Friday, September 28, 2012

My Homemade Macaroni And Cheese


Of all the warm and cozy, soul-satisfying, deliciously simple family meals that I have churned out over the years, my macaroni and cheese casserole takes first place. 

There. I said it.

I could claim that my recipe is a well-kept family secret, but that would be a big fat lie. The truth is that the women in my family of origin never created such tasty fare. Indeed, it was my Betty Crocker of a mother-in-law who inspired me to start making this lovely dish. But I never got a recipe from her; I just dove in and began some experimentation that led me to where I am today.

So, just in case you are lacking a recipe for the yummiest homemade mac and cheese ever, let me show you the ropes. 

Here are the simple ingredients:

1/4 cup canola oil or butter, melted
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk, but keep the carton handy because you might want more
1 box pasta of any fun shape
a big ol' chunk of cheddar cheese
Parmesan cheese

There are lots of options for add-ons but we will get to those later.

Set two pans to work on the stove. The back pan is water for cooking the pasta so crank up that heat to high. The front burner is for the roux; set that temperature in the medium range.


Roux is just a fancy French word that means 'basic white sauce.' It is nowhere near as complicated or fussy as its bourgeois moniker may imply.

There. I said it.

A roux is built upon a foundation of equal parts of fat and flour. I normally use canola oil because my family prefers its neutral taste, but any cooking oil will do. Melted butter works beautifully, as well.


Add the oil to the pan first, then the flour, and whisk them together till they are smooth. I suppose I should mention that the proper technique is to add the flour slowly, whisking all the while, but honestly I never do that. I just pour out all the flour in one go and then tackle it with my whisk, and my roux turns out just fine.

Let the oil and flour get to know each other for a moment; watch as the mixture settles down and thickens up. It only takes a minute or two, so stay right there and keep your whisk handy, stirring often.

As the mixture thickens, promptly add the milk, pouring slowly and whisking constantly. Yes, be sure to add the milk just a little at a time. If I cheat at this step, I will get lumps in my roux. And that is not just not right.

(If I do get lumps, I ignore them and carry on as if they did not exist. They won't go away, but they aren't the end of the world.)


Now I need to make a confession. Normally, Ranger and I take our afternoon walk before I start making dinner. 

But today, I got a little distracted with some emails and a rousing game of Words With Friends, and I kinda dallied away our prime time for adventure. I would never deny Ranger his walk, but today I decided that our outing would have to be delayed while I slammed together this casserole, so it could bake while we were out. 

Ranger knew that I had violated our sacred schedule. He is very sensitive about these matters. So while I was cooking, he was demonstrating his displeasure to me in several ways, which mostly consisted of him standing around and barking at me.

So I made him sit. Ranger hates to sit. And when he sits, he can't really bark. So essentially, I shut down his entire campaign with a single command. Look at those eyes. I don't think I need Cesar Millan to figure out how Ranger felt about this turn of events.


Then I commanded him to drop. Oh sure, he dropped alright. But take another look at those eyes. 

Someone is not too happy with me. 

* * * * *

Let's get back to that roux, shall we? Now that the milk has been slowly whisked into the oil and flour, turn the heat down to low, give it a stir every minute or two, and watch for it to thicken. 

Now here is an important piece of information. If at any time, it appears that the roux is too thick, simply add more milk to improve the consistency. In the case of today's roux, I added about another half cup of milk.

I must also point out that on rare occasions, one may end up with a roux that simply will not thicken. To fix that sad situation, scoop out about a half cup of the feeble sauce, pour it into a mixing bowl, and then whisk in a tablespoon or more of additional flour. When blended well, add that little concoction back to the pan, whisk it in, and hope for the best.  

As a general rule, please remember that for the sake of creamy deliciousness, always err on the side of roux that is too thick rather than too thin.

You'll never go wrong with that advice.

Once the milk has been added, the roux will need about five minutes to sort itself out, so this is the perfect window for prepping the cheese.

My rule of thumb on measuring out a portion of cheese is this: you can never have too much cheese. Seriously. Just cut off a grand wedge, chop it up into bitty squares so it will melt faster, and leave the rest of the block within arm's reach.

Keep stirring that roux.


When the sauce is thick and creamy, drop in the chunks of cheese. Whisk them around, and have fun playing with the bits that get trapped inside the wires. Watch as the roux slowly turns a pale yellow and then a deep gold. Taste it, and make sure that the cheddar-y tang is coming through loud and clear. If you think it needs more, do not hesitate to add more. Evaluate the consistency as well, and splash in milk if needed.


As I watched my pan full of cheese-roux, little mister decided that I needed another little reminder about that overdue walk.

He opted to return to his strategy of standing at attention and yelping his displeasure; I played my alpha card and commanded him again to drop. Ranger threw himself to the floor with a dramatic sigh, and put his head down in exaggerated obedience.

I believe his point was that at least ONE of us was following the rules today.


Finally, my pot of water came to a boil. Now it's time to dump in the pasta and boil it up proppa.


The obedient lad stayed put while the pasta cooked, but trust me, he wasn't happy about it.  


As soon as the lumps of cheese are completely melted, and the roux passes the cheesiness test, turn off the heat underneath and let it coast while the pasta finishes up.


And this is the perfect time to grate up a half-cup or so of cheddar cheese for the top of the casserole.


I don't bother to time my pasta when it's cooking. Oh, I'm far too much of a rebel for that. I go by the look test; when the edges of pasta start to look pale and kinda stretched out, I know it's just about done. Off into the strainer it goes.


I am a fan of glass baking dishes, and I have several that serve me well. But this darling blue and white dish is my very favorite, and I use it every chance I get. If it ever breaks, I will cry.


First into the dish goes the cooked pasta, and over the top goes the cheese sauce.


Stir the sauce into the pasta, and evaluate the mixture. You are looking for a rich, creamy sauce that coats the pasta. You should be able to see that the sauce is filling up the spaces between the pasta, almost covering the top layer. 

This is a critical point for last-minute troubleshooting:
  • If the sauce seems a little too thick, add a splash more milk and stir it in to the mixture. 
  • If it seems you don't have enough sauce, you can either fish some of the pasta out of the dish and use it for another meal, or add milk to stretch the sauce. 
  • If, by some blessing from above, there seems to be too much sauce, you are in luck. Just scoop off the extra and hide it in the fridge. Late at night, when you are all alone and ready for a snack, warm it up and eat it with bits of buttered toast. You'll thank me for that.
This is also the point for adding any optional ingredients. My family prefers the holy purity of this basic recipe, but it's easy enough to stir in surprise ingredients, such as diced onion, bits of bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, or chopped artichoke. Sky's the limit. 

Ranger update: Still staying. Still upset with me.


For a final touch, top the casserole with the shredded cheddar cheese and a nice sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. This pairing lends a delightful combination of melty goodness and crunchy texture, and it's my family's favorite.

But again, it's easy to customize this top layer: I've used bread crumbs, crumbled potato chips, wheat germ and thin slices of fresh tomato, all to delicious effect. 


Now it's into a 350 degree F oven for about a half hour, until the top layer of cheese is golden and the sauce is bubbling merrily.

I made a pan of roasted baby carrots to go with. 


And now, with my casserole safely tucked into the oven, I called to my good dog, "Hey, Range, you wanna go on a walk??!!"


There. I FINALLY said it.

We had a lovely walk, and when we came home, our yummy homemade macaroni and cheese casserole was waiting for us on the table.

And it tasted just as warm and cozy, soul-satisfying, and deliciously simple as it looks.


For more stories about my homemade favorites, read:

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