Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Mother Sauces: Béchamel/Mornay, Orecchiette

This is the first in a series on the five mother sauces in French cuisine.  Without delving into a long history lesson, the five mother sauces as we know them today were defined by Auguste Escoffier in the early 1900s.  Escoffier, commonly regarded as the father of modern French cuisine, did a lot of work toward organizing, standardizing, and simplifying the zillions of recipes and techniques of his day.  For more details, here's a great BBC article that outlines some of his contributions to modern cooking and dining.

Most french sauces can be seen as a derivation of one of the five mother sauces (hence the name); if you've ever eaten eggs benedict, mac and cheese, or biscuits and gravy, chances are you've already encountered a mother sauce or one of its derivatives!

In this post, we're going to make a mother sauce as well as one of its derivative sauces, and some food to go along with it.

Part I: Béchamel Sauce

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
pinch of nutmeg (optional)
salt and white pepper, to taste


So, béchamel sauce is pretty much just thickened milk.  No really, that's it.

We begin by making a roux, which is a thickening agent made from equal parts fat and flour.  We're using butter as the fat component for this traditional recipe, but you can easily use other sources of fat —in cajun cooking, you might see vegetable oil or pork fat.  Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the flour and stir under medium-low heat.

As the flour becomes incorporated with the butter, it'll slowly turn darker as you continue to cook it.  We're going to stop right here, after a minute or two—this is called a white roux.  If you keep going, you'll get a blond roux, then eventually a brown roux.

With roux, there's an inverse relationship between flavor and thickening power.  Darker roux will have an awesome nutty flavor, but will not thicken liquids as well as a white roux.  On the other hand, white roux will do a good job of thickening, but won't impart a lot of flavor.

Add the milk to the roux and stir.  Switch to medium-high heat and bring the sauce to a near boil.

If you taste the sauce at this point it'll be fairly bland, so add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.  Traditionally, white pepper is used to preserve the white color of the sauce, but I won't tell anyone if you use black pepper. (I've never used white pepper when making béchamel.)

You may be tempted to use pre-ground nutmeg, but trust me on this: whole nutmeg is way better.  It may cost a few bucks more than pre-ground nutmeg, but the difference in taste is more than worth it.  It also has a shelf life of approximately forever, which is great as it will take you approximately forever to go through a stash of ten nutmeg seeds.  Buy it once, and you're set for life.  Hand it down to your kids.

And now you have béchamel sauce.  Pretty easy, huh?

Part II: The Fun Stuff
Now that we have béchamel, we can make one of its most popular derivative sauces, mornay.  Mornay sauce is a cheese sauce that goes very well with pasta (a lot of mac and cheese recipes out there use mornay), so we're also going to make a pasta shape called orecchiette (Italian for little ear) from scratch.

Mornay Sauce
1 cup béchamel sauce
2 oz (~1/4 cup) gruyère cheese, shredded
2 oz (~1/4 cup) parmesan cheese, shredded

1/2 cup semolina flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup warm water
(you can play around with the ratio of the two flours as long as you maintain a 4:1 ratio of total flour to water.)

For prep, grate the two cheeses.  If you have a box grater with different grate sizes like mine, use the finer grating (not the sides) as it'll make smaller shreds of cheese that will melt faster.

A classic mornay sauce consists of a hard cheese (parmesan) and a softer, melty cheese (gruyère), but feel free to substitute a different hard cheese (I'm using pecorino romano, which has a stronger flavor) or a different melty cheese (emmental would work well, or even cheddar).

Add the cheese to the béchamel, a bit at a time, and stir until melted.  Make sure the sauce doesn't overheat.  If it gets too hot, the cheese will get all gritty and the sauce will taste terrible (I would know).  What I like to do is heat up the béchamel, then turn off the heat and add cheese, relying on residual heat to melt the cheese.  If the sauce gets too cold as you add more cheese, turn the heat on to low and stir constantly.

Keep adding until you're out of cheese, and you have a mornay sauce!

