Learning to Make Cheese Sauce

In the past few days I have had two almost identical conversations. The first was on Sunday was with a friend of mine named Amy Hersey, who was very excited to learn that I can and dry produce each year. She wanted to know if she could come help me make strawberry jam this spring, because, as she confessed, her mother had never taught her how to do those kinds of things. Then, yesterday, as I was standing in line at the grocery store, I struck up a conversation with a woman ahead of me, who confessed that she bought boxed maccaroni and cheese because she had not the least idea of how to make a cheese sauce from scratch.

These things alarm me, not because everyone needs to make their own jam and their own cheese sauce, though I think everyone should, but because it is indicitive of how much practical knowledge is no longer being passed from one generation to the next. As our society has increasingly emphasised the importance of formal schooling, and as that schooling has become increasingly directed toward producing members of the professional workforce, the other sorts of learning that used to occur in the home and the neighbourood have become neglected. We have become accustomed to purchasing almost all of our products and services, even when these products and services are entirely inferior to what we could make ourselves. We no longer grow or preserve produce; we no longer cook or bake; we no longer work wood; we no longer sew.

The excuse we give, of course, is that we do not have the time to do these things ourselves, and to some extent this is true. Now that I have two children, I no longer bake bread or make pies as often, and I have never been much of a tailor, even if I can do my own mending. But there are some things that I would not give up, the things that are most meaningful to me, like canning and cooking, and it should concern us, it certainly concerns me, that we are so busy that we can do nothing of this sort any longer, that we do these kinds of things so infrequently that our children never learn from us how to do them.

  1. There are two ways that I normally make a cheese sauce.

    The first and more complicated method is to make a roux (melt better, add flour, and cook until the flour has changed colour), then a bechamel sauce (add scalded milk to the flour and butter until the sauce is the desired consistency), then a Mornay sauce (add a sharp cheese until the sauce is the desired taste, adding more milk if necessary). This sauce will be smooth, rich, and beautiful, though not great for your diet.

    The second and more time efficient method can be used when making the sauce for pasta or some vegetables. When draining the pasta, reserve a little of the water. Add butter to the pasta until melted, then add a drier cheese variety (parmesan, pecorino romano, etc). When the cheese had melted, it may be necessary to add some of the reserved pasta water to make the sauce a nice consistency. This sauce is much easier, faster, and usually takes less cheese make, though it is still not great for your diet.

  2. TC said:

    Here’s another, definitely not good for your diet..

    Warm cream in a small pot, add ground pepper, grated nutmeg, and, if you like, some soft pink peppercorns or small capers.
    Break up some gorgonzola cheese and add that, stirring gently for just a few moments until it melts. You can then add some grated parmesian, or pecorino if you like. Very nice on gnochhi.

    And here’s something, which, not actually a sauce, is a good topping for various dishes, and much better for your heart:

    Mix up some fresh ricotta or farm cheese with an egg some herbs and pepper – you can do this in the food processor, just briefly, or with a fork.

    Spread the mixture on a baking tray and bake until golden. Sprinkle with ground, toasted nuts or seeds if you like, and use as a topping for vegetables, soup, stews, or whatever you like.

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