I think I am safe in saying that Macaroni and Cheese is the Queen of Comfort Foods. It is warm and comforting when you have had a bad day. Adding buttery breadcrumbs as a topping just gives you more reason to love it! In some parts of the country, Mac and Cheese is considered a side dish. In our household, it was the star attraction.
All Mac and Cheese’s are not create equal, but they are all made using similar techniques. It isn’t hard to make, it just takes a little practice. Once you have mastered these techniques, this and many other recipes will become easy.
There are five “Mother” sauces in the cooking world. And from these five there are hundreds of variations, each with its own primary use. The five sauces are: Bechamel, Veloute, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Mayonnaise. There is also Tomato (pasta) sauce which some think should be added to the list. It certainly has a place of honor in our home!
The base for Macaroni and Cheese is a Bechamel sauce, more commonly called a White Sauce. A standard in the 50’s, (think Chicken a la King or Creamed Beef on Toast,) Bechamel has gotten a bad rap. It is the “King” of the sauces, and the one that is used the most often. You start by making a roux, a combination of equal parts flour and butter. Cooked together over medium heat until smooth and bubbling, you then add hot milk in a steady stream while whisking constantly. Cook until thickened, season to taste with salt and pepper, and you have a White sauce! When you stir in grated cheese you have the cheese sauce for Mac and Cheese. See how easy it is!
By using a combination of cheeses, you get intense cheese flavor and the creaminess so many are lacking. The cheddar gives you the cheesiness, while Monterey Jack and muenster both will give you a creamy consistency. I like the added layer of smokiness from smoked mozzarella, but if you want a more traditional flavor, you can substitute mild cheddar. You can play around with the combination of cheeses – some like to add a little Bleu cheese and others prefer Feta. Whatever you choose, make sure you have some cheddar in the mix!
When you’re making the Bechamel, make sure you get it as thick as you want before adding the cheese. For years whenever I tried to make homemade Mac and Cheese I wound up with a grainy sauce. It took some digging to find out that in my attempt to further thicken the sauce after I added the cheese, I was actually causing the sauce to break. Now that I know the secret it comes out perfectly creamy and smooth every time.
Once you have mastered this sauce and made the Mac and Cheese from scratch, you’ll never go back to the boxed mixes again! Have fun creating memories with your family!!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Patience is the key to success with Bechamel and cheese sauces. Whisk constantly and add ingredients slowly. If you wind up with a few lumps, you can always strain them out by pouring the sauce through a sieve.
Kitchen Skill: Making a White Sauce (Bechamel)
Why: To use on its own or as the base for another sauce
How: Melt butter in a skillet and stir in the flour. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick and bubbling. Very slowly whisk in hot milk or other liquid. Bring to a boil and cook until thickened and smooth, whisking constantly. If you have to step away from the stove while making this, take it off the heat. When ready to resume, whisk thoroughly, return to the heat and continue cooking. There should be no raw flour flavor. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1/2 tsp onion powder, optional
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder, optional
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tsp dried thyme leaves
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs (or gluten-free breadcrumbs if needed)
- 3 quarts of water
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 tsp chicken base or bouillon granules (gluten-free if needed)
- 1 lb pasta of your choice; e.g. mini penne, elbows, shells, or mini ziti (use gluten-free pasta if needed)
- Cheese Sauce
- 2 cups half and half or evaporated milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg, optional
- 1-1/2 tsp Dijon or other prepared mustard - you can leave this out if kids don't like it
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour, or sweet rice flour (for a gluten-free option)
- 1/2 tsp turmeric, optional (adds the bright yellow color kids like to see)
- Salt and ground white pepper, to taste
- 3/4 cup grated Sharp cheddar cheese
- 3/4 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Smoked Mozzarella cheese or Mild Cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Muenster cheese
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9x13-inch or similarly sized baking dish.
- Prepare Topping: In a small skillet, melt butter and using a fork, stir in remaining topping ingredients. Set aside.
- Cook pasta: In a large stockpot, bring water to a boil, stir in salt and chicken base, return to a boil, and stir in pasta. Cook to just under al dente or according to package directions. Pasta should still be a little underdone - it will finish cooking in the oven. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water. Drain cooked pasta in a colander set over a large bowl to capture some of the cooking water. Shake the excess water from the pasta and transfer into a large mixing bowl. Reserve about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water in case you need to thin the sauce slightly. Set pasta and water aside.
- While pasta is boiling, heat half and half in a saucepan over medium heat, with bay leaf, onions, nutmeg, and mustard, until steaming hot but not boiling. Remove from heat and set aside to steep. Alternately, you can place milk in a heatproof container, such as a Pyrex measuring cup, and heat in the microwave.
- Make the Sauce: In a large skillet, combine butter and flour and cook over medium heat, whisking, until smooth and there are no lumps, until the raw smell of flour is gone, 1 to 3 minutes. (If you are using sweet rice flour cook on medium-low and only cook 1 minute.) Strain the solids from the milk and discard, then slowly pour milk into the flour and butter mixture, whisking constantly, making sure there are no lumps. Continue to cook, whisking, until thickened and bubbly, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in turmeric, salt, and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Remove from heat and add all the cheeses. Stir until everything is melted and sauce is smooth. Pour over pasta in mixing bowl, tossing until thoroughly coated. If sauce is too thick, add a little of the pasta cooking water to thin it.
- Bake casserole: Pour into prepared baking dish, sprinkle top with breadcrumb mixture, and bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes or until heated through and top is browned and crispy. You can put the pan under a broiler for a few minutes if needed for browning. Serve hot.
- Yield: about 8 servings