Cooking Tutorial: Eggless Baked Macaroni and Cheese

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Cheese: Most people simply put shredded cheese on top of the macaroni and cheese casserole. This adds another level of gooeyness.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

Cooking Techniques: White Sauce

Something simple yet versatile….

Every August finds me and my family up in the mountains of the Adirondacks where my husband’s family has been managing a forest for 60 years. Driving to the nearest major highway might get me two to three bars on my cell phone.  If I want to use the internet, I have to drive down into the local town to the library. Television viewing is limited to VHS tapes watched on a VCR. The radio picks up two stations, one of which is in Canadian French; and the house we stay in lacks modern amenities such as my coveted food processor, though we did upgrade the oven a couple of years ago from the kerosene/electric version to just plain electric.

For a number of years now I’ve been chief cook for the duration of my family’s stay, catering for dinners we have with the many folks who work for the family forest. While I enjoy the cooking, every summer I am reminded why modern conveniences such as food processors and hand blenders and Kitchen Aids are a joy to have in one’s kitchen. Chopping veggies for a ratatouille to feed 16 people takes about 5 minutes in my food processor — about five times as long by hand. A hand blender can turn lumps smooth in seconds — no matter how long you mash or stir with a masher or wire whisk, you’ll never get a puree. With a Kitchen Aid you can make a cake in minutes — creaming butter by hand takes a lot longer than one imagines it will.

As such, I love it when I can make something spectacular with little time and energy, so upon my return home I was thrilled to see a request for something “simple yet versatile.” My answer is just as simple: a basic white sauce.

White sauce is usually just milk, flour, and butter. On a stove top, you melt the butter (usually about 1/4 cup), stir in the flour (about 1/4 cup), add the milk (about two cups), and continuously stir until the sauce thickens. That’s it. Takes about 2 minutes.

But what you can do with a white sauce is amazing:

  1. You can adapt it to your needs: Have food allergies? You can use any type of “milk”, any type of flour, and any type of “butter” as a substitute. Trying to eat healthier? You can substitute 2 tbsp of olive oil for the butter or you can even omit the butter entirely and just stir about 1/2 cup of the flour into the milk and cook and stir until it thickens.
  2. You can add herbs and spices of any type. You want a curry sauce? Add curry powder. You want a garlic sauce? Simmer with minced garlic or stir in garlic powder. You want to try something a little different? Mix in a lot of thyme with a little bit of nutmeg.
  3. You can change-up the sauce: Want a cheesy sauce? Stir in shredded cheese or slowly melt in cream cheese. Want something with a more adult taste? Substitute a 1/4 cup of the milk with sherry or white wine or vodka. Want something a little less “milky”? Substitute half of the milk with a fat free, low sodium broth such as chicken or vegetable.
  4. You can add vegetables and meats: Looking for a veggie sauce to put over pasta or fish? Saute leeks, mushrooms and spinach and add to the white sauce with black pepper, thyme, and minced garlic. Want a nice sauce to use turn your leftover rice into a casserole? Chop leftover ham and chicken and throw it into a white sauce you’ve seasoned with curry powder.
  5. You can use it for anything: Like to make casseroles? Change up a white sauce to mix into any type of casserole — rice, pasta, veggie, meat…. Want to jazz up the side veggies or the chicken or fish? Make a sauce with freshly chopped herbs. Have just a little bit of leftover meats and veggies which you’re not sure how to use up? Throw them all into a more thickly made white sauce and serve them with toast triangles to the family.
  6. You can even use it for dessert: Want to jazz up your pie when you serve it? Make a slightly thinner white sauce sweetened with a little bit of agave with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Looking for a nice topping for bread pudding? Make a vanilla white sauce by steeping vanilla beans in your milk before making the sauce. Want something to contrast with your chocolate cake? Make a sauce adding white chocolate which you can drizzle over the cake.

Menu Suggestion: Tetrazzini

What about a dinner suggestion?

I opened up my email the other day and found a note, thanking me because this young mother had found my blog and used the advice I had given my friend to make quiche for brunch for her in-laws,  and it was apparently a success for her as well. Now, however, she wanted to know if I had any good suggestions for a dinner entree to serve to company which could easily accommodate food allergy restrictions.

Within in two seconds, I had the perfect suggestion: Tetrazzini.

If you’re not familiar with tetrazzini, it’s a pasta dish which incorporates protein and vegetables into the pasta with a creamy white sauce. With the exception of mushrooms which every recipe you’ll find seems to have, everything else is pretty much up to your imagination and available food staples.

For a company dish, it’s perfect because you can assemble the dish ahead of time and then just pop it into the oven. It’s filling so you can simply add a salad to accompany it, and it’s pretty when it comes out of the oven. For folks with allergies, it’s highly adaptable.

