Béchamel in this country; it’s awesome they called it White Sauce.

If there’d been a waiter with a tray, I would have called out for another drink. I felt like someone who’d spent her life telling people how to make pate by grinding up Spam, or insisting that Mario Batali heats up Chef Boy-R-Dee at home when he wants pasta that’s really authentic. Or a schoolmarm who’d been teaching creationism forever, saw the light, and realized she’d been talking out of her ass for years with her skirt tucked into the waistband of her pantyhose. Had I never made a Béchamel?

Eventually, I found the writer who, for the first time, called White Sauce Béchamel. I’ll give you a hint: the year was 1961. Want another? Her kitchen is on view in the Smithsonian. You got it: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, a tome with a treasured spot in my not-Smithsonian-sized cooking library. Julia, Louisette and Simka are my first in-house references for "plain" Béchamel Sauce. But: in a preface about Sauces Blanches, the Gourmettes say, "Sauce Béchamel in the times of Louis XIV (yeah, Varenne) was a more elaborate sauce then it is today. Then it was a simmering of milk, veal and seasonings with an enrichment of cream. In modern French cooking a béchamel is a quickly made milk-based foundation requiring only the addition of butter, cream, herbs or other flavorings to turn it into a proper sauce." Then they provide a recipe that mentions neither butter nor cream nor herbs, nor other flavorings.

And now that there is no reason and the truth is plain to see: the word “Béchamel” will never again pass my lips. I’ve never known squat about real Béchamel: I’ve known about White Sauce.

* * *

Margaret McArthur, aka maggiethecat, author of the blog Cheap and Cheerful, cooks and tends her garden near Chicago. Her Daily Gullet piece "Eggs Enough and Time" appears in Best Food Writing 2009.

#2 Priscilla

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 12:40 PM

Mags this is my favorite thing you've ever written. Until the next one.

How often have I idly pondered the line of provenance? And I do mean idly, as opposed to your thoroughgoingness. The answer: Often. Always did think that the Medici attribution was too pat. Would have believed Irish monks preserved it along with the illuminated manuscripts howevah, if that had been proffered.

And while I have over the years called it by the various names you enumerate, I too pledge to cleave unto White Sauce, which was always in the rotation but now shall be the go-to.

(Not unlike how I resolutely stick to SQUID as opposed to using calamari, except that it was a deep and abiding love and admiration for the word SQUID itself that enforced that habit.)


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#3 nakji

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 05:15 PM

"White Sauce" was the first thing I learnt to make in the kitchen. I believe it was a recipe out of Mum's "Purity" cookbook, and memory escapes me what it was called there. I have always called it bechamel, so I suspect it was called that there also.

When I make it to enrich soup like cauliflower or broccoli, I always use half chicken stock, half milk - all this time thinking I was a radical.

#4 onrushpam

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 05:23 PM

Home Ec class, circa 1969, first thing we made was "white sauce", which we applied to some sort of nasty concocction made with hard boiled eggs. I think they were called Sunflower Eggs or Daisy Eggs or some such... blech!
I do love me some cream gravy! :rolleyes:

#5 David A. Goldfarb

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 06:05 PM

This is great. I've also been delving into The Epicurean a fair amount of late and observing how much mileage Ranhofer gets out of that veal blonde and things like "mushroom essence."

If you look at the illustrations, you'll note that a "tammy" of his day seems nothing like a drum sieve that we would call a tamis today. There's an engraving in there somewhere of two guys wringing a sauce through some sort of mesh cloth about the size of tablecloth (or maybe it's just a tablecloth) over a large trough.

#6 nakji

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 06:39 PM

If you look at the illustrations, you'll note that a "tammy" of his day seems nothing like a drum sieve that we would call a tamis today. There's an engraving in there somewhere of two guys wringing a sauce through some sort of mesh cloth about the size of tablecloth (or maybe it's just a tablecloth) over a large trough.


