January 30, 2010

The Beauty of Béchamel: Impromptu Comfort Food

Even though I’ll happily spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon in the grocery store (much to my husband’s dismay), there are days when I’d rather not—or can’t—leave the house.  Today turned out to be one of those days, primarily because I found it much more enjoyable to sit in my pajamas, drink coffee, and watch the snow fall than to risk life and limb  driving to Whole Foods.  (Okay, “life and limb” may be an exaggeration.) 

When circumstances call for a dinner that’s warm and cozy, you don’t have to bother with a trip to the grocery store; a reasonably well-stocked pantry is all you need.  I came to this realization last December, when DC was in the throes of a record-breaking snowstorm.   We had a couple of fresh links of andouille sausage in the fridge and wanted a way to use them for dinner.    Jambalaya was out of the question, as we lacked about 75% of the ingredients required and couldn’t get to the store.  We thought a pasta with cream sauce might go well with the sausage, but we didn’t have any cream.  In my online searching, I came across a recipe for a “Spicy Sausage and Penne Casserole,” which called for a béchamel sauce.  My feelings as I looked over the recipe were both elation at the discovery and utter disappointment in myself for not having come to this conclusion on my own.   Of course!  Béchamel!  Why didn’t I think of that sooner?

Sauce béchamel  is one of the four “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine.  It’s an extremely versatile white sauce made by adding hot milk to a roux of butter and flour (which serves to thicken the milk) and then finishing with seasonings such as salt, white pepper, and nutmeg.

After just a few small adjustments to the Spicy Sausage and Penne Casserole recipe, we had a perfectly cozy meal.  (My changes, based on preference and the ingredients I had in the pantry:  jarred roasted red peppers, instead of fresh bell peppers; broken-up sausage, instead of sliced; no butter in the bread-crumb topping; and whole wheat penne.)


A bottle of the slightly sweet “Jennifer’s Jambalaya” white wine from Virginia’s Breaux Vineyards (one of our anniversary-weekend finds) complemented the Creole-spiced dish superbly.

After my béchamel epiphany last month,  I knew exactly what to do when dinnertime came this snowy evening:

Snow-Day Pasta Casserole
printable recipe

9 oz penne pasta
11 oz chicken-breast (about 2 medium)
6oz  frozen spinach* (thawed, excess moisture squeezed out)
6oz frozen peas
4oz freshly grated sharp cheddar*
2 oz freshly grated parmesan 
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups hot milk (preferably whole or 2%)
garlic powder
(white) pepper
cayenne pepper

*Feel free to substitute whatever vegetables and cheeses you like.

Preheat oven to 350F.
Heat about a teaspoon of olive oil in a nonstick skillet.  Cut chicken into bite-size pieces, season with salt, pepper and garlic powder and sauté over medium heat until cooked through (about 5 minutes).  Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a 4-qt pot of water to boil.  Generously salt the water and add pasta.  Cook until pasta it is not quite al dente (about a minute less than the package instructions).  Drain and return to pot.  (If the pasta takes 10 minutes to cook, you can add it to the water just before adding the milk to the béchamel—see below.)

The Béchamel

In a 2-qt sauce pan, gently melt butter.  When butter is melted, add flour, whisking constantly until a smooth paste is formed.  Cook, whisking, about 2-3 minutes over medium heat.  Mixture should begin to have a nutty, toasted smell.  Add hot milk, whisking constantly.  Bring mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring constantly, until thick (3-5 minutes).  Add seasoning to taste.  (Several dashes of salt, pepper, and garlic powder, a couple dashes of nutmeg, and a couple pinches of cayenne pepper.) 

Turn off the heat.  Add about half each of the cheddar and parmesan and stir until melted and smooth.  (At this point, it actually becomes sauce mornay, which is simply béchamel with cheese.) 

Add the sauce, chicken, and vegetables to the pasta and fold gently until combined. 


Pour mixture into a 9” x 13” casserole, smooth and top with remaining cheese.


Bake for 20 minutes on rack in the middle of the oven, until edges are bubbly.   Adjust rack closer to the top and broil on high for about 5 minutes (watch it carefully!) until the cheese just begins to brown.


Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving.

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Serve with a full-bodied white or light red wine. (The Beaujolais Nouveau we had was lovely.)


