Dinner going smoothly: creamy white macaroni and cheese

This terrible photograph doesn't do this delicious mac 'n' cheese justice. It was was heaven; my camera, alas, is not.

This terrible photograph doesn’t do this delicious mac ‘n’ cheese justice. It was was heaven; my camera, alas, is not.

Sometimes meatless nights are a welcome respite from the usual protein meals. I don’t know about you, but I get awfully sick of a chicken breast sometimes. I can’t even remember the last time I ate a full breast in one sitting. And I find I just don’t want to stomach much beef, unless it’s a perfect fillet mignon or a divinely smoked brisket. Sometimes, all your body wants is some pasta and some cheese – with a veggie on the side, of course.

Enter this recipe for homemade macaroni and cheese. I don’t do the boxed stuff: “mac ‘n’ cheese” in the States or “Kraft dinner” in Canada. It’s artificial-feeling, it’s too packaged, it’s unnaturally orange, and it has a funny aftertaste. What the heck is powdered cheese, anyway?

(Just kidding. I actually have eaten the boxed stuff in the last year – maybe even since Christmas. I blame my husband. It’s terrible stuff, and terrible for you, but it does hit the spot every once in awhile, doesn’t it?)

Okay, I’m terrible. Some cook, admitting to cooking a dish from a freaking cardboard box while trying to extol the virtues of my you-must-make-and-eat-it-now homemade version. Zero credibility, I know. But I had to be honest, and I do promise that I make this from scratch ten times for every one time the box enters our house. Honestly. No lies.

Soon-to-be-bechamel sauce. This has just one cup of milk added so far, and it's looking fairly smooth but thick. Note the whisk marks!

Soon-to-be-bechamel sauce. This has just one cup of milk added so far, and it’s looking fairly smooth but thick. Note the whisk marks!

This recipe may look daunting to someone who hasn’t made a béchamel sauce before, but it’s much easier than it looks – and much, much easier the second time you try it. And in truth, a béchamel base plus grated cheese and a few extra flavors are all a cheese sauce is. This really couldn’t be any more simple, short of opening a packet of dehydrated cheese…. There are a few important and quite helpful pieces of advice which I’ve learned since I first started making this recipe:

  1. Use a small whisk to keep the roux (butter and flour) moving around the pan and in smallish bits.
  2. Keep using that whisk to constantly stir the béchamel over medium heat. The whisking will eventually dissolve all the little roux pieces into the milk. More whisking = a smoother sauce.
  3. Don’t crank the temperature dial a millimeter past medium. Your milk will stick an inch thick to the bottom of your pan (keep whisking!), and it’ll likely end up boiling over. Game over!
  4. Did I mention you need to whisk pretty much constantly for about 10 minutes?

Once you commit those golden rules to memory, you’re ready to start. Patience and a good whisking arm will reward you with a silky, tangy-cheesy, and satisfying bowl of macaroni and cheese. The sauce dissolves easily into a smooth and rich blanket for the pasta, with no signs of graininess. I promise. Whip up a batch for dinner, and you and your family will be fighting over the last serving.

Creamy White Macaroni and Cheese

Adapted from Everyday Food. Note: I usually use whole milk for this, but I’ve found lately that 2% milk works just as well. The sauce is actually a bit better because it’s a tad thinner and creates the perfect ratio of sauce-to-pasta. Also, my family chooses to use white cheddar because it adds a certain bite that yellow cheddar is sometimes missing. But, the choice is truly up to you; both make a delicious sauce.

  • 1 1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • scant 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder (you can use more – your sauce will be more tangy)
  • salt
  • 2 cups whole or 2% milk
  • 2 cups coarsely grated extra sharp white cheddar
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 pound small pasta (such as shells, elbow macaroni, gemelli, etc.)

Set a pot of salted water to boil. In a medium saucepan (to mitigate sticking later, use a heavier bottomed one if you can, not a cheap, thin saucepan), melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and stir with a whisk constantly until the roux is pale golden and gives off a slightly nutty scent. Just before that happens, though, sprinkle in the onion powder and a good sprinkle of salt, then keep stirring. This can take 3-5 minutes.

Whisking constantly, pour in 1 cup of the milk. Lower the heat ever so slightly and keep whisking briskly to dissolve the roux into the milk. Don’t let the milk boil; you won’t get the roux to completely dissolve at this stage, but once you’ve whisked it for a good minute or two you can add the second cup of milk. Keep whisking constantly, making sure to stir along the entire bottom of your pan. Work hard to fully dissolve the roux, about 5-7 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently. Whisk occasionally until the sauce thickens and doesn’t feel grainy when you rub a small amount between your fingers, up to 10 minutes. Congratulations – you’ve made a béchamel sauce!

Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente or a bit softer (your choice – I like post-al dente pasta, personally). Drain the pasta and set aside. Remove the béchamel from the heat and stir in the mustard and Worcestershire sauce, then add the cheese. Stir with a spoon to melt completely. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to coat. Serve immediately. Leftovers – if there are any – can be refrigerated and reheated in a microwave at half power.

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