There are few things more heavenly than a creamy casserole of mac’n’cheese fresh out of the oven, then dipping through a buttery crunchy crust through meltingly soft tomato slices to the oozy tangy cheesiness below. Heavens! I think I need a moment!
There, now that I’m (ahem) more composed, I can tell you that I am not talking about your mom’s mac’n’cheese or the little blue box, or even the little organic bunny box, although I must say I’m quite fond of those too. Seriously, who doesn’t have a box in the cupboard for those emergency situations where the most energy you can expend is to open another bottle of wine, gaze in the empty wallet hoping for enough coin for takeout, sigh heavily, and then perk up knowing there’s mac’n’cheese in the pantry.
But on those nights when you do have some actual food in the fridge and a little bit of time (but not much is needed, mind you), you can make your own and it’s so much better. It’s almost transcendent.
It pains me to see people at Whole Paycheck or elsewhere buying premade mac’n’cheese. I feel like asking them, “Seriously? You’re going to spend $8 on *that*?” It really makes me want to bully myself into their kitchen, give them a glass of wine and a notepad and say, “Watch me”.
When my friends who don’t cook ask me if I could show them something simple to make at home, I reach for this recipe.
And it’s not really a recipe, more of a technique really: a bechamel or white sauce, with cheese folded into cooked pasta, and a nice crunchy topping.
Once you know how to make one of the Mother Sauces like a bechamel, then it is so easy to expand upon it and make many other delicious and easy things:
– add cooked chicken, peas, red peppers and serve over toast for Chicken á la King.
– add cheese and serve over broccoli or cauliflower. Even fussy kids will vegetables under a velvety cloak of cheese sauce.
– combine with any cooked veggie and run under the broiler for a quick gratin. No one would ever guess it is leftovers!
– make with broth and a little white wine instead of milk, add cooked chicken, veggies and top with biscuits for an amazing pot pie. This is suggested in the event you don’t have access to my mom’s amazing turkey gravy, like me most of the year (alas). Please see my earlier post for the pot pie recipe.
Making an excellent Bechamel is not rocket science, mind you. It’s what every good cook up until the 60’s knew but somehow most people these days either didn’t learn this at home or they just forgot how good it tastes. Or, more commonly, the idea of anything with milk and butter in the ingredient list has been sent to purgatory. Sadly, a white sauce is not diet food but if you use lowfat milk it can still be quite lovely, and then you only have four tablespoons of butter to feel guilty about, *but* that’s for the entire dish. Now, who in their right mind could possibly feel guilty about one tablespoon of butter in a meal?
Of course adding lots of cheese and buttery breadcrumbs is a slightly different story on the guilt ranks, but *whatever*!! Enjoy your meal, it’s not like you eat this every night, right? Well, hmmm… Don’t answer that! Hee hee.
But getting back to this technique, making a Bechamel or white sauce is pretty basic, unless you are my mom. My dear mom has elevated the basic white sauce with a few simple steps. A dish with her Bechamel will hands down taste better than anyone else’s dish made with a “white sauce”.
Her secret is simple:
My Mom’s Bechamel:
4 Tbl butter, I like unsalted
4 Tbl flour
2 c milk, warmed
1/2 medium onion, studded with 4 – 6 whole cloves
A bay leaf
A few grains cayenne pepper
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salt, up to 1 tsp
White pepper, a dash or to taste
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter until it foams, then add the flour and stir with a whisk for 2 to 3 minutes. This is the roux.
Remove the pan from the heat for a moment, and slowly whisk in the warmed milk, whisking continuously, until all of it has been added to the saucepan. Whisk until smooth, no lumps, and then return to the heat.
Stirring occasionally, bring the sauce to a boil, then turn the heat to low, you want a bare simmer. Add the onion, bay leaf, salt, pepper, cayenne and nutmeg.
