The Mac & Cheese you see above was created by yours truly without a recipe. I don’t know if you find that impressive, but I’m certainly impressed with myself.
It all started when I made those roasted red peppers you saw in the previous post. The next night, I had those in the fridge and I also had our latest shipment of the Cheese of the Month Club from Murray’s Cheese. That shipment contained both cheddar and Emmentaler, both of which I thought might work in a mac & cheese. Since I also had milk and some flour, I knew I could make this happen.
To improvise a mac & cheese, all you need to know is how to make a bechamel. (Or should I say: Béchamel.)
Essentially, it’s a white sauce you make with flour, butter and milk. Once you’ve boiled your pasta in heavily salted water (elbows, penne, ziti, doesn’t really matter) and drained it, heat up 4 cups of milk in one pot,
while melting about 4 Tbs of butter in another pot.
To the butter, add 4 Tbs of flour and stir that together over medium heat for about a minute so the raw flour cooks. If you were making a cajun dish, you’d cook that flour and butter on low heat for an hour and it would change colors–from brown to darker brown and then almost to black–but we’re not doing that here. In fact, for a Béchamel, you don’t want it to change color at all.
After a minute, pour in the hot milk and whisk whisk whisk so everything gets incorporated. Keep whisking and raise the heat a little. You want to cook this until it’s nice and thick; it’ll coat the back of a spoon when it’s ready.
When that happens, season with salt, pepper, a pinch of cayenne and the key ingredient to any excellent Béchamel: freshly grated nutmeg.
I love freshly grated nutmeg so much I get angry when I see people using the pre-ground stuff on TV. If you’ve never bought whole nutmeg, you have a wonderful treat in store: get some today and use a microplane to grate it into whatever you’re making that would benefit from nutmeg. You’ll never go back to the sawdust again.
So stir in those spices and then, finally, add a bunch of grated cheese:
I’d say I added about 1/2 a cup of the cheddar and 1/2 a cup of the Emmentaler. Of course, at this point, I tasted it very carefully:
Your mac & cheese will only taste as good as that sauce tastes. I remember I added more salt, a little more cheese, and, of course, more nutmeg.
When it tasted great, I added the cooked pasta (about 1 pound), some sliced roasted red peppers for color and acidity, and tossed it all around and then poured it into a little baking dish. I had the oven pre-heated to 425 and just before it went in, I topped everything with a combo of the grated cheese and some fresh bread crumbs I’d kept in my freezer from the last time I’d made fresh bread crumbs:
That’s how it went in and this is how it came out about 20 minutes later (I think it was 20 minutes; just keep watching it and when it’s golden brown on top, it’s time to come out):
Here it is with some of that salad dressed with the marinade from the roasted red peppers:
As you can see, this entire dinner came down to knowing just one technique: how to make a Béchamel. Once you know that, you can make all kinds of mac & cheeses and lasagnas and cheese sauces. With a little milk, flour and butter, you can conquer the world.