Of the five classic French “mother sauces,” béchamel gives us some of the most rich small sauces. Although béchamel may be the most simple to prepare, that doesn’t mean it can’t also show off some pretty complex flavors. Taking the time to create layers of flavor in the building blocks of a recipe ensures that the sauces and dishes created from those blocks will build palaces of flavor. As the recipe below demonstrates, there are not many ingredients in the basic béchamel sauce; just milk, roux, and the onion cloute. An onion cloute is an onion studded with cloves and a bay leaf, and although I’ve seen some recipes call the cloute optional- it is not. The onion cloute is essential as it is the only flavor added to the milk besides butter.
An Italian chef I once worked for insisted that a béchamel was never complete without a bit of nutmeg, an ingredient that was conspicuously absent from béchamel recipes in my traditional French culinary education. Once I tasted his version, I never again made my béchamel without a dusting of freshly ground nutmeg to finish it. Never, that is, until a few weeks ago when we were lucky enough to get the first shipment of mace blades we’ve been able to secure in years. I had always used a mixture of mace powder as well as a little extra freshly grated nutmeg when making creamed spinach from a béchamel base, but I had been reluctant to to try including mace powder in every batch of my béchamel for fear of the flavor being overpowering. This is a perfect application for mace blades! By adding a nice mace blade or two to my onion cloute, I could get the subtle mace flavor I was looking for without overshadowing other flavors.
Béchamel itself is used in many recipes for lasagna, croque madames, or soups, but there are quite a few other sauces that can be derived from a basic béchamel, often by adding just a few ingredients. The French call these “small sauces” and some of my favorites are:
Mustard sauce – add some prepared mustard.
Crème Sauce – just whisk in some heavy cream (I also like to add a heavy pinch of Piment d’Espelette.)
Pickling Spice with Mace Blades
As our long-time customers may remember, we used to include mace blades in our pickling spice. Now that they’re back, we really wish that we could go back to using them in our pickling spice recipe, but unfortunately the market shortage has driven the price up considerably and would make our pickling spice much more expensive. That doesn’t mean that the dedicated home pickler can’t buy an ounce or two and add it to their pickling spice themselves! We’d recommend a ratio of about an once and a half of mace blades to each pound of pickling spice. Having been born and raised in Pennsylvania Dutch country, beet pickled eggs are one of my favorite snacks (great for a quick breakfast too,) and one of the first things I tried making with the mace blades when I finally got my hands on them. I’ve even heard that some people use a beet pickled egg as an outrageous garnish for a bloody mary.