Nothing says appetizing like cooking with a trough! I suppose because of the large quantities of sauce that needed to be sieved for the sort of cooking they were doing, this was the original set-up? I guess, then it evolved, much like the sauce, later. It would have been pretty grim, though, to be the poor kitchen apprentice set to sauce-sieving duty with a tablecloth and a trough.

#7 maggiethecat

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 06:46 PM

Yeah, the illustrations in "The Epicurean" are just plain fab.I saw the "tammy' one too and thought about the amount of sheer sweat that went on in those great old kitchens.

Erin: Same Purity Cookbook, same sauce in my girlhood home.

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#8 nakji

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 06:59 PM

Erin: Same Purity Cookbook, same sauce in my girlhood home.


Mum's copy has long since lost its cover, and is perforated through in many places where recipes from the newspaper or Canadian Living were stapled. And never used. My Dad bought it for my Mum, hoping she'd learn to cook after they got married. The story of the fried frozen steak and boiled tea is part of my family's kitchen lore, passed down like Nanny-in-England's Tea Pot From Singapore (Always ALL CAPS for that teapot - which Mum never bothered to use) and Nanny-in-Labrador's cast iron dutch oven. (Pretty much in constant use)

Mum's more interested in cooking now than she was when I was a kid and flipped "Purity" open for the first time to learn to be as good a cook as my Dad. My first stab at creating my own dish was tossing white sauce and dried basil with sliced chicken breast and penne pasta, covering it with Dad's good Gloucester in individual au gratin dishes; serving it with a wedge of lemon. Very cool for a twelve-year-old.

#9 David Ross

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 07:10 PM

What a wonderful piece, and I am going to print it and mail a copy via post to my dear 86 year-old Mother, Janet Edna Ross. You see, Mother doesn't have a computer, nor does she know the inner-workings of what we call e-mail. She receives mail via the U.S. Postal service with a first class stamp on it.

Mother is not familiar with the term "Bechamel" sauce, but she still makes a wonderful "white sauce" every Christmas for our delicious creamed onions. Every December, Mother pulls out the same hand-written recipe card that her Mother, Edna Pink, used for making the white sauce for the onions. I think Mother knows how to make the white sauce from memory, she's been doing it for probably 65 years or so, but there's something special about seeing and touching Grandmother Edna's recipe written in ink with a fountain pen. It's a Holiday tradition that makes a simple "white sauce" extra special.

Now I don't know if Mother's recipe is truly traditional or not as she adds a few sprinkles of nutmeg to her white sauce--I'm not sure what Escoffier would call a sauce with nutmeg. In our home we call it just plain good.

Thank you Maggie for evoking a special memory from my Mother's kitchen.

#10 maggiethecat

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 07:17 PM

[quote name='nakji' date='31 May 2010 - 07:59 PM' timestamp='1275357554' post='1745174']
[quote]

My first stab at creating my own dish was tossing white sauce and dried basil with sliced chicken breast and penne pasta, covering it with Dad's good Gloucester in individual au gratin dishes; serving it with a wedge of lemon. Very cool for a twelve-year-old.
[/quote]

Very cool, and very creative. I love White Sauce, and the only Mushroom Omelette recipe I like, from Elizabeth David, is WS based. Chop five mushrooms (don't slice them) cook them in a tablespoon of butter for a bit, add some nutmeg, s and p, and a smidge of flour. Then add a couple of tablespoons of milk or cream and cook it down. Rich, shroomy, not slimy. A micro white sauce.

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#11 Dakki

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 07:57 PM

Lovely essay. Now to plan something with white sauce in it.
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#12 maggiethecat

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 08:00 PM

Lovely essay. Now to plan something with white sauce in it.

Thank you. Hey, the recipe list for plain ole White Sauce is endless!

