Bèchamel sauce is one of the first things I remember my mom teaching me to make when I was a kid. I was probably twelve years old.
Of course, at the time, I had no idea I was learning to make a classic French white sauce or even that it was called bèchamel (a word I have to spell check every time I write it). I certainly didn’t know what roux meant.
I just thought it was the start of my mom’s cheese sauce. Her homemade macaroni and cheese was something we positively begged for as little girls.
She’d also pour the sauce over steamed cauliflower, which we loved equally. Even my dad would make it for us, although his version was decidedly more yellow than my mom’s. Clearly, he had a heavier hand with the grated cheddar.
While my mom was generally laid back and relaxed in the kitchen, rotating through our favorite dishes, there are two things that will positively make her panic.
The first is the potential for food to get cold. When dinner is on the table, she’s shouting that it’s ready, covering everything with foil until the very last minute when every last person is sitting at the table. If it isn’t scalding hot, it’s a miserable plate of food in Susie’s eyes.
And two, a lumpy white sauce. I remember standing at the stove with my mom while she told me to whisk like crazy once the milk was added to the roux.
“It will be lumpy! You have to whisk! Faster! You can’t let it get lumpy!”
Every single time I start a roux and add the milk, I laugh and think of her. I mean, you don’t have to whisk that intensely for a bèchamel to be smooth and creamy. And food isn’t totally terrible if it doesn’t burn your mouth.
But I’m convinced that fond memory is part of the reason I believe I could eat macaroni and cheese every day for the rest of my life and not get sick of it.
This is the version I love to make these days.
I swap my mom’s classic elbows for cavatappi pasta. I love it’s elegant curl and how the ridges hold the sauce.
Instead of using straight yellow cheddar like my parents used to, I’m loving a combination of mild monterey jack, sharp white cheddar and cream cheese. Because cream cheese is pretty much amazing with anything.
There you have it. And you want to know why that sauce is so darn smooth?
Because I listen to my mother.
Macaroni and Cheese
Makes 4 moderate servings
4 cups dried cavatappi noodles
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 ounces monterey jack cheese, grated
1 1/2 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
1 1/2 ounces cream cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring a large pot or dutch oven of water to a boil. Add a handful of salt to the water and add the pasta. Cook pasta until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Melt butter and sprinkle in flour, whisking quickly to combine. Cook roux for about two minutes, whisking constantly. Pour milk into the skillet, continuing to whisk to create a smooth consistency. Cook the bèchamel sauce, stirring constantly until thickened, 5-8 minutes.
Turn off the heat and add the cheeses to the sauce, stirring as they melt. Season sauce with salt and pepper.
Combine pasta and sauce and stir to coat. Serve. Piping hot.