Now on to the pasta—I'm going to add some sliced cremini mushrooms to the pasta, but other add-ons like spinach would also work well.

This is semolina flour, which is harder (and usually more coarsely ground) than all-purpose flour.  Generally speaking, many pastas from southern Italy are made with semolina and water, while pastas from northern Italy will use type "00" flour and eggs.

Dough made from semolina will do a good job of retaining its shape, making it good for formed or molded pastas like orecchiette, cavatelli, trofie, etc.  Conversely, dough made from "00" or all-purpose flour tends to be more pliable and elastic, which is good for noodle-y pastas like fettuccine, tagliatelle, or my favorite noodle shape, pappardelle.

We're using a 50/50 mixture here, but try playing around with ratios of semolina and AP flour to find a level of elasticity and rigidity that you like.

We're going to do this the old school way.  Start by making a mound of flour with a well in the middle.

Add the water to the well...

...and start swirling the water around, kicking in a bit of flour from the sides with each swirl.

As you keep adding flour from the sides of the well, the mixture will become more viscous, and eventually it'll stop feeling "wet."

At this point, you can start picking up your dough and folding it into itself.  Continue to knead for ~5 minutes.

I'm using a 4:1 ratio of flour to water, which would ideally create a nice smooth dough.  However, external factors like the humidity of your kitchen can affect the dough (this, by the way, is why I suck at baking).  It's winter in Boston and my kitchen is dry, so you can see my dough is a bit too dry here—it's cracking and flaking off.  If your dough is dry, add a bit of water and try kneading some more.  If it feels too wet, add flour.

This looks better—the surface is nice and smooth, and the dough can be worked with fairly easily.  Cover and let it sit for at least 30 minutes.  I've left fresh dough in my fridge overnight before, and it was even easier to work with the next day.

Roll out the dough with your hands into a cylinder, about 1/2" in diameter.  I'm going to use half of this dough (i.e. 1/2 cup of total flour) for this dish, which will make a smaller than average serving size, good if you want to serve multiple courses or if the pasta is a side dish.  If the pasta is the star of the dish, the full serving (1 cup of total flour) is good for a hungry person.

Cut discs about 1/4" in thickness from the dough cylinder.

Place the blade of a paring knife in front of the disc, and pull back on the knife while applying pressure downwards.

If the dough slips on your working surface, use a finger to hold it in place.  In this image, my knife is moving left as it essentially scrapes the dough into a thinner disc.

When you're finished, it should look something like this.

Let's take a look at the pasta.  This is the side that was scraped with the knife—notice how there are all these little tears on the surface?  That texture will help the sauce stick to the pasta.

On the other side, we have a nice smooth surface.  Pretty, but not as practical.

We want the textured surface on the convex side so that the increased surface area gives us more saucy goodness.  Invert the dough by molding it around your thumb...

...and repeat this process over and over until you run out of dough.  Italian mothers and grandmothers must have some crazy biceps.

Fresh pasta can be stored in your freezer for several months, or in your refrigerator for several days.  To cook it, drop the pasta in boiling water for 24 minutes, which is a lot shorter than store-bought dried pasta.

To see how orecchiette is made by the masters, I highly recommend watching this mini-documentary.  Look at how fast they work!

Also, they somehow get their orecchiette to bend the right way without having to invert it afterward (see 2:19 in the video). I don't know, it's magic.

To prepare the mushrooms, season them with salt and pepper, and saute in olive oil under medium heat for a few minutes.  They'll transform from large and pale into...

...this awesome brown and slightly shriveled state.

Confession time: it's a pet peeve of mine when pasta is served naked in a bowl with sauce spooned on top.  For best results, the pasta and sauce must be cooked together briefly.  This applies whether you're using mornay, tomato sauce, whatever.  Try it out and you'll never go back!  Here, I've added the cooked orecchiette to the mushrooms.

Add the mornay sauce to the orecchiette and mushrooms...

...and toss everything together under medium heat until it's all nice and warm.

Transfer to a nice bowl, and serve.

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