According to food historians, sauce was used lavishly by the Romans on food as early as 200 A.D. century. All the way from antiquity and throughout the Early modern period, all foods were systematically accompanied by a sauce, which was either white or brown.
Surprisingly, it is only in the XVII century that tomato sauce, imported from Spain into Italy, appears in contemporary cooking treatises. Similarly, the first recipe of a sauce identifiable as béchamel is published in Le cuisinier françois by François Pierre de La Varenne in 1651.
Modern Italian cuisine makes scant use of sauces. A sauce is now preferred as a subtle background to a combination of the freshest possible ingredients. No need to say that Béchamel, administered in modest amounts, works wonders to soften and combine flavors in baked dishes.
Here is a simple version of this white sauce made in the microwave which is ready in literally minutes. I use corn starch instead of flour so it’s also gluten free.
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon corn starch
- 250 ml (1 cup) milk
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- salt and pepper
Using a tall glass container – for example a measuring jug – heat the milk until hot to the touch, about 2 min. In a different tall container melt butter 30-60 sec. To make a roux, add flour to the butter and mix thoroughly. While whisking, add the hot milk, first one tablespoon at the time until smooth and then all the rest. Transfer the milk and roux mixture to the microwave and heat for one minute.
Quickly stir, then microwave for one more minute or until the mixture is almost at boiling point. Whisk again. At this point, the sauce should be thick and smooth. Season and add a pinch of grated nutmeg if desired. If too thick, add some more hot milk and whisk carefully to incorporate.