Shavuot, the “dairy holiday” comes as we all know, seven weeks after Passover, a time when milk and cheese products are abundant. It is thus customary to eat dairy based dishes on this lovely holiday. To help celebrate Shavuot this year, I’ve provided two delicious main course dairy recipes, both based on a “bechamel”.
A bechamel is considered one of the “mother” sauces in French cuisine, so called because it is the base for at least 6 other sauces. In its most basic sense, a bechamel (or balsamella in Italian) is a white sauce made by stirring milk (never cream) into a roux made of melted butter and flour. Traditionally, the roux is made of equal parts butter to flour (usually 1 to 2 tbsp of each per cup of milk, depending on how thick you want your sauce), to ensure a smooth mixture that is lump free. The butter (most often unsalted) must be completely melted before you add the flour. Then, once the flour is sprinkled over the butter, you have to cook it gently for at least 1 minute to cook off the rawness of the flour. Sometimes, you may see a recipe that calls for the flour to be browned. This is very typical of Creole and Cajun dishes and is called a brown roux.
In recent years, the original recipe of equal parts fat to flour has been played around with in order to reduce the overall amount of fat. This is definitely possible but it requires a certain amount of diligence so that the flour does not clump too much or brown before you have had the chance to smooth out those darn clumps.
A bechamel can be used on its own of course, but it is typically made into a cheese sauce, also called a “Mornay Sauce”. What type of cheese you add is up to you and the nature of whatever dish you’re preparing. But feel free to experiment. Cheddar cheese for a wonderful mac and cheese. A subtle Monterey Jack or Meunster for a topping for steamed broccoli. The choices are endless.
For the two dishes presented here, I’ve used a traditional bechamel for the pasta, made that more full bodied by the addition of three lively cheeses. For the French Onion Tart, I’ve used the same steps as a bechamel but choreographed them a bit differently, adding the flour to the onions, after they have already cooked in the butter. But no matter your method of preparation, the results are the same – convincingly delicious!!