Welcome to the first of a new series of posts relating to the basic techniques and basic recipes that will help you create more complex dishes. Francine has a wealth of experience with the techniques involved in bread baking, sauce making, and the intricacies of all things dough. My experiences are a bit more shallow, but I have mastered a few things, this being one of them.
It’s hot. Why was I making macaroni? I didn’t feel well from spending three days basking in the sun on the beach with visiting friends. It really takes a lot out of you. Burned and a little feverish as a result, I wanted comfort food. Where I grew up, no one made macaroni using bechamel. Not my mother, not my grandmother. Dare you bring something along the lines of “strange stuff” into their houses. Their macaroni was custard based with eggs, milk, and sometimes sour cream. Totally different texture, sometimes a bit more liquid than you’re used to.
To get started with Bechamel, you should know it’s place in the kitchen. It’s one of the five french “mother” sauces – the important ones from which all other sauces can be whipped up. You add cheese, it becomes Sauce Mornay–that’s what we’re doing today, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call it bechamel. It also has its place in the italian kitchen – you’ve probably had it in pasta dishes (canneloni, etc) a time or two, eh? Let’s begin:
I’m making a small dish of macaroni – enough for 2-4 people, so my sauce proportions are small. Double the measurements to get a large batch which would be suitable for making lasagn….hmmm…does it end with a or e? Let’s ask Francine. Melt 2 tbsp of unsalted butter in a heavy saucepan or saucier over a medium flame. Some recipes suggest using clarified or drawn butter, but this is fine.
Francine says “I use lasagna, but I believe lasagne is also accepted.” That mystery is solved. Add 2 tbsp of flour and stir. I added two heaping tbsp and my roux turned into something doughy resembling pate a choux, necessitating an additional tbsp of butter. Best if you used a level measurement–it should be runny.
Like this. Runny. Not like Play-Doh.
Slowly add 1.5 to 2 cups of milk. I use either fat free or 2% because that’s what we drink, but I’m sure whole milk is the way to go for a richer sauce. At this point, you could switch to a whisk to make sure you’ve incorporated the flour, but I’m handy with a wooden spoon.
This is a lump. You must eradicate the lumps by vigorous whisking or the machinations of a giant wooden spoon.
Whip out your microplane grater and resist the urge to be like Giada and zest lemons for limoncello. Use it instead to grate a half teaspoon of nutmeg into the bechamel. Yes, white sauces always benefit from nutmeg. Add a sprinky-dink of salt and pepper while you’re down there, too.
Increase the heat a bit (but not quite to high) and stir constantly until the sauce thickens. When it becomes nappe, or coats the back of the spoon, it’s done. You can tell if nappe has been reached by swiping a finger through the back of the spoon. If sauce doesn’t run to cover the swipe, it’s thick enough. We’re done with basic bechamel. If that’s all you wanted, stop reading.
Beg, borrow, or steal for a box grater and mow through a block of good sharp cheddar.
Now we take our mother sauce and turn it into sauce mornay for our macaroni and cheese. Kill the heat and stir in a cup and a half of the cheese.
It melts beautifully and quickly.
Because I had it lying around, add a half cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano. None of that stuff in the green cylindrical plastic tube from the mega mart.
Because you knew we were making mac and cheese, you already pre-cooked a box of elbow macaroni according to package directions. No? The sauce will keep on the stove until you do. It may form a skin, but just stir it and warm back up on the heat until the skin melts. Add the drained pasta to the sauce mornay.
Lube up the pan of your choice – I chose a small one because we’ve only made enough for a few servings. Layer the mac and cheese and sprinkle with more of the grated stuff.
Just to be fancy, and for texture, sprinkle over some breadcrumbs. Not the “I made it in the food processor” kind, but the ones from the can. The sandy stuff. Why? The other will burn to charcoal. Put the whole shootin’ match in the oven at 400 degrees F for about 25 minutes, covered. Remove the cover and cook for an additional 5 minutes. If the top isn’t crusty enough for your liking, use the broiler for a few minutes.
Bechamel-based Mac and Cheese
by Jason Osborne
2.5 cups elbow macaroni (after cooking) – prepared according to package directions
8 oz sharp cheddar, grated, 1/2 cup reserved
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp AP flour
2 cups milk
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Set water to boil for elbow macaroni and prepare in-tandem with the bechamel. Melt butter in a medium saucier over medium-high heat and stir in flour. When the mixture is combined, but runny, slowly add milk, whisking to combine. Bump heat up to just under high and stir constantly until mixture is thickened. Remove from heat and add both cheeses, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Prepare baking dish with butter or spray. Add cooked and drained noodles to cheese mixture and stir to combine. Add this mixture to the baking dish. Top with more cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake, covered, for 25 minutes. Remove cover and bake for an additional 5 minutes to allow top to become crunchy.