Everyday Béchamel

Originally published by Lagniappe in 2004. This is the first food article I ever wrote.

Béchamel is one of those funny French words that no one in the States can quite figure out how to pronounce. Is it bay-shuh -mel? Or possibly boo-shuh -may? And what is that silly looking apostrophe thing doing hanging out over the second letter? And while we are on the subject what the heck is it anyway, a fancy sports car?

A Béchamel is one of the “five mother” sauces of classic French cuisine first created by Louis de Béchamel a steward of King Louis XIV circa 1700. At its base it consists of butter, flour, and milk. This sauce’s consistency can vary from thin to quite thick and it adapts to many different dishes depending on how you alter the base recipe.

This is all very nice, but why would Roy from Eight Mile care about some hoity-toity French food?

Because, Roy, you have eaten it all of your life.

How many of us have grown up with our mothers or grandmothers fixing a great big pan of milk gravy to sop our biscuits in? That’s right kids, sawmill gravy is nothing more that the nefarious Béchamel with a slight recipe adjustment. In the South we substitute bacon or sausage drippings for the butter. Add some fried salt pork, fig preserves, and black coffee and you have a breakfast fit for the most cantankerous NASCAR fan.

For the record the word ‘biscuit’ is also of French origin.

Think that is the only time you’ve encountered Béchamel? Think again. How about macaroni and cheese, or Alfredo sauce, or spinach cheese dip, or cream of mushroom soup? Even chicken potpie uses a variation of Monsieur Béchamel’s invention. It is also appears in Fondue from Switzerland and the Queso from your favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. It’s everywhere!

As you can see Béchamel is not as foreign as you might think. So rather than dismissing Béchamel as just another high-brow dish meant only to give the appearance of culture and sophistication (see Tiramisu), let’s explore its culinary potential. If you are not convinced afterwards then toss it on the trash heap of French culture right next to the beret.

What red blooded American does not enjoy a gooey grilled cheese sandwich? When we are feeling especially sassy we have even been known to stick a piece of ham in between those two golden slices of cheese. Well in France they go one better, Croque Monsieur. In essence a grilled cheese sandwich, but in reality much, much more. This little offering is so gooey it must be eaten with a fork.

Croque Monsieur
8 thick slices French bread
1/2 pound ham, thinly sliced
1/2 pound Gruyère or aged Swiss cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup grated Gruyère or aged Swiss cheese
1/4 cup Dijon mustard Butter for spreading
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
Salt & pepper, to taste

Prepare the Béchamel by melting butter in small saucepan until it just starts to bubble. Add flour, and cook, stirring constantly until smooth but not brown. Whisking constantly, add the milk, continuing to cook until thick. Remove from heat and season. Transfer to a bowl and cover by placing a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the sauce not the lip of the bowl. Preheat the broiler and have a griddle or skillet ready. Spread the mustard on one side of the bread. Top with ham and cheese and cover with remaining bread.

Generously butter both sides of the bread.

Place sandwiches on hot griddle or skillet and cook about 3-4 minutes or until golden brown on both sides. Transfer the sandwiches to a broiler pan or baking sheet. Spread some of the béchamel on top of each sandwich and then top with the grated cheese. Broil about 2 minutes or until the top is golden and the cheese has melted. Serve immediately. Sounds good doesn’t it? Believe it or not in Paris this is considered a “healthy” snack.

As you can see not everything from France smells funny and looks like it needs a shower. The French passion for Jerry Lewis is disturbing to say the least, but Béchamel for instance is yummy. Give it a try in whatever form fits your appetite.

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Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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