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A truly Wicked Mac & Cheese starts with a good bechamel, and a good bechamel, starts with the right ratio of butter flour and milk. Add cheese and you have mornay sauce, which in my opinion, starts with good cheese. Nothing like a stick to your rib, family favourite as winter wanes.
In our house, mac & cheese is utility food. It serves a purpose, it cleans up all the last little bits of pasta in the pantry, and the cheese drawer in the fridge to boot; the end of a box of penne, three handfuls of rigatoni and the last of the macaroni. In it goes three to five different cheeses, everything sharp and salty leftover from Christmas scavenging, swaddled in bits of plastic and now slightly dry around the edges; a 5 year aged cheddar, a partial wedge of jalapeno Monterrey Jack, a sheep’s milk Gruyere, the last of a previously grated lump of Swiss, and a sizable chunk of Parmesan.
Sometimes it’s creamy, due to the amount of brie and soft cheeses on hand, but we are a family of strong cheese lovers so it’s generally punchy. Then we mix in sun dried tomatoes, roasted garlic, some lightly sauteed leeks and a nice smokey bacon for what we call… Wicked Mac & Cheese.
But for a moment, let’s get back to that good bechamel. It is after all one of the five mother sauces, so it deserves a little homage of it’s own. To my mind, one of the best tricks of the trade I’ve ever learned was the perfection of a bechamel, which is hinged on how you handle your roux (cooked butter & flour, made into a paste).
In the pro kitchen we work with weights instead of measures so that we can calculate how to make 30 liters of bechamel in a snap. The perfect ratio for a bechamel is 70 grams of butter & 70 grams of flour to each liter of milk. Not cream, milk. I’ve converted it to measures below because it’s not likely that you’ll be making 30 liters of the stuff anytime soon. (But you could!)
First, melt your butter in a sauce pan over medium heat, then whisk in your four until it’s well blended. This is your roux, butter and flour, it’s that easy. I like to keep it moving a little bit with the whisk so the butter doesn’t scorch as it cooks. It’s important that you cook your roux before you add the milk, but how do you know when your roux is cooked?
You know your roux is cooked as the flour begins to toast and it starts to smell like cookies. Then you add your milk, whisk until smooth and then bring to a low simmer for about ten minutes. If making a mornay, then add your cheese and season to taste.
Master the mother sauces and you begin to master the kitchen.
Wicked Mac & Cheese Recipe
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cooking time: 25 – 45 minutes (individual portions vs. casserole)
Yield: 6 servings
1 leek – finely chopped
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes
6 – 8 slices bacon (double smoked preferred)
5 – 8 cloves roasted garlic, mashed
3 cups pasta
5 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons four
4 cups milk
3 1/2 cups grated cheese, divided
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
salt & pepper – to taste
1. Soak sun dried tomatoes. Lightly sweat leeks and reserve to cool. Cook bacon until desired doneness, drain, chop and reserve. While leeks & bacon cook, bring water to a boil to cook your pasta.
2. Cook pasta, drain, rinse & reserve. While pasta cooks, drain and chop sun dried tomatoes, then prepare your sauce.
3. In a medium sauce pan, melt butter over medium heat, whisk in four until blended and continue to cook for three or four minutes until your roux is cooked. Add milk and whisk, over medium heat until smooth. Deduce heat, and bring to a low simmer for about ten minutes before adding 2 1/2 cups of cheese, a handful at a time, stirring as you go. Finally, add nutmeg and 2 teaspoons of salt & season with pepper to taste.
4. Pre-heat oven to 350°F (175°C). Coat an 8 x 8 (3 quart) casserole dish, or 6 large ramekins, with non-stick spray and reserve. In a large bowl, mix pasta with sun dried tomatoes, leeks, roasted garlic, and bacon. Add mornay sauce until desired sauce to pasta mixture is achieved, taste, adjust seasoning if needed, then scoop into chosen dish for baking. Top with remaining cheese.
5. Bake, uncovered: 20 – 25 minutes for individual ramekin dishes or 45 – 50 minutes for the 8 x 8 casserole size; until bubbling and hot with a crispy, melted cheese layer on top. Remove from oven and serve piping hot.
Gypsy Note: We like a well sauced, but not gooey mac & cheese, so we often have about a 1/2 cup of mornay leftover from this recipe (which we then use in other applications in the next few days I.e: Croque Monsieur). Suit yourself, add less or more for the prefect mac & cheese for your tastes.