Baked mac and cheese is just one of those dishes that is good any time of year. It is easy to transport, keep hot and makes great leftovers. There are lots of great recipes with intricate measurements that make “The Best Mac and Cheese” but really all you need to know are a few simple techniques to whip up a creation of your own.
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The dish was created using elbow macaroni, the bent tube works great to hold some of the sauce inside and is small enough to hold together with other pieces for bite-sized clusters. Many other kinds of pasta will also work. You want something that is small enough to easily grab a small portion with a fork, but thick enough to hold up to the high temperatures of the oven. I prefer shells, but rotini, rigatoni, penne, orecchiette and many others will also work well.
Contrary to popular belief, cheese sauce is not just melted cheese. When the cheese gets to a high enough temperature it does not just melt and become liquid, it separates into fat and milk solids. There needs to be moisture and an emulsifier in place to keep the suspension of fat and allow the flow.
This is where roux (thickening agent made with fat and flour) comes into place to make one of the mother sauces. Béchamel is base to any dairy sauce or soup. It is milk/dairy with a white roux. The process can be achieved in a few different ways. Cold milk can be whisked into hot roux or cold roux can be whisked to hot milk. Keeping the temperatures opposite helps the roux emulsify and also incorporate without leaving clumps of flour.
The ratio is about 1 pound of roux per gallon of liquid, which breaks down to about 1 ounce of roux (1 tablespoon flour, 1 tablespoon fat) per cup. After mixing the roux and milk, slowly bring to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to cook away the raw flour taste. Make sure to stir often. I find that about 1½ quarts of Béchamel works for about a pound of pasta, but it is easy to make more and freeze the extra for the next time you need it.
Just about any cheese works great for finishing your cheese sauce, but I prefer a blend of many. The cheese should not simmer in the sauce too long, it will develop a grainy texture. I find it best to toss the cooked pasta in with the Béchamel, then mix in the cheese; this allows the cheese to melt, but still be emulsified with the sauce.
You don’t have to stop with the pasta and cheese. It is easy to add in some sautéed vegetables, bacon, meat or just about anything else you can think of. Whatever you want to add should be cooked most of the way. It will have a little residual cooking once it goes into the oven, but not enough to bank on if you are trying to add a raw product. This can be a great way to sneak in some vegetables for your kids to eat.
The mac and cheese needs some protection from the harsh temperature of the oven. If the top is left exposed, you will have dried and burnt ends on your pasta. If you add plain breadcrumbs, you will have dried and burnt breadcrumbs. The addition of butter will help you develop a crisp golden crust while protecting the mac and cheese underneath. It is hard to know the exact amount of breadcrumbs you will need. It all depends on the size of your pan. I prefer Panko breadcrumbs, they are flakey and add a great texture. You will need about 1 to 2 tablespoons of melted butter per cup of breadcrumbs with a pinch of salt. This will be the last step before putting the dish into the oven.
Baked Mac and Cheese
Makes 3 to 4 servings
½ pound of dry pasta
2 ounces of butter
2 ounces of flour
1 quart of milk
1 to 2 cups of shredded cheese
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter (for breadcrumbs)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 4 ounces of cooked and crumbled bacon (optional)
3 to 4 ounces of sautéed vegetables (optional)
Cook the pasta in 2 to 4 quarts of salted water until al dente (has a slight bite, but not a crunch), drain and reserve. While the pasta is cooking, you can make your Béchamel, melt the butter in a saucepan and whisk in the flour. Cook roux for 1 to 2 minutes until the bubbles have mostly disappeared (the moisture from the butter and flour evaporating). Whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer (continue to whisk every 30 to 60 seconds). Turn to a very low simmer for 10 to 15 minutes (continue to whisk every 1 to 2 minutes). Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.
After Béchamel has simmered for 10 to 15 minutes and raw flour taste has cooked away, season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss with cooked pasta, cheese and other ingredients (bacon and vegetables), taste and season if needed.
Place into a casserole dish, sauté pan or any oven-safe dish. Melt butter and mix with breadcrumbs and season lightly with salt. Lightly coat the top of pasta mixture with buttered breadcrumbs. If the mixture is within an inch of the top, place onto a baking sheet to catch any sauce that may boil over.
Place pan into the oven for 35 to 45 minutes until the top becomes golden brown and the mixture is bubbling all the way into the center of the pan. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 10 to 15 minutes to set. Serve and enjoy.
Note: Cool the extra, wrap and keep in the refrigerator for up to a week (freeze for up to 3 months). You can take out a portion at a time and heat up on a plate in the microwave or if you have a whole pan, you can drizzle milk over the top to help moisturize the pasta and heat for about 25 minutes until bubbling in the oven.