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From the familiar blue box to gourmet eight-cheese combinations, we can’t seem to get enough of mac and cheese. It may be the be all and end all of down-home comfort food. It’s rich, flavorful and satisfying — friendly and familiar but never dull. It’s a great, classic choice for dinner parties and a vegetarian dish that leaves even the carnivores contented. Almost everyone loves it. Creamy and cheesy, there simply aren’t many foods more comforting than homemade macaroni and cheese.
There are two primary formulas for making all-American macaroni and cheese: the bechamel or custard method. Bechamel is a white sauce made by stirring heated milk into a butter-flour roux. This white sauce can be thin, thick or somewhere in the middle. The thickness of the sauce depends on the proportion of butter and flour to milk and varies according to what you are using it for: for example, thin for soup, medium-bodied for casseroles such as mac and cheese, and thick for souffles. The medium white sauce is probably the most common. The proportions for a thin sauce are 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour per 1 cup of milk, a medium sauce uses 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour, and a very thick sauce, 3 tablespoons each. Bechamel is a very useful sauce in the kitchen, far beyond mac and cheese.
The classic Southern macaroni and cheese, however, uses the custard method. The custard forms as the macaroni cooks, so no sauce is made ahead of time. This is the version of macaroni and cheese that I grew up enjoying. It is a proverbial dump-and-stir recipe. This mac and cheese is great for busy moms as well as folks on a budget, yet with a couple of additions such as sauteed spinach, lobster or shrimp, it can become an uptown one-pot meal. There’s mac and cheese for every occasion. Try it with different ingredients to find the perfect recipe for your hungry brood.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Get the Recipe: Classic Southern Macaroni and Cheese
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.