It’s a raw, chilly day, and San Francisco is wrapped in fog. As we put the final touches on this story, our very last, just-to-make-sure recipe test is in the oven. Mary’s apartment is filled with the cozy aroma of macaroni and cheese, and on a day like today, we can’t think of anything we’d rather eat.
Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Like many comforts, it’s best when you keep it simple and straightforward. The classic baked version is our favorite, based on a white sauce to bind the casserole, with Cheddar cheese stirred in. We also like a stovetop version, in which we experiment with stronger-flavored cheeses, melting them with some cream over very low heat before tossing in the pasta.
Use a gentle heat for a smooth cheese sauce
Whether you’re making baked or stovetop macaroni and cheese, you’ll need to cook the cheese over very low heat and for the shortest possible time. When cheese is overheated, the protein solids and the fat separate, and it gets stringy and rubbery
Baked macaroni and cheese needs a béchamel sauce to bind it. A béchamel is a simple white sauce that’s made by cooking equal parts melted butter and flour into a smooth paste (called a roux) and whisking in milk. Shredded cheese is added to the béchamel (which is now called a Mornay sauce). The starch in the roux stabilizes the cheese, keeping the sauce from separating as the macaroni and cheese bakes
Here are the keys to making a velvety, savory cheese sauce:
• Add flavor to the béchamel. We like to add a bay leaf, sliced onions, and whole peppercorns when we’re putting together the roux. You’ll strain them out before you stir the cheese into the thickened béchamel.
• Make a smooth sauce. Stir the roux constantly with a wooden spoon to avoid lumps, use a whisk when it’s time to add the milk, and keep stirring.
Mix onion, bay, thyme, and peppercorns into the roux. They enrich the white sauce with flavor when you add them early on.
Add the milk in a slow, steady stream. Whisk well for a smooth sauce, and stir constantly as it cooks.