This past Valentines Day, I offered my girls their hearts’ desire for dinner, and without much deliberation, they requested mac and cheese, a meal not often on the menu at our house. I knew they really wanted the processed package of mac they’d been eyeing in the cupboard ever since we bought it, but I decided to make it from scratch instead.
Making mac from scratch is easy and you get to use a classic French sauce-making technique. All you have to do is thicken some milk with butter and flower, and whisk in some cheese. It’s a wonder how popular the packaged stuff is.
Valentine’s Mac and Cheese Casserole
Make a white roux by melting a thick knob of butter in a pot large enough to accommodate the noodles. Add an equal amount of flour. Smell the flour cooking, and look for a pale shade of white. Whisk in cold milk and a pinch of nutmeg. This can be called béchamel* and is considered a mother sauce or foundational sauce of French cooking.
When the sauce is smooth, stir in shredded cheese. I used parm and the kids’ favorite, “yellow cheese.” When cheese is added to béchamel, it becomes “mornay” (cheese sauce).
Cook the noodles (shells or elbow macaroni work well), and add them to the sauce. Optionally, add chunks of ham, cooked bacon or blanched broccoli flowers.
Pour the cheesy noodle mixture into a hot iron pan. Liberally sprinkle buttered and seasoned breadcrumbs on the mac and cheese and put it into an oven set to its highest setting.
Remove the casserole when the breadcrumbs are browned, the sauce has bubbled, and a thick crust has formed on the top.
*In a more traditional béchamel, the milk is steeped with an onion studded with cloves and a bay leaf.