I was told mixing white sauce in a figure eight was an important lesson. I have no idea how old I was. At what age do you put a child in charge of a pot of boiling milk and tell him to stir it for 10 minutes? Seven? Nine? Eleven? As big as my hand was, I remember it was guiding a wooden spoon. Cautiously at first, in case the milk spills out and burns my hand or a passing brother, but then quickly.
How different the eight felt from going round and round: skillful, like sliding through milk or flying a kite when the wind was right. Different again when the milk started to thicken and resist the loop. It was exciting, and even though I knew mom had done something at the beginning, I felt amazing. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a transformation in a pan, but it was certainly the most satisfying and tangible. My smooth sauce was complimented, cheese added, sauce slathered over cauliflower or pasta and pan licked. I couldn’t wait to make it again.
At some point I learned something that mom did in the beginning. Melt the butter and then add the flour so that it forms a paste that wants to be a ball. Rock! In which you add milk, slowly, so that it becomes an even stickier paste. I was told to “squeeze out the lumps”. The next thing I knew, he was thin again. What a slide! “Stir in the eight.” Be patient. It will thicken.” But will they? It was like being charged with setting up a magic trick: even when executed perfectly, it could still go wrong.
Four decades and hundreds of pans later, I have the exact same set of thoughts every time. Too thick. Too thin. Nothing good will come of this. Luckily, the eight through milk is still there too, so between my worry and the endless loop, there’s a satisfying pan of white sauce, béchamel or besciamella. The latest casserole was for today’s meal, the Potato and Zucchini Bake. The result of rushing and scrolling past a picture of a golden pastry and assuming it was laced with béchamel, when in fact it was yogurt and egg. The picture was by Sardinian chef Andrea Locci, who I trust (and usually read very carefully), so I’ll be making his version soon. Meanwhile, my mistake, which is like a cross between potato gratin and cauliflower and zucchini cheese, is turning out to be a new family favorite.
Serve with a green salad and, if desired, a shake of hot chili sauce. I can’t wait to make it again.
Bake zucchini, potatoes and béchamel
Rev 15 min
to cook 1 hr
It serves 4
3 large potatoes (about 600 g)
3 large zucchini (about 600 g)
50 g of butterplus lubrication and finishing allowance
50 g of plain flour
600 ml of whole milk
60 g of Parmesan cheesegrated
Salt and black pepper
1 handful of fine breadcrumbs
Peel the potatoes, and the zucchini on top and tail. Using a mandoline, a cheese grater or a sharp knife and a steady hand, thinly slice both vegetables – don’t worry if they are uneven or not in whole slices. Dry all the cut slices with a kitchen towel.
Now make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour and whisk into a thick mass. Gradually whisk the milk into the paste – it will thicken and then thin. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring vigorously in a figure-eight pattern, until it is thick enough to fall off the back of a spoon. Add half the cheese, taste and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/gas 6. Grease an oven dish or pyrex dish, add all the potatoes and courgettes, sprinkle with salt and mix. Pour over the béchamel and mix as best you can so that the vegetables are covered with the sauce. Spread on top, sprinkle with remaining cheese and a handful of breadcrumbs and spread with butter.
Cover loosely with foil and bake for 40 minutes, removing the foil for the last 10 minutes to brown the top.