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Basic Recipes > Cheese Sauce 13 July 2007

Posted by cath in comfort food, Recipes.
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macaroni cheese

Here is a very old fashioned (slightly labour intensive but foolproof) method of making a cheese sauce – basically a white, bechamel sauce with a hard cheese like cheddar or Gruyere melted in.

Use it for making Lasagna, Cauliflower cheese, Macaroni cheese, Moussaka and more.

I never use the quick and easy methods, as I find my method is worth the hard work because it always has a smooth and velvety consistency, never has the taste of raw flour and generally is an old family tradition that I am only too glad to pass on.

This recipe will make a large quantity of sauce – I like to make enough for 1 large lasagna (4-6 person) and 1 large cauliflower/macaroni cheese (4 portions) in one go. The finished dishes freeze well, and also keep for a few days in the fridge. But if you don’t want this much, reduce the quantities – use a smaller pan, this will also have the benefit of not taking so long to cook.

You will need:

1 litre full cream milk (straight from the fridge)

80g butter (or marg – I prefer butter, but my mother always uses marg.)*

100g plain flour (try to find superfine, type ‘OO’ flour to get the best results)

250-300g grated cheese (cheddar, gruyere, parmesan, or any local hard cheese that you like)

salt and pepper

Method

First melt the butter or marg in a reasonable sized saucepan, non-stick is good for this sauce. Use a moderate heat, and do not burn or brown the butter!

Once the butter is melted stir in the flour and combine (use a wooden spoon). You should end up with a fairly thick paste, which comes together – almost into a ball. This is the roux (pronounced ‘rue’).

You need to cook the roux on a low-medium heat for 3-4 minutes, continually stirring briskly. It will start to become glossy as the flour begins to cook and break down into the fat. Add a little twist of salt and pepper (purists use white pepper – I use my 5 peppercorn mix as I don’t mind the odd black or red speck in my sauce, but that’s up to you).

Then remove the pan from the heat and begin to add some milk. For the first addition, just cover the bottom of the pan and gently stir in, then return the pan to the heat (keep it low-medium).

Once each addition of milk has combined with the roux you can add a little more. Adding milk very gradually takes time, but ensures no scary lumps form. Each time the milk will combine and quickly thicken up into quite a stiff sauce. You should beat this sauce for a minute with your wooden spoon over the medium heat before adding more milk.

Sometimes the sauce will look lumpy for a minute or two after adding more milk. Don’t worry, the lumps will melt into the sauce and once it has thickened to a stage that it coats the spoon. At this point it will be quite easy to beat for 30 seconds to a minute and achieve a thick, velvety smooth sauce.

Continue this process: add a slug of milk (bigger slugs each time), stir well, heat, beat until thickened and smooth…then add more milk, stir, heat, beat etc. until you have added all the milk. This way it will probably take ten or more additions but the sauce will be already thickened and nearly ready by the final addition. A large pan may take nearly half an hour to make this way.

The key to this sauce is to make sure that you have cooked out the flour. To do this, the sauce must be brought to a very gentle “rolling boil”. This is when the surface of the sauce gently undulates. Allow this to continue using very little heat for a minute or two.

Now your basic sauce (bechamel) is ready. Don’t let it boil (when the bubbles break on the surface).

For the cheese sauce, you can now add handfuls of grated cheese. Melt them in gently. Again, do not boil. You simply need the cheese to melt and stir through the sauce. Add as much cheese as you like, to taste, but you will want to reserve some to sprinkle on the top of your dishAdd any extra salt and pepper to taste. Be careful tasting as the sauce is very hot and thick, but it is very important to taste your sauce and check for cheesiness, seasoning and to make sure there is no taste of raw flour (this will mean that you have not cooked it for long enough).

Now the sauce is ready to pour onto cooked (al dente) macaroni, cauliflower, broccoli or used to layer between meat and pasta sheets for a lasagna, moussaka or cannelloni.

The sauce can be served immediately, it is thoroughly cooked. But you may want to cook the dish in the oven for 20-30 minutes to combine and brown the top, or simply grill the top to brown and crisp the cheese crust. This will depend on your final recipe.

Notes:

Wow – that sounds like a lot of hard work! Isn’t there an easier way?

Yes, basically you have two choices – this long, old fashioned way, or a the same method done with less stages – say by adding the milk about 1/5 of a litre each time (except the first, smaller addition).

Here are some tips on how that would work…I also occasionally use this method when I’m cooking up a bolognese and cheese sauce at the same time (e.g. for lasagna), or if I’m doing a cauliflower, broccoli and macaroni mix all on my own and there is too much going on to concentrate on the sauce alone. But then, remember that I have literally been making this sauce this way from the age of around 10 years old! (OK some of you don’t know how old I am, but I can tell you its a fair amount of experience!)

