In which I screw up the bechamel.

Every so often I’ll go to cook something I’ve made many times before, and that I know how to make, and could make in my sleep, and I mess it up. I’ve made bechamel over and over again for macaroni and cheese, tuna noodle casserole*, and whatever else, but a few weeks ago I was trying a new sausage, chard, and lemon lasagna recipe, and in some unexplained Sunday-night stupor, I screwed up the bechamel. It didn’t really coalesce, and if that doesn’t happen, what’s the point?

I guess this is a lesson in multitasking. I was busy doing other steps in the recipe and lost track of the bechamel after I whisked in the milk. Some time later, I remembered the sauce, concluded that it must be done, and dumped an entire package of baby spinach** into the pan. Immediately, I could tell that something was wrong. Instead of a thick, velvety sauce wilting the spinach leaves, I had… a pot filled with cooked milk with spinach swimming in it.

With the rest of the ingredients prepped, no other dinner options, and a hungry, grumbling populace pacing around the kitchen, I said to myself, “Screw it, I know this is wrong, but I’m making it anyway!”

“Maybe it’ll thicken up in the oven,” said Jay, attempting to be helpful.

“No,” I said huffily. “It won’t, because I screwed up.”

“Stop beating yourself up and put the lasagna in the oven,” said Jay. “Besides, I’m hungry.”

The lasagna turned out as expected: A pile of noodles, spinach, lemons, and sausage, surrounded on the plate by flavored milk. It was a tasty pile of noodles, spinach, lemons, and sausage, surrounded on the plate by flavored milk, but still–it was a pile of stuff, and not lasagna.

Martha Stewart was doing something right, even if I wasn’t, because the lasagna was tasty enough in its semi-failed incarnation that I made it again. Here are the steps I took to not screw up the bechamel:

  • Melt butter.
  • Add flour and stir to incorporate.
  • Cook for a minute or two.
  • Gradually add milk in fairly small quantities, stirring to incorporate after each addition. I feel very strongly about gradually adding the milk. Your arms will get a workout, but it’s worth it. I think you get a smoother sauce.
  • Cook, stirring, until the sauce comes to a boil.
  • Lower the heat and simmer, stirring from time to time, until the sauce thickens.
  • Yay!
The lasagna was much better the second time around, and my cooking confidence was restored. It’s demoralizing to mess up something you’ve done many times before, and it’s even worse when it’s something that’s so fundamental to cooking. I felt vindicated when I realized that I knew what I had done wrong, and I had the knowledge and ability to fix it.
So, sort of like on the math Regents if the math Regents allowed do-overs, I get partial credit for showing the steps I took to arrive at my answer. And I got to eat lasagna, so there’s full credit in there somewhere.

*Stop making that face and make this dish. It’s really good.

**The only substitution I made was to switch out the chard in favor of spinach. We are not chard fans. I think it tastes like dirt, and I don’t want to eat lasagna that tastes like dirt. I rejected kale in favor of the more chard-ish texture of spinach, and if the dish suffered, I didn’t notice. I used a full package of baby spinach (I believe that’s five ounces).

2 Responses to “In which I screw up the bechamel.”
  1. vrai-lean-uh says:

    I am so glad you made this recipe! I cut it out from the magazine years ago and am never quite sure if I should make it or not.

    I also agree about adding milk to a roux gradually.

    • Katy says:

      If you make it, I would recommend cutting the lemons VERY thin, and follow the instructions for boiling them very closely. Otherwise they will be a little weird and bitter. I’m considering buying a mandoline, even though I know they’re dangerous and will eat my fingers, for the sake of this recipe. I can’t get the lemon slices as thin as I would like with a knife. Or maybe I’m doing something wrong. I’d also recommend using really good sausage, since the sausage is such a large part of the flavor profile. Not that I suspect you’d use turkey sausage, but if you had been considering it, don’t! I think it would taste wrong and would be too dry.

      I feel like I read the thing about adding the milk gradually somewhere, but I can’t remember where. Can you?

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