Sunday, March 2, 2014

Easy and fast mac & cheese from scratch!

Just the mention of a roux can send some amateur cooks into a fit, and I have to admit that mine often aren't perfect, so I tend to shy away from them. But a roux is at the heart of mac & cheese. For those who aren't aware, a roux is a blend of fat and starch that forms a pasty or saucy mixture that doesn't separate. This can be very useful for making gravies and sauces. Mac & cheese is just pasta in a cheese sauce, so it's usually a roux of butter or other oil, cheese and either corn starch or flour.

Below, I'll go into the recipe for a basic mac & cheese using this technique and then a few ways you can "dress it up" with other ingredients. But I have to stress that mac & cheese is a basic canvas. Get creative and try whatever you want! If you're trying to keep carbs in line, don't have this more than once a week, and consider one of the high-fiber, high-protein pastas that have a lower glycemic index.

Basic version:

  • 2 tbsp canola or peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 cups pasta (more if it's a large shell or the like)
  • 1 cup cheddar or other flavorful cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup cream cheese cut into small cubes
  • salt & pepper to taste
Get the oil in a large pan and bring it up to just barely shimmering, but not smoking. Add the butter and as soon as it starts to melt, put in the pasta and toss to coat. Turn heat down to medium. Toss occasionally and wait for the pasta to start showing signs of cooking on the outside (about 30 seconds to a minute). Once the pasta has started to absorb oil and is ready for water, this is the "spice phase" I'll mention below. For this recipe just add the salt and pepper. Now add the water and let it boil on medium heat until almost all of the water is gone and there's just a small amount of very cloudy, somewhat thick water at the bottom. Add the cheeses and turn off heat. Stir quickly for a couple of seconds and then transfer to a bowl and continue stirring until the cheeses melt and integrate well.

The roux forms pretty much automatically when the starch from the pasta, the oil in the pan and the oil in the cheese mix. No muss, no fuss!

Variant: Spicy Bacon Mac & Cheese

As above, but:

  • 1 tbsp dried red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup or more coarsely chopped, cooked bacon strips
During the "spice phase" add the red pepper and toss before adding the water. When transferring to the bowl, add the bacon.

Variant: Morel Mac & Cheese

This is similar to my favorite risotto where I mix in dried morels. They lose much of their flavor to the water, so you want to cook that water into whatever you do! Here, it becomes both part of the pasta and the sauce!

  • 1/2 cup dried morels, chopped into small chunks
  • 1/4 cup extra water
Add the morels during the "spice phase" and the extra water with the rest of the water. That's it. This can be done with any dried mushroom. For fresh mushrooms, don't add extra water, and include them and stir once the pasta begins to absorb water.