The time has come. It’s been years of pain, discomfort and embarrassment avoiding high fat food due to the 2 centimeter-sized gallstones in my belly. But finally I can share with you all – I can eat cheese again! Pain free!!!
It took about 6 weeks until I was finally ready to try cheese again. The gallbladder surgery makes you feel funky and it takes a while for your body to figure out how it should digest again. But at a rainy beach weekend with my girlfriends, I dared to say “No it’s okay – I’ll eat the pizza.” They were terrified of what might happen to me (nothing that would be inconvenient for them, thank goodness), but we went ahead and ordered the pizza. I went ahead and ate the pizza. And then … NOTHING HAPPENED. Which is the point! No hot flash, no sweating, no cramping, no needing to lie down. I could enjoy that pizza and that’s all. Pure bliss! (It was really good pizza with arugula and prosciutto, too, a fitting way to enter back into cheesedom.)
But enough about pizza I got in Rehoboth, let’s talk about cheese we can enjoy together. If my title is any indication, as soon as I knew I could make cheese, I immediately bought some extra sharp cheddar and made the greatest cheese dish on earth: mac and cheese. Cheese sauce. Pasta. Heaven.
One of my favorite things about cooking is watching ingredients turn into something else. Which I know sounds “DUH”, but I don’t mean roasting a tomato, although that is amazing. I mean taking cream and whipping it into fluffy clouds or beating together a batter that becomes cake (Reenie Cake, naturally.) Well the Mac and Cheese recipe I’m about to share with you is another one of those – you take butter, flour and milk to create a thick, velvety sauce before your eyes that just needs cheese added to it. It’s amazing.
The recipe comes from my favorite cook book Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci. I’ve given this book as gifts to many aspiring cooks because it is exactly what it promises – simple, easy-to-follow advice to make extremely stunning and impressive food. Linda had me cooking risotto and cheese-stuffed chicken breasts very early into my cooking endeavors. And she taught me so much about food and cooking that I’ve applied to many recipes of my own. God bless you, Linda.
I make this recipe exactly (almost) as Linda describes and she turns fancy french cooking into something possible for this amateur here. We’re going to make a roux, add milk to make a béchamel sauce and add cheese to make a Mornay Sauce. Sound scary? It’s not! But it is weird…
When you start to add the milk to the roux, the mixture seizes up into a big clump, so you need to add more milk quickly and keep stirring. My only complaint is that Linda doesn’t describe what happens when you add milk to the roux. She only says “Have faith and continue to add the milk.” Rather ominous.
So in order to help you visualize this recipe, James, angel that he is, filmed the entire progression for you and helped me edit this video into true perfection. This will allow you to see all the various stages so you, too, can achieve homemade mac and cheese glory. I am here to serve. (THANK YOU, JAMES!!!)
This recipe asks you to be stirring almost constantly for about 15-minutes, which I really love. It’s a simple recipe, but you’re really earning that creamy sauce, putting lots of love and effort into the dish. You feel very accomplished when it’s done – and you SHOULD. You just made homemade mac and cheese! You’re the bomb.
Ready, Get Set – BONNIE MAC AND CHEESE!
(I do require that you refer to the dish that way from now on. In honor of my struggles. I think I deserve it.)
The following video will show you the progression of the sauce. Specific times for each step are indicated below.
Mac and Cheese
Adapted ever so slightly from the “Macaroni and Cheese Variation” written by Linda Carucci in Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks
- 1 lb. medium shell pasta
- 6 TBL unsalted butter (I use salted butter and adjust the salt at the end)
- 5 TBL flour
- 3 cups milk (I have always used 1%, but I’m sure whole milk would be delightfully decadent)
- 2 cups (.5 lb) shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 tsp kosher salt plus more for pasta water (with salted butter, I ended up using 1 tsp at the end)
- A few shakes of hot sauce or 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper
- Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.
- Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.
- In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.
- Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)
- Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between. The mixture will change texture several times as you add. (0:42)
- Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth. Add all remaining milk at this time. (2:45)
- When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays in tact, without filling in.) (4:05)
- Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)
- Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired. (6:00)
- Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.
Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes
- Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.
I cooked my pasta almost as soon as I came in the door from work, far before I was making the cheese sauce. When the pasta was fully cooked, I drained and coated with the lightest coat of olive oil I could manage, to keep it from sticking.
This isn’t usually recommended, because the olive oil covers the natural starches brought to the surface of the pasta when cooked, which helps grab onto the sauce. But as far as time management is concerned, I found this much easier. I like to cook my pasta in my largest pot, which gives it room to move around in the water while cooking, but it also takes a long time for the water to boil – sometimes 15 – 20 minutes.
The pasta cooled to room temperature, but when the hot cheese sauce was poured on the pasta, the dish was heated back up again. I found this tactic much easier than cooking the pasta and making the sauce at the same time, because the sauce needs your full concentration.
I enjoy using Medium Shell pasta, because the sauce gets stuck in the shells like delightful little bowls of cheese sauce. Mmmmm…
2. Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.
Mise en place (everything in its place) will be your friend. Again, the sauce will take your full concentration for those 15 minutes. Be prepared!
You can use any cheese in this recipe, although cheddar is most traditional. Just make sure to do a little research on which cheese is a good melting cheese. Not all cheeses melt well and can become stringy or clumpy. Here’s a good article with a couple suggestions – I really want to try smoky gouda next.
3. In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.
You can use a larger pot, but I think that a 3 qt. pot should be your minimum. You’re doing a lot of whisking and stirring and a smaller pot could cause sloshing of hot liquid onto your feet! Not fun.
See video for visual of steps 4 through 9.
4. Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)
This will cook the flour in the butter, for added flavor.
5. Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between. The mixture will change texture several times as you add. (0:42)
6. Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth. Add all remaining milk at this time. (2:45) (This actually happens at 1.25 cups, but I read the recipe wrong – ha! I added all the milk at when there was just 1 cup left. Things still turned out fine.)
7. When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays intact, without filling in.) (4:05)
8. Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)
9. Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired. (6:00)
I think the hot sauce is clutch in this recipe, but I didn’t add it when I made this video because the dish was made for two dear friends who are also new parents and hot sauce is not for everyone. I, personally, add the hot sauce and pour the hot sauce over the mac and cheese when it’s on my plate. The hotness cuts through the rich cheese sauce with delightful contrast.
10. Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.