Wednesday, January 28, 2015

I made mac and cheese.

Yesterday, I was craving mac and cheese. The home made kind. The cheesy baked in the oven kind.
Luckily we had the ingredients on hand to make a big ass pan... I predict it will last two days before it's all gone.

What you need:
4 slices of thick cut bacon
2-3 Tablespoons of flour
3 cups of milk at about room temp.
1 cup of grated cheddar cheese
1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese
1 pound of pasta shells. (a 16 oz box)
salt and pepper to taste

For the topping: about half a sleeve of crushed club crackers and a couple of Tablespoons of melted butter, the left over bacon bits, and a good hand full of left over cheddar cheese.

How to make it:
*If you want to go meatless you can just omit the bacon entirely, substitute a cooking oil of your choice and skip ahead to the adding the flour portion.

First cut the bacon into chunks and put your pasta water on to boil. Professionals call these bacon chunks lardon. Put the bacon chunks in a pan on medium-low heat and slowly render out the fat. You are going to use the fat to make a roux for your mornay sauce (fancy name for cheese gravy). When the bacon is done, remove it and pour the bacon fat off into a bowl. Then put in two or 3 Tablespoons of the fat back into the pan and add your flour.

While you are making your roux, your pasta water should come to a full boil. When it does, drop your pasta into the boiling water and cook for one minute less than the package directions. The pasta shells I used called for a 10-12 minute cook time. I cooked mine for 9 minutes and then drained it. You want your pasta to be done about the same time it takes for your cheese gravy to be finished so it doesn't dry out while you are waiting.

The flour + oil mixture should look like wet sand. Keep stirring this concoction because you don't want that flour to burn. This is the beginning of what they call a béchamel sauce. Where I grew up, we called it white gravy. You know that tasty sausage gravy you get on your biscuits from Hardees? It's white gravy (béchamel sauce) with ground breakfast sausage added. What we are making here is a cheese gravy and it won't be good if you burn your flour.

When the flour starts to get fragrant, it will take about a minute (your nose will know), start adding in your milk. You want the milk kind of at room temp so there is less chance of it curdling. Add the milk slowly and incorporate it into the flour. This helps eliminate lumps. You don't want to bite down on a flour chunk when you are eating your mac n cheese later. I usually pour about a half cup in, then stir. Then another half cup and stir. Just repeating until all the liquid is incorporated. Once all the milk is in the pan, season with salt and pepper to taste. I actually omitted salt from this recipe because I knew I was adding bacon at the end.

Now, let your milk and flour mixture heat up. Congratulations! What you have now is a béchamel sauce.  Béchamel sauce is considered a mother sauce because it is from here that all other milk sauces are made. Keep stirring while the milk heats up because you don't want the milk solids to burn on the bottom of the pan. When the milk gets hot, you should see your sauce start to thicken. Now its time to add your cheese. Add some cheese and stir, add some cheese and stir until all the cheese is melted into the gravy.

Once all the cheese is incorporated into the gravy, pour your shells into a 9 by 13 inch pan. Pour the cheese gravy all over the shells. If you want to fancy it up, add cheese and crushed crackers to the top. Put this in a 350 degree oven and bake for 30 minutes until bubbly. Take it out of the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes to firm up. Add your left over bacon bits to the top now if you haven't eaten them all.

To make it look at least a little healthy, I threw some baby spinach in the bowl.

If you want to sneak some veggies to people who might not be that into veggies, throw some baby spinach into the sauce right before you pour it over the pasta. Give it a stir so the spinach will wilt and then pour and mix it all in.