Mac-Daddy Mac and Cheese

If there’s one food I never get tired of cooking or eating, it’s pasta drenched with a creamy cheese sauce. Who doesn’t love a good bowl of mac and cheese? Actually, my hubby doesn’t, but he’s a picky eater (see previous post about the onions).

Homemade mac and cheese is one of my go-to meals; I often make it for myself when hubby’s out of town and I need a bit of TLC for my tummy. I have pleasant-enough childhood memories of the blue box Kraft version, but once you’ve learned to make a decent béchamel sauce from scratch, you’ll never go back to the powdery orange chemical stuff again.

I’ve been making béchamel for ages by gosh and by guess, since well before I knew the technical culinary term for it. Ever had a plate of biscuits and gravy? You’ve eaten a version of a béchamel. Once you’ve got the basics down, it’s a cinch to jazz it up however you like and put your own spin on it.

Several “Next Food Network Star” seasons ago, a lovely and deserving woman named Amy Finley won the title. However, Amy only went on to produce a handful of her French-food-themed shows before realizing the whole gig wasn’t for her and pulling the plug. Bummer. (Wonder if the runner-up’s still pissed? I would be!) I really liked Amy’s few shows that I saw, and from one episode, I took away a formula for perfect béchamel that I’ve used as a rule of thumb ever since.

Amy explained it very clearly – you follow a “2-2-2” measurement. Meaning: two tablespoons of flour, two tablespoons of butter, and two cups of milk.

For those of you playing along at home, here’s what you do. First, you melt the butter in a large skillet or saucepan over medium heat, add the flour and stir it in to create a roux. (Non-Food Network fans: roux is simply a thickening agent used in sauces and many other dishes.) The mixture will become pasty; continue stirring for just a few minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Then you slowly stream in about half of the cold milk, constantly whisking to break up any lumps.

Once you’ve gotten the lumps worked out (this only takes a minute or so), whisk in the rest of the milk, add a pinch of nutmeg and a little salt and pepper. Whole milk is your best bet here, but I often use 2 percent just because it’s what I usually have on hand. Skim’s probably not a good idea, it won’t give you that really thick, creamy texture you’re looking for. To really take it over the top, you can use half & half instead of milk, or add a splash of heavy whipping cream right at the end. In any case, let your sauce come up to a slow simmer. Béchamel won’t reach maximum thickening until it hits a low boil, then all of a sudden, it turns into a creamy, luxurious consistency.

At this point, the possibilities are endless! You can throw in a few handfuls of shredded cheddar and a tiny bit of Dijon mustard to make a lovely cheese sauce for macaroni; or mix in a little bit of roasted garlic and some parmesan for a quick alfredo. Stir in some chopped fresh herbs and pour over cooked chicken breast. Use the sauce to top leftover cooked veggies and sprinkle with some toasted breadcrumbs for a quick gratin-esque side dish. Use it as an extra layer of filling in your favorite lasagna recipe. Melt in a handful of pepper jack cheese, a little minced jalapeno and a few pinches of chili powder and you’ve got a darn tasty queso concoction to dip your nachos into. See what I mean? Use your imagination!

Next time you’re strapped for ideas about what to make for dinner, try one of my favorite mac and cheese inventions: Boil up a pot of pasta; (I use the word “mac” loosely. I like rotini, penne or shells for this – they have lots of little nooks and crannies to hold all the sauce.) As the pasta boils, make your basic 2-2-2 béchamel sauce. When it comes up to a boil, stir in about a cup of shredded sharp cheddar a little at a time until it’s all melted in, then add a handful of frozen peas, some crumbled bacon bits and a diced fresh tomato. Drain your pasta and dump it into a big serving bowl. Pour the sauce over and toss to mix well. Garnish with some chopped fresh basil, serve with a fresh green salad and some garlic bread, and you’re guaranteed some happy diners.

Heck, I might even throw in some sautéed onions, but that’s just how I roll…
macaroniandcheese

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