The Spoon-Licking Glory of Béchamel

BLOG / Recipes / December 9, 2013

When making béchamel, I usually can’t resist licking the spoon, and then poking my fingers in several times just to “make sure the seasoning is right.” I can’t bear to clean the pan afterwards until I’ve thoroughly polished off each and every last swipe. If I were more sophisticated, I’d buy a bunch of those little tasting spoons. But if I’m just cooking for friends or family, I don’t worry too much—they say germs build immunity, anyway.

Béchamel may not look like much—just a creamy white sauce made up of butter, flour and milk—but it’s a heavenly way to bind vegetables in a casserole, swirl into pasta, or just devour from the spoon. Béchamel is essential to stove-top macaroni and cheese, which is a great weeknight meal, and a smart way to use up different odds and ends of cheeses you may have lying around.
Growing up, I loved squash casserole. It is a classic Southern dish, but it’s traditionally made with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup as the binding agent. I still won’t turn down a bowl of squash casserole made with the canned stuff, but this version made with béchamel is even dreamier.

If you don’t still have summer squash squirreled away in the crisper drawer (or even growing on the vine—this is the desert after all), this dish would be great with blanched and drained spinach or chard. I’ve also made a version with layered thin slices of sweet potato and greens. Play with what you have on hand. With béchamel, you really can’t go wrong.

squash2 Fancy Squash Casserole
Note: This is a pretty small portion, based on the fact that it’s the only squash I had. It was maybe 4 side servings or 2 main dish servings. You could easily double or triple it.

1 pound or two eight ball squash
2 small onions
3 tablespoons butter
2 garlic cloves, diced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
béchamel (recipe below)
½ cup breadcrumbs
½ cup sharp white cheddar, grated

Preheat oven to 350. Boil a pot of water, salt it, and add the sliced squash. Simmer until just tender, about 5-7 minutes. Drain in a colander and allow to cool a moment, then dump the squash onto a clean tea towel and gently squeeze it dry. Melt 2 tbs butter over medium heat, then add onions. Add a pinch of salt and fry until they are tender and beginning to lightly brown. Add garlic and thyme and stir for 1 minute more.

Stir together the onion mixture with the squash, then pour that mixture into a buttered casserole dish. Pour the béchamel over the vegetables. Melt remaining 1 tbs. butter, mix with breadcrumbs, a pinch of salt and the cheese. Sprinkle on top of the béchamel, and cover with foil. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and bake 10 minutes more, until bubbly and breadcrumbs are slightly brown.

Basic Béchamel

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup whole milk
salt and pepper
pinch nutmeg
½ cup sharp white cheddar
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low. Sprinkle flour over and begin whisking constantly, until you have a lumpy, yellow-brown mass. It’s supposed to be ugly at this point – don’t worry. Stir this mixture over low heat for a few minutes, until it becomes nutty and light brown. Begin adding the milk slowly, whisking constantly. The mass will begin to break up. Keep adding milk little by little and whisking. After a few minutes, it should become a smooth sauce. At this point I switch to a wooden spoon and stir. You may need to turn up the heat to bring to a simmer. Keep stirring until it’s thick enough that running your finger over the back of the sauce-covered spoon leaves a line free of sauce. Turn off heat and add your salt and pepper and pinch of nutmeg. Taste it – it should be delicious. If not, you may need a pinch more salt. Add cheese, stir until well-combined and smooth.

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