Let simmer on low for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste again for salt and pepper. Sometimes it’s nice to add a drop of lemon juice. Fish out the onion and the bay leaf, count the cloves and if necessary fish them out with a fork. Be sure to lick the fork, mmmm!
Isn’t that the tastiest white sauce ever? Thank you mOm, for giving me such a leg up on life with this simple recipe.
Once you taste this, you too will sing, “Bechamel, Bechamel mucho….”
Now that you know how to make the best Bechamel, it is so easy to make a luscious mac’n’cheese.
My recipe was inspired by Ina Garten’s, because her tomato idea in the topping is just too brilliant. I do realize to many people this is heresy. Please try it though, unless you loathe tomatoes, because it really adds a lovely touch to the flavor and it looks so pretty, which is important for such a humble dish.
Mac’N’Cheese with HAL’s Variants
1 pound elbow or penne pasta
4 c milk, heated
1 stick butter
1/2 c flour
1/2 medium onion, studded with 4-6 cloves
few grains cayenne or Aleppo pepper
1/8 tsp dry mustard
12 oz Swiss cheese, preferrably Gruyere, grated (4 cups)
8 oz cheddar, extra sharp, grated (2 cups) Note: you can use any combination of cheese, including blue, goat, Gouda, just as long as you have some good sharp cheddar and Gruyere which provide the necessary tang and flavor notes for mac’n’cheese.
1/2 tsp pepper (or less)
1 T salt
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 # tomatoes (4) sliced
2 T butter
1 1/2 c fresh bread crumbs (or Panko)
1/2 c Parmesan, grated
1/4 c. chopped parsley
Preheat oven to 375.
As per the Bechamel directions above, make a roux with butter and flour, cook 3 minutes, then add hot milk, whisking until smooth. Bring to a boil and add clove studded onion, bay leaf, dry mustard and simmer on low, very slowly, for 20-30 minutes. Remove onion and bay leaf, make sure all cloves are removed as well. Add pepper, nutmeg and slowly stir in cheese until melted, do not boil. Taste for salt and add up to 1 T if needed.
Meanwhile, cook pasta 2 minutes less than package directions say and drain. Place in a large bowl.
Toss pasta gently with cheese sauce, pour into a casserole (or smaller casseroles). Top with sliced tomatoes.
Mix together bread crumbs, butter, parsley and sprinkle over pasta. Sprinkle on the Parmesan.
(oops, I forgot the parsley this time. I also like to add a grind of fresh pepper.)
Bake 20-35 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.
Allegedly, a pound of pasta serves 6-8, wow! Not in my house. Usually I put these into individual ramekins and smaller casseroles, like my darling flame red stoneware set from Le Crueset (thanks Rats!).
In case you want to jazz it up a bit, here is a variant:
Saute a pound of crimini mushrooms (or any combination of wild and/or cultivated mushrooms) on med-high heat until golden brown (don’t crowd pan), in 1/4 stick butter. Season with salt and pepper and reserve.
When pasta is cooked, toss with 1 T truffle oil, then add the cooked mushrooms.
Make the recipe for cheese sauce as above and follow the rest of the directions.
Yet another variant, my personal favorite:
Cook 1/2 pound diced bacon until browned and crisp.
When pasta is cooked and drained, toss with 1 T truffle oil. Add cooked bacon and mix well.
Make the recipe for cheese sauce as above and follow the rest of the directions.
I have made this a few times as a command performance, such as when a dear friend was having a bad day and needed an oasis moment of comfort here at the Roost. But recently a new acquaintence through Twitter asked if he too could try my mac’n’cheese as he hadn’t had a home-cooked meal in a long time. Well, of course I would do this for him, but did I mention he’s a professional chef? Actually, he’s the Executive Chef of a very popular restaurant, *and* he makes possibly the best mac’n’cheese with truffle oil and bacon I have ever tasted? Gulp! All I can say is that my mac’n’cheese tastes really great to me, and to my lay-friends, so hopefully Chef will enjoy my humble offering with all the love and TLC I put into each ramekin.