The basic difference is that if you add larger amounts of milk, lumps will undoubtedly form in the sauce to begin with. As there is more liquid the sauce will not be so quick to thicken. This means it will be a while before you can beat out these lumps. But DON’T PANIC (even I worry at this stage)! The lumps will disappear, it just takes frequent stirring (although not necessarily continual) and heating of the liquidy sauce so that it thickens to a stage where it can be beaten easily. Once it has begun to thicken, the lumps will almost magically vanish as you begin to stir more vigourouly. Just keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t boil, or stick to the bottom of the pan.

For the beginner, it can be a long and scary wait while this thickening happens. Don’t be tempted to turn up the heat too high as this will scald the sauce, or make it stick to the bottom of the pan and burn (a non-stick pan can help in this regard, but you will still need to give it a quick stir quite frequently to avoid this).

As long as you’ve used nearly as much butter (fat) as flour, the sauce will become thick and smooth. You can use a whisk rather than a wooden spoon if you find that easier.

Note about Bechamel Sauce

* If you want to make bechamel sauce (white sauce) WITHOUT cheese, then you will want to use equal amounts of butter and flour. For cheese sauce I reduce the butter content as the cheese will make up for the lower fat quantity, and should provide enough excess fat for any last few lumps to disappear, particularly if it is getting cooked again in the oven.

 

Cauliflower and macaroni cheese, ready to cook

Cauliflower & Macaroni Cheese

(Feeds around 8 people)

1 large cauliflower

400g macaroni

Cheese sauce made with 1 litre milk (as above)

Grated cheese and sliced tomato for the top

salt and pepper.

Cook the macaroni al dente (depends on your pasta, but for small macaroni about 7-8 minutes).

Steam the cauliflower in large chunks for 5-8 minutes (depending on the size) when you can smell cauliflower, it is usually ready. (You can also use broccoli, romanesco, other mixed vegetables as long as they are not too delicate).

Combine the veg and pasta in a large oven dish, pour over half the sauce and mix thoroughly getting the sauce through all the. Then pour over the rest to completely cover the top of the dish. Sprinkle on grated cheese, place some sliced tomatoes on top, season them with salt and pepper.

Place the whole thing in a hot oven 180-190 degC for 20-30 minutes, until crisp and browned on top and bubbling through. If you want to get it to the table quicker, you can alternatively grill the dish under a hot grill for 5-10 minutes until browned.

Leave to stand for 5 minutes and then serve.

Accompaniments and Variations

Try this with some sausages for a very comforting meal.

A crisp salad, steamed greens or lots of fresh tomatoes make a healthier option.

Cauliflower cheese (without the pasta) makes a lovely accompaniment to a roast dinner.

The addition of other vegetables, e.g. carrots, beans, mushrooms, and either rice or pasta makes a colourful and rich vegetarian main meal.

The sauce layered with lasagna sheets and a meaty (or vegetable) bolognese makes a fantastic lasagna – it can be cooked in the oven immediately or kept in the fridge or freezer to be cooked later. Freshly made it may take 30 minutes to cook – from frozen probably 40-45 minutes again at 180 degrees C.

cauliflower, macaroni and mushroom cheese

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Comments»

1. Charles Ross - 16 February 2009

Thanks I have a wife that cant make white sauce. i would like some cheese souce. for dinner to night, thanks. i will let you know how it is.

cath - 20 February 2009

Hi Charles, it’s nice to see you’re enthusiasm…uhh…to improve you’re wife’s cooking skills??!??! you know, I think you should try it yourself too – perhaps your wife would also enjoy a nice cheese sauce made by her hubby for her dinner tonight?!?! Well, I hope you both enjoy it, whoever is in charge of the cooking :)

2. bindi - 20 February 2009

oh my god!!! thanku very much! just made the cheese sauce and it is delicious!!! yum yum yum!!!

cath - 20 February 2009

Hi bindi! I’m glad you enjoyed the sauce, and thanks for your comments!

3. roly - 20 January 2012

can this sauce be stored and used later?

roly

cath - 22 January 2012

Yes, made in advance, the sauce will form a skin but this can be reheated and stirred back in. Better though is to assemble the whole dish in advance which can be kept in the fridge or freezer for heating through later. Note, you can cook most dishes made with this cheese sauce directly from the freezer or defrost them first.
Hope that helps!

4. roly - 21 January 2012

made it this way in a lasagne and i have a greek chef living here and she thought it was spot on
thanks.

cath - 22 January 2012

And really glad you enjoyed it!

5. Actifry - 18 April 2012

obviously like your website however you have to take a look at the spelling on quite a few of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I to find it very bothersome to tell the reality nevertheless I’ll surely come back again.

6. roly - 28 May 2012

i have had my keyboard fixed but it still can’t smell for touffay!

I have made this sauce the hard way a few times now. thanks it is excellent;


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