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#13 KatieLoeb

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Posted 31 May 2010 - 08:16 PM

Maggie:

As always, you've distilled down something that is common to all our experience, yet left room for it to remain personal and individual. While my mom was never one to cook with classic French sauces, as I began to expand my own culinary horizons, a good white sauce was a common thread throughout many a recipe. And I completely relate to the "common denominator" aspect, though I suspect it's hardly the lowest. The hallmark of brilliant writing is that which crosses the spectrum of experience for every single reader. Nicely done. :smile:

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#14 maggiethecat

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Posted 01 June 2010 - 07:25 PM

Maggie:

As always, you've distilled down something that is common to all our experience, yet left room for it to remain personal and individual. While my mom was never one to cook with classic French sauces, as I began to expand my own culinary horizons, a good white sauce was a common thread throughout many a recipe. And I completely relate to the "common denominator" aspect, though I suspect it's hardly the lowest. The hallmark of brilliant writing is that which crosses the spectrum of experience for every single reader. Nicely done. :smile:

Thanks, Katie. Mucho.

That's the thing about White sauce v that scary Bechamel I didn't know about. White sauce is mortar, the real kitchen basic, well, the glue. And I love that glue or mortar every time I lick the wooden spoon.

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#15 Alex

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Posted 02 June 2010 - 06:14 AM

Enjoyable article, Margaret. And a very clever reference to "A Whiter Shade of Pale."
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#16 FrogPrincesse

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Posted 02 June 2010 - 08:48 AM

I really enjoyed reading this. This was a very evocative read and I never realized until I read this piece how white sauce is at the basis of many my favorite comfort foods.
White sauce is one of my favorite things in the world. My mom makes a delicious cauliflower gratin with white sauce. Croque-monsieur sandwiches would lose their raison d’etre without the white sauce. And then there is Blanquette de Veau, which is basically a veal stew finished with a white cream sauce. My version is the standard butter/flour base, salt& pepper, with the addition of veal broth (the cooking liquid) that thickens it almost instantly, crème fraiche, lemon juice, an egg yolk, button mushrooms and pearl onions. Now I just realized what makes it so special.

#17 maggiethecat

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Posted 02 June 2010 - 08:13 PM

I really enjoyed reading this. This was a very evocative read and I never realized until I read this piece how white sauce is at the basis of many my favorite comfort foods.
White sauce is one of my favorite things in the world. My mom makes a delicious cauliflower gratin with white sauce. Croque-monsieur sandwiches would lose their raison d’etre without the white sauce. And then there is Blanquette de Veau, which is basically a veal stew finished with a white cream sauce. My version is the standard butter/flour base, salt& pepper, with the addition of veal broth (the cooking liquid) that thickens it almost instantly, crème fraiche, lemon juice, an egg yolk, button mushrooms and pearl onions. Now I just realized what makes it so special.


Thanks for encapsulating what I feel about White Sauce. If you know about it, you're a cook. If you don't everything is much harder, and way less fun.

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#18 racheld

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Posted 05 June 2010 - 07:24 PM

Absolutely Breeeelyant, Maggie, as always. Your mastery of the concept and the execution is impressive, but not surprising. And your research and knowledge are a formidable team with your incomparable way with words.

I learned to make White Sauce at a very young age, in exactly the same 1-2-3 over-the-shoulder that you did; my Mammaw would be boning chicken for a la King, or skinning the tiny blanched pearl onions (specially ordered once a year, for Christmas Dinner---no canned mush for HER table).

After about the second “making” I noticed that she just kept right on with her work, humming along with the radio, and I remember the tight feeling in my chest as the swell of pride in my kitchen independence almost overwhelmed me. I’d made cakes and cornbread and biscuits by myself for ages, but WHITE SAUCE! Ladies talked about how hard it was in WMU and at Bridge at my friend’s house, while we hid and listened and snuck little sandwiches. It was mentioned so often, for so many dishes, I’d thought it was some kind of formula you’d have to learn in college.

I way later learned the word Bechamel from Italian neighbors---the ones who taught me to make ravioli from scratch, and pizzelle and latugi. They sang out the word so rapidly as we started putting together the lasagna---Besh’-meh---that I had to ask several times, so I could look it up. And it was good ole White Sauce.

