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At this point in the coronavirus shutdown, you may need a hug. (I sure could use one.) What I can offer you is the kitchen equivalent of a warm, friendly embrace: a pan of macaroni & cheese.
If the pre-fabbed “blue box” is the only way you’ve experienced macaroni & cheese, I invite you to consider an alternative: the homemade kind. Nothing fancy here; everything you need -- grate-able cheese, milk, elbow macaroni, unsalted butter, all-purpose flour, ground spices and dry bread crumbs -- is a supermarket staple or you may already have on hand.
The key technique of this cozy homespun dish is understanding the building blocks of the cheese sauce (aka Mornay sauce). First comes the roux, equal parts fat and flour that ultimately acts as a thickener. Then comes the milk which, as it heats, goes from sloshy liquid to something akin to a custard base. This stage is known as a bechamel sauce. From here, you add the cheese and you’re one step closer to mac & cheese cuddle time. Check out the video below for details.
A few notes:
- Consider grating the cheese yourself rather than buying it pre-grated in a package, which is more expensive. With the help of a box grater, you’ll have grated cheese in about 3 minutes.
- A hunk of stale bread rubbed against a box grater is a great way to make breadcrumbs or toasting a few slices in a 300 F oven before grating. No need to run out for a container of prepared breadcrumbs.
- The photo of the finished dish includes broccoli, which was languishing in my vegetable crisper. After cooking the macaroni elbows, I boiled the broccoli for about 3 minutes, then stirred in with the pasta. Alternatively, you could add chopped kale or frozen peas, or no veg at all.
Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from "The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook" by Kim O’Donnel.
2 cups elbow macaroni
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups whole or low-fat milk
1 ½ teaspoons dry mustard
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne
2 ½ cups grated cheese of choice (cheddar, Gruyere, provolone, jack are all nice options)
¼ to ½ cup dry bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the sides of a 3-quart glass or ceramic baking dish (or 2 smaller baking dishes).
Bring 2 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon of the salt to a boil. Cook the macaroni until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and transfer to the prepared dish. Drizzle the oil over the pasta and toss to coat, so that the pasta stays lubricated while it waits.
In a medium-size saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour, and with a wooden spoon, stir quickly to combine and form a roux. Continue to stir, and cook for about 1 minute, making sure that any flour lumps disappear. The roux will be a golden yellow color.
Add the milk, mustard, remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne, and stir to combine. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring regularly with a wooden spoon to make sure that the milk does not scald, until the mixture is thickened. The mixture is ready when you can run a prominent streak along the back of the spoon with your finger, about 10 minutes. Add the cheese, and stir or whisk constantly until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.
Pour the cheese sauce over the macaroni to cover evenly. Cover the top with the breadcrumbs.
Place the dish in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until the cheese begins to bubble at the edges. To crisp up the breadcrumb topping, place the dish under the broiler setting for about 1 minute. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
Makes about 6 servings.