It's an ideal accompaniment for eggs (eggs Mornay, a variation on eggs Benedict made with Mornay sauce in place of the usual hollandaise, is a French classic) as well as pasta and vegetables.
And just so we're clear, béchamel is made with milk. It's a dairy-based sauce—a fact that might not warrant a mention in a recipe for a cheese sauce, but it's best to leave no room for confusion.
In classical cuisine, there were variations on the Mornay where instead of making it with a béchamel base as we do here, it was made with chicken or fish stock—making it a variation on the velouté sauce instead.
(see also: The Five Mother Sauces)
This makes sense if you're serving the finished sauce with chicken or fish or seafood. Indeed, some people might find the standard Mornay sauce to be a bit rich for fish and seafood (then again, see lobster Mornay).
In the classic French tradition, you cannot have too much cream, butter, or cheese. On the other hand, in Italian cooking, it's considered an abomination to serve fish with cheese. And so it goes. Maybe someone can get a French chef and an Italian chef to sit down and decide whose cuisine is superior. They can get back to us in a couple of centuries maybe.
In the meantime, you have our permission to serve this basic Mornay sauce with chicken and fish. But feel free to experiment with the chicken and/or fish veloute versions if you like. You might find that the lighter veloute version works better in some situations.
Note that we specify whole milk. Using skim or 2% milk will produce a watery béchamel.
- 2 3/4 cups whole milk (warm but not hot), divided
- 3 tbsp. whole butter, divided
- 30 grams all-purpose flour (around 1/3 cup)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 onion, peeled
- 2 to 3 whole cloves
- 2 oz. grated Gruyère cheese
- 2 oz. grated Parmesan
- In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 2 tbsp of butter over medium-low heat, then stir in the flour to form a roux. Cook the roux for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently until most of the water has cooked out (it'll bubble less), which also allows the raw flour taste to cook off.
- Slowly add 2 1/2 cups of the milk while whisking or stirring so that the liquid is incorporated into the roux without forming lumps.
- Stick the cloves into the onion and add to the sauce along with the bay leaf. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until it's reduced by about 20 percent.
- Remove the bay leaf and the onion, strain the sauce through a fine mesh strainer or a colander lined with cheesecloth. Make sure you retrieve as many whole cloves as you originally added.
- Return the sauce to the pan. Add the Gruyère and Parmesan cheeses and stir until the cheese has melted.
- Remove from heat, stir in the remaining butter and adjust consistency with the additional milk if necessary. Serve right away.