Roux the day

Rachel Roddy’s bechamel bake

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Rachel Roddy Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writ­ers food writer and cook­ery writer awards for this col­umn. Her new book, Two Kitchens (Head­line Home) is out now; @rachelal­iceroddy

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

50g parme­san

Nut­meg

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.

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