Comfort Foods – Mac & Cheese from Bechamel

As October heads toward November, I find myself daydreaming about comfort foods.  Y’know the hearty, savory, soothing food of our youth.  For me, it was coming home from school to the aroma of gently simmering beans and fresh made biscuits in the oven — the type of bean didn’t matter!  Butter, Great Northern, Lima.  Ahhhhhh.

Or beef stew with more fresh made biscuits.

My favorite day was Sunday.  My mom usually cooked fried chicken, collards or cabbage, potato salad or mac & cheese — depending on the season.    I didn’t like mac & cheese as a child, much preferring potatoes or rice.

But now, mac & cheese comes to mind as one of my comfort foods.  Probably because I’ve had some fantastic mac & cheese dishes in restaurants and those dishes have colored my Sunday dinner memories.

Mac & Cheese
Mac & cheese in cast iron skillet fresh out the oven!

Today starts a series of posts on the 5 Mother Sauces of classic French cooking:  Béchamel, Veloute, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Classic Tomate.

Mac & Cheese is basically cooked pasta coated with a cheese béchamel sauce.  Cheese béchamel sauce being a ‘child’ of the mother sauce.  Good place to start my journey into the 5 Mother Sauces as well as satisfy my craving for comfort food.

I didn’t realize how simple and easy mac & cheese is.  The important decision is the quality of the ingredients.  Buy the best butter and cheese you can afford.  They truly give the dish its flavor and scrimping will only make you feel it wasn’t “that good.”

Ingredients for Mac & Cheese
Ingredients for Mac & Cheese

I didn’t grate my cheese the first few times, I cubed it — DUMB.   It wastes heat and time to wait for cubed cheese to melt.  Spend the minutes early on grating your cheese or buy it grated.

Mac & Cheese
Cubed Cheese ready for Béchamel Sauce

Grate your cheese.

Mac & cheese
Bacon in cast iron skillet

Crisp your bacon.  For 2 reasons.  1) you want the bacon grease that it renders out.  2) it adds delicious texture to your Mac & Cheese.  The crispness of the bacon enhances the creaminess of the sauce and the gentle bite of the pasta.  So good!

I like crispy pasta so I like to add the pasta to the hot skillet before I add the sauce.  You can  put everything in a casserole dish if you don’t like crispy pasta.  You’ll get more creamy than crispy.

Mac & Cheese
Mac & Cheese

What more can I say?  This dish is delicious with a light body red wine.  I tried it with a Sauvignon Blanc and the combo didn’t thrill me.  The Mac & Cheese was too rich for the white wine and I kept thinking, “this needs a red.”  So there ya go!

Mac & cheese
A Serving of Mac & cheese

This is comfort food at its best.  Hope you’ll try it and bring it in for your co-workers.

Comfort Foods - Bechamel
All-American comfort food, Macaroni & Cheese, topped with crispy bacon.
Author:
Cuisine: American
Recipe type: Side Dish
Ingredients
  • 1 box pasta of your choice (elbow, penne, shells, rigatoni)
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 4 Tbsp flour
  • 1 egg
  • 3 - 3½ c milk
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 2 tsp dry mustard
  • 1 8 oz block cream cheese, room temperature
  • 4 oz goat cheese
  • 1 cup grated Italian blend cheese
  • ½ cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • salt and pepper, to taste
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Put a #8,9 or 10 cast iron skillet on the stove. Add 3-4 slices thick cut bacon and bring heat to medium. Cook, turning every now and then until slices are brown and crispy. Drain and set aside to cool.
  3. Put skillet in oven to keep warm. Use existing bacon grease and add more, or add olive oil.
  4. Add ¼ cup salt to pot of boiling water. Don't be stingy. This is your only chance to flavor the pasta.
  5. Add box of pasta to boiling salted water. Boil for 4-6 minutes, until just short of al dente. The pasta should be chewy but not taste starchy. Drain.
  6. Break egg into a small dish and stir. Set aside.
  7. While pasta cooks, make the béchamel sauce:
  8. Melt butter in a saucepan heated to medium high. Let the butter melt until the bubbles subside and the butter is golden brown.
  9. Stir in flour. Reduce heat to low and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. You are making a roux and you don't want to brown/burn it. You want to keep the color as light as possible. You need to allow the flour time to cook and blend with the butter.
  10. Slowly whisk in the milk and stir. Stirring helps remove lumps and smooths out the sauce.
  11. Add nutmeg and mustard. Keep stirring and allow the milk to come to slow boil. As it comes to a boil, the milk will thicken.
  12. Once the milk thickens, scoop out ¼ cup and slowly whisk the milk into the beaten egg.
  13. Add the tempered egg to the pot. Stir.
  14. Taste the sauce and salt & pepper to taste. If you like heat, add cayenne or red pepper flakes.
  15. Add all cheeses to sauce and stir until cheeses melt into sauce, approximately 2-4 minutes.
  16. Remove skillet from oven and add drained pasta to it. You should hear the sizzle from the hot cast iron. Pour the béchamel sauce over it and stir to mix well. Crumple the bacon and add to the skillet. Stir again.
  17. Sprinkle a layer of cheese on top. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes until cheese is melted and brown.
  18. Serve!

