Thursday, November 25, 2010

Without Hard Edges


Thank Frith the sun came out! (If you don't who Frith is, you need to read Watership Down...) I usually don't mind the gradual descent into winter freeze, but circumstances are such that the prospect of cold, dreary days has placed a dark pall over things. Winter does not sound so appealing this year; hibernation seems like a better idea. I love winter, I really do. Even though it is officially still autumn (Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!), who are we kidding? It's winter in Canada! I do love the cold and the snow, and coming in to a nice, cozy home. After all, I left a relatively comfy life in Europe just because I needed to have snow engulfed winters!

But not so much this year. The felted cocoon that a thick blanket of snow provides does not sound as cozy and comforting as in previous years. I'm a homebody, so snowstorms are the perfect excuse for staying in, snuggling on the couch under a blanket with the cats and a good book. Winter has the magical power to transform a bustling city into a quiet country town. Yet, for some reason, I am dreading the isolation that can occur in the dead of winter. Maybe I just need a good snow storm to change my mood...

In any case, it is times like these when I need to pull out my roster of comfort foods, and get cooking. My current go-to comforter is macaroni (or any other short pasta) and cheese. Noodles and cheese are tops in comfort food: it's creamy, starchy-smooth, soft and non-threatening. And it's a great way to make all sorts of vegetables and left-overs disappear. Last night's roast chicken, shredded, will be born again; left-over turkey from Thanksgiving; bacon from breakfast... And all those 'icky' greens will be magically transformed.


Mac and cheese has been on a revival of late: it's on every happening restaurant's menu, but you needn't drag yourself out into the bitter cold to enjoy a hearty bowl of cheesy goodness. I used to think that the only way to make a good cheese sauce from scratch was to use those appalling, plastic-y slabs of orange goo. I should have known better, but I was young and only just beginning to venture into the kitchen. I think the truth dawned on me when I made my first cheese soufflé: a good cheese sauce was, simply put, a béchamel with cheese, also known as a Mornay sauce.


Once you've mastered Mornay sauce, you can run wild in the kitchen! Swiss chard will no longer be the enemy! Leafy greens will be devoured by every child, woman and man in sight! To paraphrase the Canadian Dairy Farmers' Association (and Mary Poppins), a spoonful of cheese makes the medicine go down! Here are a few points you need to follow for the perfect Mornay sauce: you need to make a thin béchamel to begin with. White sauces are delicious because they are thick, creamy and silky, but the cheese will add extra oomph to the sauce, so your base needs to be quite runny. You can add up to equal parts cheese to the béchamel, but low-fat cheeses need to kept to a minimum. I realise that dairy fat is not exactly healthy, but it is necessary to keep the sauce smooth and silky: low-fat hard cheeses will result in a stringy, rubbery mess, which can be fun for kids, but not so much if you are trying to impress in-laws.  My best advice would be to use the smallest amount of (a stronger flavoured) cheese, and minimize the portions. If you really must use low-fat cheeses, stick to creamy types, such as fresh goat cheese, cream cheese, and ricotta (not too much of the latter, because it will get rubbery in the heat), adding a bit of skim-milk mozzarella to give the sauce a little stretch. One last thing: because the béchamel base has very little flour, it mustn't boil once you've added the milk, or it may curdle; gently simmer it, lowering the heat and stirring vigorously if the sauce threatens to boil.



Sauce Mornay
Yields 3 cups (750mL), or enough for 4 generous portions of pasta and vegetables

1 Tbs butter or oil
1 Tbs flour 
2 c/ 500mL milk
salt and pepper
4 gratings (¼tsp) nutmeg
½ c to 2 c grated cheese (anywhere from 75g to 300g) 

In a saucepan, melt butter. Add flour, and whisk about to prevent lumps.
When the sizzling roux (flour and butter mix) becomes foamy white, gradually pour in the milk.
Continue whisking and crushing any lumps that may form. When the béchamel starts bubbling, turn the heat to medium-low.
Add the nutmeg.
Let cook over gentle heat for at least 5 minutes before adding the cheese.
Season. Be generous with the pepper, but add the salt pinch by pinch: the cheese is already salty, and the sauce can easily end up over-salted.
Stir until the cheese is completely melted.
Check the sauce's thickness: you do not want it to be too thick, or it will congeal too quickly. Aim for the same consistency as a thick cream soup. Add more milk, if necessary.
Serve immediately over cooked short pasta, vegetables or left-overs.

If you've made extra sauce in order to have left-over mac and cheese for the next day's lunch, do not mix in all the pasta. Let the noodles and sauce cool completely and separately, before combining them. Otherwise, the pasta will get all mushy, the sauce will dry up, and it will be difficult to re-heat. The Mornay will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. Don't limit yourself to just mac and cheese: Mornay sauce can be used as a base for a pot pie, a hot sandwich, or a baked casserole.

Bon app'!





1 comment:

  1. I absolutely LOVE a good mac and cheese. Looks delicious.

    ReplyDelete

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