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!

 

Cast iron skillet – holy grail

Growing up in a Southern home, I know cast iron skillets.  My mom has had hers for at least 45 years.  As a teenager, I remember cooking Sunday breakfast (bacon and eggs) and Sunday supper (usually fried chicken).  I also remember scouring dried eggs or chicken crust from it because I was too lazy to rinse it out when it was hot.

What I didn’t appreciate then was the skillet never lost its shiny black interior — it was true non-stick.  The crud on the exterior is a different story!   Along side that skillet was grease pail.  I’d strain hot bacon grease or shortening into the grease pail every time I cooked and, of course, added some of that savory grease every time I started cooking.

Scrambling eggs, making gravy, sauteing onions, frying chicken, steaming greens …. the skillet was used for every dish and every dish started with bacon grease.

When away to college and forgot the 2 magic ingredients of my family’s kitchen.  Cast iron and bacon grease fell out of favor with the masses.

10 years ago, I missed that skillet and, honestly, was tired of buying and rebuying nonstick cookware that warped and scratched within 1-2 uses.  guess what?  People in Los Angeles apparently don’t use cast iron skillets — no Goodwill, Salvation Army or the 30+ antique stores I visited had any.  Really??  Is cast iron cooking banned like smoking in public places?  No nonstick skillet will sear a steak nearly as well as a cast iron skillet …. oh right, people in LA try not to eat steak.

I finally purchased 2 skillets off ebay at a price of $150+ each.  Desperate times, desperate measures.

Fast forward to a weekend in Leavenworth, Kansas — yes, home to the infamous prison — and a morning of antiquing.  Not only did I find cast iron skillets, I found 5 of them!  And a grit pot and a chili pot.  Talk about hitting the jackpot (no pun intended).  To make it even better, with the exception of the chili pot, each skillet was $8Yes, $8!  The cast iron gods smiled on me, I tell ya.

I did have to transport them back to LA but, again luck was with me.  My suitcase weighed 48 lbs, 2 lbs shy of the 50-lb limit!

next up, a bacon grease pail.

I followed the instructions on Men In Aprons, here:

4 Steps to Season cast iron skillet

Using kosher salt, distilled white vinegar and Crisco to season them.  My skillets (all 7 of them) are now seasoned, happily settled into their new home, ready to  revisit the dishes of my youth and test out new recipes.

I’m thankful to be of an age where I appreciate the small details of my youth, where I appreciate a small portion of comfort food and, more importantly, where I’m still able to lift cast iron skillets!   No wonder women of previous generations never worked out.