Some thoughts on Tetrazzini:

1. The pasta: Almost every recipe you’ll find online has too large a pasta to protein/vegetable ratio. For your health and for good eating, I recommend cutting the pasta by half for any recipe. When I make the dish for company in a large 9 x 13 pan I cut the 16 oz of pasta to 8 ounces. Your ratio of protein and vegetables to pasta will be healthier but it’s also tastier in my opinion.

Also the usual pasta used is a long noodle like spaghetti. I like to use small shells because they capture the sauce in their crevices well and are easily spoonable and mix well with any meats and vegetables you add. Ancient Harvest has a gluten free quinoa small shells which taste really good and have a wonderful texture.

2. The meats and vegetables: You can use just about anything in tetrazzini. The most popular meats are turkey and chicken. For company, if there are no seafood allergies, I like to use cooked frozen shrimp. It’s easy and it makes the dish special. The nice thing about tetrazzini is that it’s a great dish for using up your leftovers, so feel free to be creative with whatever you have on hand. You can even use firm tofu. You should cut the tofu into small squares and saute them on all sides first, though, before adding them to the dish.

The same goes for the vegetables. As I mentioned above, a key ingredient in most tetrazzini recipes is mushrooms, but you can leave them out if you don’t like fungi. I happen to adore mushrooms, so I usually use mushrooms and asparagus or broccoli because I like the flavor and color combination. Again, whatever leftover vegetables will work. I’ve often just chopped up leftover zucchini, squash, peppers, etc… and thrown them in with good results. The key is to make sure your vegetables are bite-size.

3.  The sauce: The sauce for tetrazzini is just a basic white sauce, so for folks with food allergies, it’s easily adaptable. While many recipes will call for butter, you can substitute olive oil or use a vegan allergy friendly butter. I prefer the taste of olive oil and the added health benefits. For the milk, I’ve found just that other “milks” work just as well, though I tend to use either flax or soy milk myself. For the flour, just about any type will work. I’ve used garbanzo bean, sorghum, gluten free oat, and brown rice flour with success.

Many recipes call for you to just use a cream based soup like cream of celery or broccoli or chicken. You can always go this route as well. It’s certainly easier than making your own white sauce and if you don’t have to worry about sodium or allergies, the taste doesn’t suffer in any way.

4. The seasoning: Most tetrazzini recipes just call for salt and black pepper. I usually omit salt and add thyme, oregano, and paprika. I also use garlic and onions for flavoring.

5. The topping: Many tetrazzini recipes call for a topping but the topping varies. Some say just to put cheese on top, usually parmesan. Others use a nutty topping with almonds combined with the cheese. Some call for bread crumbs. Some just tell you to top with chopped green onions. It’s really up to your tastes and preferences. There’s a lot of vegan parmesan-style cheese these days. I like to lightly saute gluten free bread crumbs in a little bit of olive oil with herbs and mix in the vegan parmesan with the crumbs with some garlic and evenly spread that on top of the tetrazzini because it then gives a little crunch to the dish plus it makes the casserole look pretty.

Shrimp Tetrazzini

Ingredients:

8 oz Ancient Harvest Quinoa small shells

2 tsp olive oil

2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms

one bunch asparagus, cut into bite size pieces

1 tbsp minced onions

1 tsp mince garlic

2 tbsp olive oil

3 tbsp sweet white sorghum flour

2 cups flax or soy milk

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves

1/2 tsp paprika

16 oz thawed frozen cooked shrimp, tails removed

1 tsp olive oil

1/2 cup gluten free bread crumbs

1 tsp dried oregano

1/2 cup vegan parmesan

Cooking Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.Thaw shrimp and remove tails.  Set aside.

3. Prepare the shells as directed on the packaging. Drain and rinse well with cold water.  Set aside.

4.  In a pan saute mushrooms over medium-low heat with 2 tsp olive oil for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5. Add the chopped asparagus with 2 tbsp water, the minced onion, and the garlic. Saute for another 4 minutes and remove from heat.

6. In a pan heat 2 tbsp olive oil. Whisk in the sorghum flour and cook, stirring for a minute. Slowly add the “milk”, whisking continually until the flour is fully mixed into the milk. Cook until the sauce has thickened, stirring continually, about five minutes.

7. Add the pasta, mushrooms and asparagus mixture, and shrimp to the sauce and blend well.

8. Pour the casserole into a 9 x 13 pan.

9. Saute the bread crumbs with the olive oil and oregano for a minute or two. Mix in the paremsan and evenly spread the bread crumb mixture over the tetrazzini.

10. Bake the casserole for about 20-30 minutes until the dish is warmed through and the sauce is bubbling.