Roux the day
Rachel Roddy’s bechamel bake
The most important thing about home economics was the basket. It had to be packed the night before, then carried to school and left in the Watts block kitchen-classroom, ready for the lesson with Mrs Carrington. My shopping basket was too big and too wide for any shopper, never mind a 12-year-old girl. While everyone else carried their neat, coffee-coloured shoppers, I lugged my sturdy one down the hill and through a graveyard, across the high street, then up another hill to school, the ingredients for scones or choux buns rolling around the basket like drunks on a boat.
Despite my large basket – which caused me nearly as much anxiety as my big hair and sausage fingers – I liked home economics. I liked the smell, a mix of biscuits and bleach, having a stove of my own and things weighed out, and there was the promise of something to eat. I also liked Mrs Carrington – elegant and direct; a woman capable of managing a room of only-just teenagers with naked flames, flour, butter and milk.
Why is it we remember certain details so clearly and others are a smudge? I can’t picture Mrs Carringon well, but I remember her exact shade of lipstick – reddy purple. I can’t picture the room, but I can visualise the window and cupboard handles; also the butter and flour roux, the colour of milky coffee, pulling away from the sides of the pan as it thickened and smelling like digestive biscuits. Then you added the milk to the roux – slowly, or your sauce would go lumpy – and no one wanted to be lumpy. I whisked as if my life depended on it. I can’t remember if that first panful was lumpy or not, or what we made with it, although I am assuming it was cauliflower cheese. I do remember making another roux a few weeks later and mine was singled out as “a good example” before being turned into choux buns, which I carried home in my basket and presented to my brother and sister like puffed-up trophies. For weeks, empowered by new skills and names, I treated, then tormented, my family with roux and bechamel, cauliflower cheese and choux buns.
I still think of Mrs Carrington when I make white sauce – bechamel, or besciamella – which I do often for cauliflower cheese, even though I am the only one who likes it here. It’s also the basis for today’s baked spinach sformato. This is a recipe from Tuscany by way of Lori de Mori, from her useful and beautiful book Beaneaters and Bread Soup. A sformato means something taken out of a form, an umbrella name that permits many variations. This Tuscan version is rather like constructed creamed spinach – so a layer of well-seasoned spinach enriched with egg and scented with nutmeg, covered with a thick, duvet-like layer of bechamel seasoned with parmesan. Lining the tin thickly with breadcrumbs is important. It doesn’t just stop sticking but provides a crisp bottom, which is a nice contrast to the tender bake.
This is a straightforward recipe, but like most good things that doesn’t mean instant and easy. Neither does it mean time-consuming and difficult – simply that some time and care is required when you shop; and for the bay milk to infuse the milk, for the spinach to cool, and for the bechamel to thicken (a good shortcut here is prepared bechamel). Finally, leave some time for the sformato to rest: it won’t cut if you are too hasty.
If you serve this as a main course, then a salad is good company – mixed red and green leaves with a sharp dressing. It it also good with roast chicken or a piece of grilled meat. If you make it in a cake tin, it could be cooled and taken on a picnic – just cover it with clingfilm and pack snugly – in an appropriately sized basket.
Spinach and bechamel bake
Adapted from a recipe by Lori de Mori.
Serves 4 as a main, 6 as a side
1.5kg spinach, washed in cold water 1 litre whole milk
1 bay leaf
80g butter, plus more for lining the dish 80g plain flour
Salt and black pepper
3 large eggs, separated
Fine breadcrumbs, for dusting the tin
1 Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4. While still wet being washed, put the spinach in a large pan, then cover and put on a medium heat. After 3 minutes, stir, then continue cooking until the spinach has collapsed and is tender.
2 Drain the spinach. Once cool enough, squeeze it with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.
3 Warm the milk and bay leaf together until almost boiling, then remove and sit for 5 minutes to infuse.
4 Heat the butter in a heavy-based pan. As soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then pull from the heat. Add a little of the infused milk and whisk to a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat, then add the remaining milk, whisking continuously until it almost boils. Season. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce is thick.
5 Chop the spinach. Beat the egg yolks with a fork, then stir into the spinach. Add 30g of the parmesan, 3 tbsp of bechamel, some salt and black pepper and a grating of nutmeg to taste.
6 In a clean dry bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then fold this into spinach mixture.
7 Butter a 24cm baking dish or cake tin generously with butter, then dust with breadcrumbs. Spread the spinach mixture evenly over the breadcrumbs and top with the remaining bechamel. Scatter over the last of the parmesan.
8 Bake for 25 minutes, or until bubbling and golden. Rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.