I used to hate mac and cheese. Even as a kid. It meant radioactive-comic-book-orange powder sauce, greasy noodles, low nutritional value, and all-around sloppy yuckiness. Why don’t they put that on the box?
My lovely, wonderful, fantastic boyfriend has moved away, and so I was in need of some major comfort food, deciding on M&C. Comfort food is supposed to have some type of nostalgic/traditional sentimental attachment to it, making us feel happy and safe and excited like we’re kids with relatively easy-peasy lives again, but my mum and grandma are Chinese, so I grew up with Luchroom M&C (the horror!). The expression “just like Mom/Grandma used to make” doesn’t apply unless we’re talking won tons and cheesecake. Besides, I do all the cooking around here now, so isn’t making comfort food for yourself like cheating in order to cause a desired result? Maybe this recipe should have been called Adult Placebo-Effect Non-Mac-and-Cheese. My own comfort comes from knowing that you can improve something if you don’t like it, and also that during the next tough little while, when I actually have an appetite, I’ll be getting my carbs, dairy, and fats all at once.
As for the name, the Grown-Up bit comes from making the sauce from scratch, using a white roux, and using four cheeses, and the non-mac part comes from me having to use rigatoni instead of macaroni, forgetting that I used the rest in another recipe. You can pretty much use any kind of pasta with this, but I recommend the shorter types, as the sauce turns out really thick and having 30 noodles clump together while attempting the fork twirl might make you go crazy. Unless you like fettuccine lollipops. Hmmm, that might turn into a fun idea.
The sauce is pretty basic (and posted below), so I sprinkled in some chunky aromatics to mod it up. Let’s begin!
Throw the butter in a pot over medium heat and let it melt until it starts foaming. I should note that there were no onions in my house. Had there been, I would have diced them finely and added them at this point, to soften them and give the sauce a sweet flavour. The scent of butter and onions cooking are supposed to be like Pavlov’s Bell for humans. And maybe some dogs, too.
If you’ve got weak arms, grab a friend or family member with some pipes! Pour in the flour and stir vigorously to incorporate until it forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pot in order to stick together. Then keep stirring for a couple of minutes! This roux is just for making the sauce lovely and thick, so if you want a richer, nuttier flavour (that is even better when there are onions caramelizing in it), keep it on the heat longer, but know that a very dark roux will have less thickening strength than a light one.
Start adding the milk in gradually. Let it come back to a simmer between whisking and further additions. The sauce is so dense that I could draw a line and it would stick that way, so you know that means more milk is needed, because the pasta will absorb a lot of it, and the cheese will also thicken things up too. Now is also a good time to season. I used kosher salt and finely ground black pepper.
Whisk in the cheese until it’s all melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy. Resist the urge to put your face in there. I had a bunch of half-used cheese wedges in the fridge and grated up a mix of aged white cheddar (good but a little too greasy on its own), Rathtrevor (from Little Qualicum), and Swiss Gruyere (my all-time favorite superstar). If you find that you need more milk, now is your last chance!
Freshly plucked basil, roasted garlic cloves (make sure to smoosh it up, or else look for them like prizes in your dinner), and slices of sun-dried tomatoes are my add-ons that took this dish to the next level, but you can throw anything in there you like. Other veggies, meat, seafood, anything you like. Toss any and all into the pot, then dump in the pasta, and about a tablespoon of the starchy water that it boiled in. Stir it well to coat, and let it sit for a minute so the pasta can absorb some of the sauce.
The finished product, next to some lightly sauteed carrot and zucchini that I considered putting into the sauce.
I topped it off with grated Parmigano-Reggiano and a few extra roasted garlic cloves. This probably would have been better with macaroni, rotini, or farfalle, as the same amount would have yielded more surface area to coat. The rigatoni trapped a lot of sauce in the holes and so the whole thing was cheesy and saucy, yay.
I’m kicking myself for not frying up some of the prosciutto slices in the fridge and crumbling them on top. Next time!
Here is the recipe. Easy peasy!
6 cups pasta (cooked)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups grated cheese (don’t pack it in. If you want to try a mix but aren’t sure how good it will be, sample little pieces of your favorite types together)
2 cups milk (room temperature works best. If you have extra left over, make hot chocolate!)
Salt/pepper/whatever your favorite seasonings are (basil, oregano, chili flakes, etc)
What’s fun about this sauce is it’s so simple and is a great base for you to add yummy things into. Maybe next time I’ll do broccoli and chunks of chicken (with that prosciutto), or peas and tuna, or use a whole wheat pasta. All you really need to think about is
- Does it taste good with cheese? and
- Does it taste good with pasta?
There are so many options. So start rifling through the cupboards, fridge and freezer! I’d love to see what you come up with.