…from the California Kitchen
How you doin’? Lots of chefs are obsessed with creating new, never-before-seen cooking techniques—some of them actually very good. On the other hand, just because something is new and created by a “star” chef doesn’t mean it’s better.
Before we moved our offices and test kitchen last year we dismantled our large library of cooking books—many of them were older collector’s items. These were collections of old-school recipes and cooking school techniques that worked well for hundreds of years—and the results today are still absolutely delicious. Take for example the attached recipe for a century’s old Béchamel Macaroni & Cheese. This is nothing like that blue box of Kraft Mac & Cheese which can’t hold a candle to this recipe.
Béchamel sauce is the basic sauce of a creamy mac and cheese. It is a silky white sauce made from milk and thickened with butter and flour (no cheese in the basic sauce). It is one of the five “mother sauces” used in French cooking, meaning it is a base used for other, more complex sauces such as Mornay or Alfredo.
Béchamel is a sauce traditionally made from a white roux (butter and flour) and warm whole milk. Béchamel may also be referred to as besciamella, besamel, or white sauce (yes, even Aunt Penny’s is a basic white sauce). Basic Béchamel sauce recipes can include salt, pepper and nutmeg as a seasoning base.
Basic white sauce was the culinary invention of Duke Philippe De Mornay in the 16th century. He was the Governor of Saumur and Lord of the Plessis Marly. Béchamel Sauce is a variation of the basic white sauce of Mornay. He is also credited with being the creator of Mornay Sauce, Sauce Chasseur, Sauce Lyonnaise and Sauce Porto.
One of the oldest recipes goes back a couple of centuries. It is what I consider the mother of all mac and cheese recipes. It is very simply written—start by making a basic Béchamel sauce by melting butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, then add the same amount of flour and whisk it in. Gradually add warmed milk and a pinch of salt, keep whisking constantly until the mixture starts to thicken--voila!... Béchamel.
Next, add some cooked pasta (small shells, elbow, rigatoni, macaroni or penne are all good choices) to the warm Béchamel sauce, and mix in cubes of Fontina cheese and grated Parmesan. Toss everything together, then top it all off with more Parmesan, ground pepper, and a few slices of butter to make the dish simply scrumptious.
You’re not done yet… as a final step of this cheesy mixture, sprinkle a handful of bread crumbs over the top and bake it in the oven until the top is golden brown and bubbly.
Just because this recipe for Mac and Cheese Bake is centuries old, that doesn’t mean it has any formal measurements. Tossing around some cooked noodles in a classic Béchamel sauce and then adding a ton of cheese and butter isn’t a revolutionary idea. After all, this recipe has been around for hundred of years.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2-1/2 to 3 cups warm whole milk
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cup Fontina cheese
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 pound cooked pasta
To make the Béchamel sauce
ChefSecret: Get creative, try different cheeses or add breadcrumbs as a topping. I add a tablespoon of bleu cheese for a sharper flavor. You can use different shapes of pasta or add some extra spices to amp up the flavor. And don’t forget to butter or spray Pam on your baking dish or you’ll be using elbow grease to remove the baked-on cheese .
Quip of the Day: “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of being part of a major historical event.”
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