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French cooking 101: Béchamel

 My dear poor non French people,

Did you know you could do magic with just a few ingredients ?

I was always amazed, and still am, by all the wonders you can do with just three extremely basic things. Butter. Flour. Milk. You can make crepe. A pie dough. Or you can make the most traditional delicious warm sauce : béchamel.

Béchamel is one of the obligatoire basics of French cooking. It’s called a sauce mère, a mother sauce. It was invented at the same time as French cuisine as we know it, when Louis XIV was king of France.
This strange egomaniac who happened to rule my beloved country in the 18th Century was obsessed by three things: His royal self. His royal Glory. And… His royal  stomach.

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He basically decided very humbly to be named the Sun King, and that his Kingdom would be know all over the world for its greatness.
But at the time, France did not have as many colonies and overseas trade as its neighbors in England or the Netherlands for example.
So the Sun King decided that French cuisine would shine not because of the spices the French ships could bring back, but because of its originality.

Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-_Louis_XIV_and_Moliere

Dinners at Versailles were incredibly sumptuous, with sometimes over 20 dishes presented to his Majesty, who had a tremendous royal appetite.
Princess Palatine, his sister in law, wrote that ”very often” the king ate as much as ”four plates of different soups, an entire pheasant, a partridge, a large plateful of salad, mutton cut up in its juice with garlic, two good pieces of ham, a plateful of cakes, and fruits and jams.”

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Whoever found a way to please his royal palate could immediately see his (or her) fortune elevated in the palace… And that’s what the Marquis de Béchameil understood.
As a maître d’hôtel to the king (nothing compared to your maitre d’, this one was a symbolic place given to a trusted courtier, who then took care of what was eaten at the court), he put on the royal table a sauce that was at the same time rich, simple, delicious, and easy to eat.
Louis XIV, whose teeth were decaying, immediately loved it.

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The Béchamel should have actually been called the de Varenne,  because it appears that this great cook first invented it, 20 years before. But the law of the court of Versailles was even tougher than the law of the West at the time, and the closest person to the Sun King could shine much more easily…

De Varenne is however still in the history books for writing one of the first cookbooks, and the first international best seller, “Le cuisinier Français“, the French Cook, which was published overseas for the first time. And the sauce he invented has since made many French people proud of their culture all over the world.

The French cook prescribing the way of making ready of all sorts

La Sauce béchamel

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 4 cups whole milk
1/3 cup butter
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

A béchamel is all about time and patience. It’s very easy to do, just don’t try to go too quickly.
You first have to make a roux, a traditional base of French sauce, which is made with an equal weight of butter and flour.

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  • Melt the butter over medium-low heat.
  • Take the saucepan out of heat, pour the flour, and stir immediately with a hand whisk. Put back on medium-low heat until the mixture thickens slightly.
  • Take the saucepan out of the heat, pour the milk (allllll the milk at once. I know, some people do not do it this way but that’s how I was taught and it works!)  and whisk until homogenous.
  • Put back over low heat, whisk continuously until the sauce is thick.
  •  Add the ground nutmeg and use immediately.

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This sauce is very useful for a lot of French recipes, from Endives au gratin to turkey leftover pie, and many more!

Bon appétit les amis!

 

PS: You can now buy my book! The Everything Easy French Cookbook is the best way to start becoming French and perfect! 300 traditional French recipes just for you…

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