No conversation about comfort foods is complete without mentioning macaroni and cheese. Whether you like your pasta with thick bubbly cheese or a rich creamy sauce, mac n' cheese is a classic standby of American cuisine. My secret formula for a perfect mac & cheese includes a roux and bacon to give your finished dish that elusive homemade quality - you certainly will not go wrong with real cheese.
What is béchamel sauce?
A rich and decadent béchamel is my first step in a perfect mac & cheese. This sauce is a basic white sauce that is the backbone of many beloved dishes like au gratin potatoes and lasagna. At its heart traditionally is simply hot milk and a roux.
How to make a great roux?
The start of a great roux is hot melted butter and all-purpose flour, in a 3:2 ratio. While most recipes for roux call for butter, feel free to substitute ghee or coconut oil. You want to make sure that your butter is completely melted, but not yet brown and slowly stir in your flour while stirring for a minute or two. You want to cook off the raw flour taste. Your roux should resemble lightly brown playdough – the darker the roux the richer the taste, but for my mac & cheese I actually prefer a lighter roux, that has cooked for just a few minutes.
How to make a great béchamel sauce?
As you are melting your butter, you should be bringing your milk, or heavy cream, up to a good simmer. This is critical to a great sauce, you want the milk to be very warm so it easily incorporates with the roux to form a thick sauce.
After the roux is the right color, remember we are going for a light and nutty caramel color. Slowly stir in the warm milk and whisk continuously until a thick sauce is formed. You know your béchamel is perfect when it coats the back of a wooden spoon. Make sure you season your sauce with a healthy dash of salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Turning your béchamel into a cheese sauce
After your sauce is rich and thick, you want slowly, and I mean slowly incorporate about 1/3 of a cup of shredded or grated cheese into your béchamel. You will want to stir continuously to make sure that all of your cheese is melted. Sometimes, I find my sauce just a bit too thick, feel free to add a splash of heavy cream or white wine to thin it out a bit.
Turning your sauce into a proper mac & cheese
After the sauce is done, all you need to do is combine your al dente pasta with the cheese sauce and serve. If you like you can top the casserole with bread crumbs and bake in a preheated oven (325 – 375 degrees) for about 30 minutes, or until it is golden brown and delicious. While it isn't always necessary to bake your mac & cheese, I almost always do – I love the extra decadence a crunchy topping adds to the soft and gooey pasta.
Whether you seek to spice up a tried-and-true classic or enjoy the casserole in one of its traditional forms, mac n' cheese is the focal point of many family meals.
Toppings typically add crunch and flavor to the top layer of your macaroni and cheese. Traditional toppings are breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Other choices are butter crackers. Some Southern recipes use saltines. You can also choose French-fried onions, cheese crisps, and potato chips, for a more down home feel to this popular casserole.
You can try one type of cheese or multiple variations in your macaroni dish. Cheddar cheese is the most popular, but the casserole can reach a greater depth with the addition or substitution of fontina, white cheddar, Gorgonzola, Gruyere, pepper jack, Chevre, and Brie cheeses.
I almost always change up the cheese – for a tex-mex feel I would go with pepper jack, for a classic and nutty casserole Gruyere would be my cheese of choice. There is nothing wrong with the classic Cheddar but it is far from the only cheese that would work.
Other Add-Ins and Variations
Bacon – I almost always include Bacon in my Pub Style Mac & Cheese – simply fold crispy bacon in with your pasta and you will have a punch of porky goodness in each bite.
Lobster or Crab – Lobster Mac & Cheese is the ultimate decadent treat. I love using left over lobster, meat from the knuckles work great, and a mix of Gruyere and sharp Cheddar cheeses. For this casserole, you definitely want a crunchy topping.
Roasted Red Peppers and Tomatoes – for a Spanish or Italian style mac and cheese feel free to fold in peppers and tomatoes in with your pasta for a touch of fresh vegetables in this very rich dish.
No matter how you cut it – everyone loves mac & cheese – it is a classic treat and is always a welcome addition to the dinner table.
Here are a selection of some of my favorite Mac & Cheese recipes – feel free to try one or two of them out – your family will thank you.