I used the word for quite some time back when I was catering parties---I’d rattle it off myself like I assumed they knew it, too, and it FELT impressive. But when I got back to my own old Franklin, melting the butter gently in the big wide skillet, using a worn-down old wooden paddle to keep every fleck of flour constantly moving---I was standing in that familiar old kitchen in that tiny shotgun house, hearing the words long unspoken, “One Tablespoon of Butter; One Tablespoon of Flour . . .
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#19 heidih

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Posted 08 June 2010 - 03:13 PM

Thank you Maggie. As a kid I did not know how to describe what I was eating when we had veggies in what we called Einbrenn which is really roux. We used milk or water or a combo as the liquid. Very finely minced onions were browned in the fat before the flour was added. Other kids would wrinkle their noses when I said that green beans or peas or spinach were my favorites. We would look forward to them in this lovely white sauce, usually accented with fresh herbs from the garden (grown with seeds smuggled from abroad) - parsley for the spinach and dill for the peas and beans. Ah- food traditions - the universal language.

#20 Priscilla

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Posted 08 June 2010 - 03:45 PM

It behooves me to add, having had occasion to dip into my Time-Life The Good Cook series' Sauce volume over the weekend on other business, I noticed as I whipped through on my way to the information I sought that its unimpeachable editor Richard Olney, an American who lived much of his life in France, says white sauce, plain and simple, not even providing the French or Italian in translation.

As we know Olney did not hesitate to use European nomenclature, so I take this as yet more affirmation of your point, M.

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#21 maggiethecat

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Posted 08 June 2010 - 06:39 PM

It behooves me to add, having had occasion to dip into my Time-Life The Good Cook series' Sauce volume over the weekend on other business, I noticed as I whipped through on my way to the information I sought that its unimpeachable editor Richard Olney, an American who lived much of his life in France, says white sauce, plain and simple, not even providing the French or Italian in translation.

As we know Olney did not hesitate to use European nomenclature, so I take this as yet more affirmation of your point, M.

Thanks for behooving, Priscilla. Olney is impeccable, as you say, and I'm going to try even harder to banish bechamel from my vocab when I mean White Sauce.

Margaret McArthur

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#22 Rebecca263

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Posted 30 June 2010 - 01:11 PM

Wow. I'm sitting here eating a plate of fresh noodles with white sauce(my version is my mother's- it has nutmeg and white pepper)- my first white sauce in months, and happened to sign on to eGullet and found this post! Awesome! I learned my version of white sauce from my mother- she made the best macaroni and cheese with it, and also a mushroom sauce for egg noodles- and it formed the base of a lemon kissed sauce that she would sometimes make for broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and fish.There was a rice dish that incorporated it as well, but the memory of that is so faint, just a hint in my mind. I rarely make white sauce these days- we eat very light fare mostly, and only once in a great while do I whisk up a small batch for a treat. Comfort food, you know.
How often does everyone else make this, these days?
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#23 nakji

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Posted 30 June 2010 - 10:04 PM

This week, I made a batch up for a macaroni and cheese for a friend stuck in the hospital in serious need of comfort food. She said she wanted carbs. "Done." I said. Whole milk; butter; extra sharp New Zealand cheese.

Otherwise, I usually only make it up in the winter if I'm making a cream of broccoli soup or chicken pot pie. I probably only make three or four times a year, if that.

#24 Darienne

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Posted 01 July 2010 - 02:38 PM

Grade Seven, Home Ec with Mrs. Hutchinson (we called her 'old lady Hutchiballs' behind her back, although I don't think any of us knew what the 'rude' part of the name meant yet. It WAS a long time ago.) White sauce. First thing we learned and heaven help us if we didn't get it correct. Thin, medium and thick.

Wonderful article, MaggietheCat. Really enjoyed it. Thank you.
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#25 maggiethecat

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Posted 11 July 2010 - 07:39 PM

Frequency-wise, I make White Sauce a couple of times a month. For something so simple, and not health heinous, everything it adorns or includes feels luxurious.

Margaret McArthur

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