Monday, 24 June 2013

top of the pops and a childhood tv dinner: cheese béchamel with toast fingers

cheese béchamel
i know. you are wondering why i am giving you a basic recipe for a cheese béchamel. the truth is, sometimes the simplest of things are the most memorable. there is childhood pleasure in this pale ivory sauce whose colour attains a little depth from flour toasted in butter. it recalls a particular tv dinner on a weeknight when mama would allow us to eat in front of the television. the programme that warranted this special treatment was top of the pops (totp), which was broadcast on a local private pakistani channel called ntm. before that the public broadcaster ptv maintained a monopoly that equalled to boredom.

i come from a family that loves music. as we grew, we graduated from nursery rhymes to popular music. mama also encouraged us to listen to classical music the appreciation for did not come until much later. when kylie minogue released her version of the locomotion in ‘88 mama and i would play it loud on my boom box, often singing it together. for one whole year the soundtrack for our trips to murree was the dire straits album ‘brothers in arms’. i could have played ‘money for nothing’ on replay because i loved the crescendo of drums and beat at the beginning. baba’s loves included madonna and later men at work from the land down under. he also brought back tdk recordings of two missouri based radio stations called y107 and kfmz. it would be fair to say that my first exposure to rap was kyper’s tic tac toe. we ran those tdk's on a loop on the way to school in the morning. there was plenty of pakistani music too from jupiter’s to vital signs and eventually junoon. a local version of top of the pops sponsored by pepsi became equally popular. but until the arrival of mtv in the early '90s, top of the pops was our sole foray into international music.

making the roux
i cannot remember what day of the week totp was broadcast. but i do remember that mama often made a cheese béchamel with toast fingers for us on that night, which is why the two are inextricably linked in my memory. a dastkhwan (table cloth) would be laid on the carpet to protect it from our dinner. the cheese béchamel would arrive in mama’s two handled non-stick pan, its surface wearing wrinkles where it had cooled. it was dusted with coarsely ground black pepper. a bread basket with an ample quantity of toast fingers were the vehicle for the sauce. this fondue like manner of eating dispensed with the need for cutlery. but the communality of the dish also meant arguments over who got to wipe the pan clean.

so yes, it is a simple cheese béchamel but to me it is the sauce of happy memories. i made it recently for o on what was yet another unseasonably cold summer day in london. we had gotten caught in a deluge of rain and were in need of comfort. i have added a little to the original recipe by way of seasoning with white pepper and infusing the milk with a bay leaf. i used grated emmental but you could use any good melting cheese. mama made it local deen’s cheddar as that was really the only option when i was little. we had bought a fresh loaf of bread at the farmers market in marylebone for the toast fingers. you can use any bread you like so long as it has quite a compact structure.

{cheese béchamel with toast fingers}

fifty grams butter
forty grams plain flour
a bay leaf
four hundred ml whole milk
a quarter teaspoon white pepper
one teaspoon sea salt
two hundred grams coarsely grated emmental
coarse black pepper for sprinkling
thick sliced toast

start by making a roux. to do this, melt the butter on medium heat and then stir in the flour using a whisk. toast the flour in the butter for at least two minutes. it should loose its raw smell and be a pale biscuit in colour.

next add a small amount of milk and whisk into the roux. continue adding in small quantities whisking after each addition to ensure that the béchamel is smooth. once all the milk is incorporated add the bay leaf and bring the contents of the pan to a gentle simmer. continue whisking it to prevent lumps from forming. let it cook for around ten minutes to allow it to thicken.

it is done when it slides off lazily from the spoon. add the seasoning and turn off the heat. then add the grated cheese and give it a brisk stir. while the cheese melts in the heat of the béchamel slice your bread thickly and toast it.

when toasted, slice it lengthwise into fingers. place the pan on a heatproof mat. sprinkle it with coarsely ground black pepper. dip the fingers into the cheese béchamel and eat.

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