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.
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.”
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.
Grate your cheese.
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.
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!
This is comfort food at its best. Hope you’ll try it and bring it in for your co-workers.
- 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
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- 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.
- Put skillet in oven to keep warm. Use existing bacon grease and add more, or add olive oil.
- Add ¼ cup salt to pot of boiling water. Don't be stingy. This is your only chance to flavor the pasta.
- 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.
- Break egg into a small dish and stir. Set aside.
- While pasta cooks, make the béchamel sauce:
- Melt butter in a saucepan heated to medium high. Let the butter melt until the bubbles subside and the butter is golden brown.
- 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.
- Slowly whisk in the milk and stir. Stirring helps remove lumps and smooths out the sauce.
- 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.
- Once the milk thickens, scoop out ¼ cup and slowly whisk the milk into the beaten egg.
- Add the tempered egg to the pot. Stir.
- Taste the sauce and salt & pepper to taste. If you like heat, add cayenne or red pepper flakes.
- Add all cheeses to sauce and stir until cheeses melt into sauce, approximately 2-4 minutes.
- 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.
- Sprinkle a layer of cheese on top. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes until cheese is melted and brown.