So last week (MLK Day, to be exact) I had the day off from work and was idly catching up on cooking shows that I’d recorded on my lovely DVR, and lo and behold, two separate chefs had done bits on caulifower au gratin. Me being easily suggestible as I am, I was struck with the intense urge to make cauliflower au gratin for dinner that night. So I did, and it turned out beautifully, and life was good. As we were cleaning up, Darren and I got into a conversation about how awesome cheesy sauces are and how they’re so needlessly intimidating.

So here’s the thing: you can accomplish a lot – in fact, probably most of anything you want a cream or a cheese sauce for – with a bechamel. And people get all freaked out because it’s a French word, and that MUST mean it’s complicated, and good lord, it’s one of the MOTHER SAUCES, so that’s intimidating, and really, honestly? Swear to god, it’s actually harder to learn how to PRONOUNCE bechamel, than it is to make it. (By the way, the pronunciation is BEH-sha-MEL) For the super-geeky like me, here’s the Wikipedia article on Bechamel:

Here’s the simple, easy way to make it:
1. cook equal parts of flour and butter together until it forms a paste, froths just a little, and just starts to smell nutty. Or at least, stops smelling like hot raw flour. This, by the way, is a roux, and it is your BEST FRIEND in many sauce and/or soup applications.
2. slowly add in milk, either stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or a whisk so there are no lumps. At this point, I like to add about a shake of ground mustard, and a good pinch or two of salt and pepper. Because I can.
3. simmer.

See? That’s it. I stopped measuring my milk for sauces once I finished culinary school, because it just doesn’t need to be that exact. Want a thick sauce? Less milk. Want a thin sauce? More milk. Accidentally added too much milk? Simmer it for a little longer, or make up a smidge more roux and add it in. It’s actually pretty forgiving, as long as you’re mindful of your heat level and don’t scorch it.

And there you go. Now you have bechamel.

What can you do with a bechamel? Darlings, the possibilities are mind-boggling:

1. The cauliflower au gratin that started it all: Steam about a head of cauliflower for just a couple minutes until it’s tender. Cut it into bite-sized florets. Throw it into a greased casserole dish. Sprinkle liberally with cheese. Any cheese. I had on hand some pizza mix and some shredded parmesan. Pour in some bechamel. Cover with bread crumbs and bake till golden and bubbly.

2. Scalloped potatoes: Peel and slice some potatoes. Throw it into a greased casserole dish. Cover with bechamel. Top with bread crumbs and bake till golden and bubbly.

2a. Potatoes au gratin: When your bechamel hits a simmer, throw in some handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese and stir until the cheese is melted and incorporated. The sauce can take more cheddar than you’d think, so don’t be shy. Go until it tastes good. Once you have your cheese sauce, the preparation is virtually identical to the scalloped potatoes.

3. Creamed spinach: Thaw some frozen chopped spinach, and drain the heck out of it. Actually squeeze the water out of it. With your hands. Trust me. Once it’s as dry as you can get it, saute it in some butter. And some garlic, if that’s your thing. Make up a thicker bechamel, and throw in a dash of nutmeg. Add your bechamel to your spinach, stir to combine, and heat the whole thing through. (Oh my god, this is good.)

4. Mac and Cheese: Remember that cheddar sauce from two paragraphs ago, for the potatoes au gratin? Yeah, use that. Add a dash of worcestershire sauce and your favorite hot sauce to kick it up a bit. Pour your cheddar sauce over cooked pasta and mix gently to combine. At this point you can dig right in, or if you prefer baked mac and cheese, throw the whole mess into a greased casserole dish, sprinkle with bread crumbs, and guess what? Bake until it’s golden brown and bubbly and delicious.

And you don’t always have to do something hardcore with bechamel. Stir in some stone-ground mustard and serve it as a lovely mustard sauce over pork chops. Stir in a load of parmesan cheese and some tomato sauce, and you have fantastic faked-out pink sauce for pasta. Add a bunch of garlic, some oregano and thyme, and you’ve got sauce for a white pizza. Thin it out with just a touch of chicken stock and you’ve got a fantastic creamy gravy for poultry or mashed potatoes.

Or you could go REALLY hardcore: Do a white lasagna. Make a moussaka (which, by the way, is my favorite Greek food of all time. More than gyros, and THAT’S saying something.). Saute up some mushrooms and onions, add just a smidge of sauce to bring it all together, and use that as a crepe filling, with more silky creamy awesome bechamel over top. Okay, I’m drooling.

So that’s it. Bechamel. It’s easy. It’s beautiful. It’s very, very French. Do I think you should eat it every day? Oh lord, no. It’s incredibly rich. But it shouldn’t be intimidating, and no one’s dinner menu should have to suffer for lack of it, because it’s nowhere NEAR as complicated as people fear it is.

… Okay, I’ll get down off my soap box now.