Sunday, January 13, 2013

Creamy, Cheesy Goodness

Mac and Cheese Wednesday was always a busy one at the cafe and the one sure-fire menu item that will still bring my daughter home for dinner.  The key to a satisfying rendition of macaroni and cheese is all in the sauce, so let's make one.

It all starts as the humblest of the mother sauces, the bechamel or white sauce.  A plain bechamel starts with a roux made of equal parts flour and butter cooked together briefly, then one adds milk and a bit of spice and a white sauce is born.  A creamy cheese sauce is not that much harder if one is prepared, and I always endorse good preparation for any cooking venture.

I feel that I must say here that this blog is not often going to offer traditional recipe formats simply because you can find that information anywhere online.  The reason my attempts at putting cookbooks together have all failed is because there is just no way to say everything I want to say about each recipe and all its potential variations in a traditional format.  So I just gave up and started spewing prose about food instead.

Getting prepped:  I generally make 2 cups of sauce at a time, 1 cup for that night's meal and another to pack into a tub for my daughter to take home.  But the recipe is easily halved and easily doubled, so just mind your math when making this for yourself.  We'll just do 1 cup of sauce, but remember that is the measurement before we add the cheese, so you will end up with 1 1/2 cups of cheese sauce.

Get out the saucepan, put in 1 tablespoon of butter.  In a small ramekin, put 1 tablespoon flour, 1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard, 1/2 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon chile powder, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper.  This is what I like the best, but it is well worth it to experiment with your favorite spices and combinations.

Next attend to your milk and this is a flexible area.  Regular, whole milk is the standard and I like that just fine, but you can also use reduced fat milks or goat's milk.  I do like the overall texture of the finished sauce if I've used un-reconstituted evaporated (not condensed) milk and there is even merit in coconut milk.  Once again, I say to experiment my little minions.

Is it cheating to doctor up the milk?  I don't think so, it's enhancing and making something good even better, so of course, I'm in.  Stir in some bouillon or soup base into that milk, you can also try tomato or carrot juice mixed in for both color and flavor, be imaginative and then be sure to report on your findings.  Just make sure that you have an even cup of liquid that is neither too hot or cold.

The last part of our prep is the cheese, just one kind of cheese is boring and gives a one dimensional sauce.  Any kind of cheese can be put into this sauce and I generally will try for a balance of textures and flavors.  Cheddar cheese is the standard and lends itself very well to mixing, but anything in the Jack family will also do.  Soft cheeses like goat and cream offer velvety texture and a gentle tang to sauces while hard cheese like Parmesan will give a hearty depth.  Figure in 1/2 cup of grated cheese(s) for each cup of sauce needed, more if you really like cheese.

Ok, we are ready to cook.  Make sure your macaroni is already cooked and drained before you start making your sauce.  I get my sauce prep together while the mac is cooking.  Turn the heat under your saucepan on to medium low and melt the butter; as soon as it is melted, dump in the ramekin of flour and spice mixture.  Stir it all well to thoroughly combine, just a few seconds, then add the milk/milk mixture.

Continue cooking, stirring often to prevent scorching the bottom of the pan, until the sauce begins to bubble gently.  Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring still, for two minutes or so.  The sauce will start to thicken as it cooks and continue to thicken when you take it off the heat.

Turn off the heat and add the grated cheese, stirring until all the cheese is melted and well combined.  At this point, you can pour it over your cooked macaroni and call it dinner or you can put it all in casserole pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.  If baking, top the casserole with a bit more cheese and cover with foil while baking.

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