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.