White sauce (Béchamel) was the very first thing I learned to make at my mother's elbow. Not that this was difficult - a chimpanzee could master this in twenty minutes.
This French 'mother sauce', with the addition of grated cheese and a few flavourings, is so useful in all those heart-warming family staples: macaroni cheese, lasagne, cauliflower cheese, creamed spinach, vegetable tarts, cheese soufflé, ham and eggs, and so on.
Not that cheese is an essential add-on to this sauce: a thin, silken Béchamel enriched with cream and lots of chopped fresh parsley is heavenly with fish and gammon steaks, as is the salty, oniony version that goes with a plain dish of simmered-in-broth corned beef, carrots and potatoes (known in my family as 'Boiled Beef and Carrots, Carrots, Carrots.) Added to a rich, slow-simmered chicken or veggie stock it makes a most luscious soup.
The milky, benign gentleness of this sauce makes it a highly nutritious comfort food for babies and toddlers - pour it over cooked baby carrots, stir it into grated stir-fried baby marrows, or mix it with cooked macaroni, a tin of drained tuna, a handful of parsley, a dash of fresh lemon juice and a knife-point of mild mustard to make a tasty toddler-friendly fish bake.
Anyway, because I make white sauce about once a week, and am always looking for smart, time-saving shortcuts, I have devised this method, which involves making a large quantity of flavoured roux and freezing it in individual blobs. To create a white sauce in a jiffy, you heat a pan of milk on the hob (or in the microwave), whisk in the the frozen blobs, and a lovely thick white sauce is yours in minutes.
You can use ordinary butter for this recipe, but clarified butter or ghee will reduce the chances of your butter burning.
Frozen Flavoured Roux Mixture for White Sauce
1 block (500 g) salted butter, or the equivalent weight of clarified butter or ghee
3 bay leaves, torn into big pieces
6 whole peppercorns
4 fresh parsley stalks or a sprig of thyme
1 large onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 whole cloves
500 g (about 2 cups, or 500 ml) white cake or bread flour
Set a large pan over a very low heat and add the butter, bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley stalks, onion and cloves. Stir frequently as the butter melts. Now allow the mixture to stew very, very gently (use a heat diffuser if you have one) for fifteen minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to steep for an hour.
Strain the mixture through a sieve into a clean bowl (you may need to reheat it gently first, if it's a cold day and the mixture is solidifying) and return it to the pan. Tip in the flour, turn up the heat, and cook, stirring constantly, for three to four minutes, or until you have a thick, briskly bubbling paste. Don't allow the mixture to brown.
Put a sheet of greaseproof paper on baking sheet. Using a large metal spoon, place large blobs (about 4 tablespoons at a time) of the roux on the greaseproof paper. Don't worry if a little fat seeps out from the mixture. Allow to cool, then cover the tray with clingfilm and place in the freezer for 8 hours, or overnight.
Prise the blobs of roux off the paper using a palette knife, put them in a plastic bag or lidded container and return to the freezer.
You can use this roux in its frozen state, or take it out of the freezer an hour in advance. Either way, heat a litre of milk in a saucepan and add a blob of roux. Bring gently to the boil, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon or wire whisk.
Once the mixture is bubbling, turn down the heat and simmer for three to four minutes. If the mixture seems too thick, thin it down with a little more milk or stock. If it's not thick enough, break another blob of frozen roux into pieces and keep adding these until the mixture has thickened to your liking.
Season with salt and pepper and add any other flavourings or ingredients called for in the recipe you're using - grated cheese, lemon juice, mustard, sauteéd chopped onions, garlic, nutmeg, mace, herbs and so on.
Each blob makes 1 litre white sauce.