January 16, 2010


As usual, my posting is not particularly timely.  Between all of our holiday traveling and the formidable task of recalling and recording all the details of my cooking the past few weeks looming ahead, this post kept slipping to the bottom of my to-do list.
Several weeks ago, a holiday episode of “The  Best Thing I Ever Ate” inspired me to rediscover panettone.   Most of the panettone I had eaten up to this point was either imported for the mass market in America (and had probably been on the shelf a little too long -- yuck) or served in the form of panettone bread pudding (yum!).   Despite the months I spent in Italy, I never had panettone while I was there, but I knew for all its tradition that it must be better than the grocery-store versions I had tried. 
So I set out to find the perfect panettone recipe.  Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with many options.  My Google search for “panettone recipe” yielded little.   Most were for various deserts that called for store-bought panettone (panettone bread pudding, for example).
Food Network offered only one recipe.  Although it had good reviews, it skipped the traditional multi-build yeast recipe in favor of a quick-bread style panettone.  No, thank you. 
Other results were dubious at best.  An All Recipes entry called for yogurt and a mere 1-hour rise time.  Another recipe seemed to be pretty authentic, but it’s poster advised against making it, since it was such a long, drawn-out process.  I can certainly handle long and drawn-out, but I am not interested in a recipe that isn’t even recommended by the guy who posted it. 
My many Italian cookbooks were no help.  I was particularly disappointed that The Silver Spoon offered nothing. (But why would it?  Italians buy their panettone.) 
Finally, I came across a recipe in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.   Despite some problematic instructions in his chapter on sourdough (which he has since amended on his website), I trust Peter Reinhart’s expertise on bread, and I was sure that even if the panettone wasn’t perfectly authentic, it would still produce excellent results.
The first thing to do was revive my sourdough starter.  Since my initial attempts at sourdough last fall, my starter had sat untouched in the refrigerator.  Now, sourdough starter is a pretty robust creature.  A healthy one is supposed to keep in the fridge for a couple of months and should revive to its original potency after a few days of refreshing.  My starter, however, had initially only been fed a few times over the course of about a week and so had not reached its full strength before I allowed it to lie dormant.  I conveniently forgot this little detail and waited to take the starter out of the fridge until two days before I intended to start the panettone.  According to Peter Reinhart, a starter can be revived in only two days, but I quickly realized than mine was going to take more time.   Silly me for waiting until the last minute.
I started by following Mr. Reinhart’s instructions to discard (I actually just set aside) half of the starter and double the remainder by adding equal parts flour and water.   After 6 hours the starter should be bubbly and can then be refrigerated until the next day when it will be ready for use.  However, mine didn’t seem to be waking up that quickly.   I refrigerated the starter anyway, and took it out the next day to try again.  This time I used both the original and the refreshed starter, setting aside half of each and tripling the remainder of each.  That evening, I attempted a couple of test sourdough loaves, using each of the refreshed starters, which seemed to be slightly more active than the previous day. 
Surprisingly, the batch that had only been fed once performed better than the one that had been fed twice.
Final proof and baking of the good loaf:
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I’m not sure what went wrong here (aside from the crust that formed on top):IMG_9524 IMG_9527 IMG_9532

Encouraged by the results of my sourdough loaf, I decided to refresh the starters one more time, experimenting with different ratios with each half of each “generation,” before starting my panettone the next day.  I wish I had been more precise with my methods, measurements, and record-keeping, so I could more accurately report on my little science experiment.  

The following day,  I discarded the two that seemed least active, set one aside as backup, and used the one that looked the most promising: a direct descendent of the sourdough loaf starter and I believe three refreshments from the original starter.
The first build was a “wild yeast sponge” comprised of a cup each of starter, warm milk and flour. 
In a separate bowl, I combined dried fruits to soak overnight in brandy and vanilla, orange, and lemon extracts.
Six hours later, I was relieved to find that the sponge had become bubbly and had risen slightly.  I proceeded with the second build, adding to the dried fruits and sponge the rest of the ingredients, including more flour, eggs, butter, blanched almonds, a bit of sugar, and yeast. 
Two hours later, it has risen almost to the top of the panettone papers! (I found them at Sur La Table, and they were so much fun to use!)
The panettone baked for an hour…
    IMG_9608   IMG_9618 
…and then we had to resist the temptation to eat it, since we were taking it to share with my family the next day.
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I made a second batch when we got back from Arkansas – this time to take to Brian’s family in St. Louis. 
I was happy to find that my starter was alive and kicking!
IMG_9846 IMG_9840 IMG_9842 IMG_9860 IMG_9861
The first batch had been slightly drier than I wanted, so I reduced the cooking time by about 5-10 minutes, which definitely made a difference.
We had the little ones for breakfast the next morning, and they were quite good.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not an authenticity expert when it comes to panettone.   Brian and I recently tried a panettone imported from Italy by Whole Foods (whom I trust more than, say, T.J. Maxx).  The primary difference between the WF bread and mine (besides the fact that I forgot to buy candied orange peel) was the texture.  The WF bread seemed like it had quite a bit more butter than mine.   It’s melt-in-your-mouth texture was delightful.  I think I still have some research to do for next year.
All this research on panettone has me thinking about another Italian holiday bread.  For a while, I have been curious a bread my family makes every Easter. It's a recipe from my Mom's family, who is from a little town in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  It’s a dense, rich bread that  we’ve dubbed "Easter bread" (it takes three days to rise).  Like panettone, Easter bread is made with raisins and eggs, but has more sugar and calls for oil instead of butter. I did some looking while I was living in Italy, but I was never able to find an Italian name for it.  Around Easter time, I found in an Italian newspaper a very short article  on a raisin bread called “uvetta” (which also just means “raisin”), but my internet searches yielded no further insight.  Maybe it's a regional recipe and my family's dialectical  name for it was lost along with the language.
I think this calls for a research expedition.