“Third time’s the charm!”
There’s something about the number three…: We all know the folks who sneeze in three’s; there’s that belief that bad things happen in three’s; the occult, divine, and human psychology seem to value the power of three; and of course, we talk optimistically about the third time being the charm.
When I opened up my email to find a question about baked macaroni and cheese, I had to laugh because this will be the third posting about macaroni and cheese, hence my thinking about the number three this morning!
Previously I had posted a general baked macaroni and cheese recipe which was a lightened up version of an Emeril recipe. Then someone asked about a gluten, dairy free version of the lightened version. Now I’m being asked about whether you can make a baked macaroni and cheese without eggs.
The answer, of course, is yes. The purpose of eggs in a baked macaroni and cheese is to create a firm and thick texture. Combining the eggs with evaporate milk also makes for a silkier macaroni and cheese. A baked macaroni and cheese can achieve the same texture and silkiness, though, without eggs. Instead of using evaporated milk, though, you would use regular milk or milk substitute, and because you won’t be using eggs as a thickener you’ll need to make a thick sauce first as opposed to simply combining everything and baking.
Creating a thick sauce: There are a few ways to go about making a thick white sauce:
- Roux: You can make a roux by warming 2 tbsp of olive oil (or other plant oil or you can use butter/butter substitute, too, if you’d prefer) and adding 1/4 cup of your preferred type of flour with a whisk. Once the flour mixture has cooked for about 30 seconds, you slowly add 2 cups of your “milk”, stirring constantly to mix the roux into the liquid well. Heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Then you add your cheese.
- Cornstarch: You can simply mix cornstarch into your “milk” and heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken. A good ratio is 1 tbsp of cornstarch per cup of milk, so you’d use 2 tbsp of cornstarch in 2 cups of milk, and once it’s thickened, you’d add your cheese.
- Flour: You can also simply mix the milk with flour and again heat over medium low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken. Usually 1/2 cup of whatever flour you’d like to use in 2 cups of milk will do the job. Once it’s thickened, you add the cheese.
Creating a creamy cheese sauce: Again there are a few ways you can go about making a creamy cheese sauce:
- Using good cheeses: One way to make a silky, gooey, cheesy sauce is to invest in cheeses with good melting and great taste. This means opting for the more full fat cheeses like gouda, fontina, sharp cheddar, etc. If you have no dairy allergies and don’t mind the expense, the taste will be worth the investment. These cheeses, when added to your thickened white sauce, will simply melt into creaminess. Depending on your tastes, you would add one to two cups of shredded cheese to the white sauce.
- Mixing types of “cheese”: Another way to create cheesy-ness is to use half shredded cheese of your choice and half cream cheese. Since I have a dairy allergy and can’t use real cheese, I’ve found that the non-dairy cheeses don’t provide the creamy texture, so in my mac and cheese, I mix Daiya mozzarella with tofu cream cheese, and it makes for a lovely creamy sauce. So, once my white sauce is thick, I add the mozzarella and let it begin to melt, stirring constantly; then I add the cream cheese and keep stirring until both the mozzarella and the cream cheese have completely melted into the sauce. Depending on your taste, you would use 8 oz of the mozzarella and then add between 1/2 cup to 1 cup of the cream cheese to the white sauce.
- Adding sour cream or yogurt: A third way to create a silky texture is to add either sour cream or yogurt to the cheese sauce. After you’ve made the cheese sauce the way you prefer, simply mix in yogurt or sour cream until it’s well blended. Depending on your tastes, you would add between 1/2 to 1 cup.
Using the best noodles: For macaroni and cheese the best noodles to use are ones with nooks and crannies, so pastas like elbows, shells, penne, rotini are all good choices. What’s key for baked macaroni and cheese is to only cook the noodles until al dente, which means they are mostly cooked but still a little sturdier in texture. The reason you slightly undercook them is because the noodles will cook more in the oven during the baking and you don’t want them to become mushy. Because of my wheat allergies, I like to use a quinoa elbow or shell variety which adds some protein to the dish.
Being creative with add-ins: Yes, you can make a straight mac and cheese but additions to the dish can intensify the flavor and texture. My children like ours best when I add chopped up bits of turkey ham or turkey sausage with chopped up bits of zucchini or broccoli, but you can opt to add whatever you’d like — chicken, spinach, peppers, bacon, tomatoes, etc….
Choosing spices and herbs: Many flavors complement cheese so you can be imaginative in your choices. I like to combine cumin, nutmeg, onion powder, black pepper, and oregano. Sometimes I simply add some red pepper flakes. Other times we opt for thyme and sage. Think about the type of cheese you’re using and what you’re adding in, and experiment with flavors.
Assembling the macaroni and cheese: The best way I’ve found to make a good macaroni and cheese is to cook my noodles al dente and then cool them with cold water, rinse and put into a bowl. Then I mix the noodles with my add-ins and spices and herbs. Then I make the cheese sauce, also adding spices and herbs to the sauce. Then I combine the cheese sauce with the noodles, before putting the entire contents of the bowl into a greased glass casserole pan.
The topping: Baked macaroni and cheese can be topped in many ways:
- Cheese: Most people simply put shredded cheese on top of the macaroni and cheese casserole. This adds another level of gooeyness.
- Bread crumbs: If you mix bread crumbs with herbs and spices and either a plant oil or butter and spread it evenly over the macaroni, you’ll get a nice crispy contrast to the creamy macaroni.
- Add-ins on top: Another way to top the macaroni is with more of the add-ins, so sprinkling chopped bits of bacon or broccoli on top. This makes for a colorful presentation of the baked macaroni and cheese and lets folks know what else might be on the inside.
- Creative toppings: Some folks like to be a bit more creative in their toppings and add foods like crushed potato or tortilla chips or crushed corn flakes. Use your imagination and see what flavor combinations work best.
- Herbs: Another way to make for a pretty and tasty baked macaroni and cheese is to sprinkle fresh chopped herbs on top immediately after the dish comes out of the oven. So, adding chopped fresh basil or mint or thyme — experiment and see what you like.
Baking the macaroni and cheese: Most dishes cook well in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes. Because everything is already cooked, you simply need the casserole to set and become hot and for your topping to melt or become browned and toasty, depending on what you chose to use.