All cooks, however competent, have a kitchen skill that defeats them. Some cannot make mayonnaise. Others have a blind spot with pastry. Me? I cannot make bechamel. The first time I tried, it split. It turned into a coagulated, grainy mess, like the milky sick that newborns regurgitate down your back when you burp them. It happened the second time. And the third time. And for ever after that. Now it’s as if the ingredients, the butter and the flour and the milk, can sense my fear and shame. They sit on the work surface staring up at me. We know what you want us to become, they say. We know all about the velvety white sauce you wish us to be. Well, dream on, sucker. Not today.
Once, during lockdown, while making souffle Suisse, that indecent Le Gavroche confection of gruyere, cream and whipped, bechamel-enriched egg whites which certain puritanical religious sects would doubtless regard as profoundly immoral, it worked. I made a perfect example. Hooray for me. Nailed it. But it turned out the ingredients were merely laughing at me. Because the next time it split, and the time after that, and so on.
Doubtless you now want to send me helpful messages explaining where I’m going wrong. You want to patronise me with homilies about the need for low heat and less speed and more patience. Well don’t. I have my wife to patronise me. Pat makes perfect bechamel. When I ask her to step up to bechamel duties she doesn’t just make it for me. She makes it at me, enthusiastically, as if this one act is a small victory over whatever imagined slights have built up across almost 30 years of marriage. “I really don’t know what the problem is,” she says, as she conjures up something creamy and perfect. Damn you Pat, and your white sauce of the gods.
The kitchen really can be where fissures in a relationship open up like this. Recently, I asked Pat to make the bechamel for a cauliflower cheese. Base sauce aside, I make a terrific cauliflower cheese. I know exactly how long to parboil the florets. I use an exquisitely balanced mix of cheddar to parmesan, scoop in the perfect amount of dijon, and season it up until it is something you would want to spoon neat from the pan, and perhaps smear behind your ears as a perfume. I may add crisped bacon, because that improves everything, and scatter the top with cheese-embellished breadcrumbs.
The problem is that I believe the perfect cauliflower cheese must be well sauced. But because I don’t make the bechamel, because I can’t make the bechamel, I don’t have control of sauce volume. I tell Pat to make a panful. She doesn’t. It’s not necessary, she says. Through the act of whisking the bechamel, she has taken over the whole dish. It is now a battle of wills: between my genetically ingrained Jewish instinct to over-cater, in case all the neighbours suddenly need to come over for emergency cauliflower cheese, and her Swiss Huguenot-by-way-of-Stourbridge drive to make just enough.
She wins. When the cauliflower cheese is ready, I call everyone in for dinner. Pat asks me how it is. “There’s not enough sauce,” I say. “The florets are sticking up through it.” She says: “They’re meant to be sticking up.” I scowl and reply: “Are they? Are they really?” She shakes her head and spoons herself a serving. “Arse,” she mutters under her breath. There’s bloody gratitude for you. Note to self: learn to make bechamel.