 

Veggies on my Pizza? Yes please!

I like veggies and, of course, love pizza!  For the past week, I’ve repeatedly made a specific pizza: Bacon, asparagus and goat cheese pizza.   My only problem has been the crust — I’m not using a wide enough cast iron skillet.  As much as I love crust, well, let’s say there’s a fine line between “yippy, thick crust!” and “whoa! That’s a lot of crust!”

It’s all about veggies for this pizza.  Leftover roasted asparagus, roasted brussel sprouts and fresh grape tomatoes.  Feel free to use any veggies in your fridge.  The best part is it’s pizza!

Veggies on my Pizza? Yes please!
Lots of freshly roast veggies atop whole wheat pizza dough
Author:
Cuisine: Pizza
Recipe type: Main
Serves: 4-6
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Ingredients
  • 1 pizza dough (store bought is fine)
  • 10-12 stalks asparagus, roasted
  • ½-pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
  • 6 brussel sprouts, cut in half and roasted, optional
  • 6 slices bacon, center cut
  • red pepper flakes, to taste
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 4 oz mozzarella cheese, part-skim shredded or fresh, thinly sliced
  • 4 oz grated Italian cheese blend
  • 4 oz goat cheese
  • ½ red onion, chopped
  • black pepper, to taste
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Add a large cast iron skillet to the oven and let it pre-heat along with the oven.
  2. If your dough is store-bought, turn it out on a lightly floured surface and let it rest 20 min.
  3. While the dough is resting, fry the six pieces of bacon until crispy. Save 2 tbsp. of bacon grease. Drain the bacon on paper towels. Crumble in small pieces and set aside.
  4. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough. Aim for a thin round shape. (Trust me, this is not as easy as it sounds!). Let the dough rest again while you get the skillet from the oven.
  5. Remove the skillet from the oven; add the reserved bacon grease and swirl to coat the bottom of the skillet.
  6. Fit the dough into the skillet and listen to the sizzle of crust being formed. Sprinkle the dough with red pepper flakes, salt, and generous sprinkle of garlic powder. Sprinkle half of the cheeses, followed by grape tomato halves, veggies and red onion.
  7. Sprinkle last bit of cheese, top with goat cheese and bacon. Top with 1-2 grinds of black pepper.
  8. Put the skillet in the oven for 12-18 minutes. Check after 10 minutes to see if bottom of the crust is brown.
  9. Remove from the oven and let the pizza rest 5 minutes. Slice and serve.

Fresh out of the oven pizza

I decided to make a veggie pizza after roasting too much asparagus on Sunday and realizing I still had goat cheese from last week’s pizza attempt.  You can also roast the grape tomatoes to intensify the flavor.  Roasting will add 35-45 min to your prep time if need to roast them before they go on the pizza.  Or you can buy the teeny tiny asparagus.  That will roast in the time the pizza cooks.

Hot gooey slice of pizza

This was delicious!  Next time I’ll roll the dough thinner and put it in a larger skillet but the flavors … YUM!—

Must admit — the ice cold glass of Gosset champagne  went very nicely with the pizza.  Can’t wait to try next week’s variation!

 

 

Tonight’s Wine

05/10/2012

Poker night!  I’m drinking La Marca Prosecco.  It’s an inexpensive, easy-to-drink sparkling wine that goes very well with cheese and crackers, light seafood dishes.

I enjoy sparkling wine in all forms — Champagne, prosecco, cava, other sparkling wines — and this one is one of my favorites.  It doesn’t pretend to have the gravitas of champagne — it’s fun, it’s bubbly, its unpretentious!  It’s the friend you call when you want a fun time or when you’re introducing a new ‘friend’ not when you’re announcing the huge promotion or engagement.

Great start to poker night — wish me luck!

Please share your favorite sparkling wines.  I’ll talk more about some of my all-time favorite champagnes in later posts.