crush potato chips
For an irresistibly crispy topping, crush potato chips over the macaroni and cheese before baking. Photos by Anthony Saffery

Creamy, delicious, and comforting

By JJ Gonson - March 1, 2007

This winter was slow to get here, postponing for weeks the need to batten down the hatches and stoke up the fires. And when it's time to start stoking it's time to start cooking. It's still chilly out there, and that means: Comfort food!

What's not to love about comfort food? It's just so, well, comforting! As the temperature drops outside, our bodies crave starches and proteins to burn to keep them warm. Hot chocolate is a great example of a quick way to raise your internal thermostat, and at a time of year when fresh vegetables are not easily to hand, and we have endless options of roots and tubers, there is something about a whole meal in one pot that is completely satisfying. Better still if it can be eaten out of a bowl and can be slopped up with some hot, crusty bread. Stews are the simplest example of this delightful form, and bread has taken a very easy turn recently with the popularity of no-knead recipes.

Grated cheese
Grated cheese waits to be stirred into a bubbling roux.

Happily, there is comfort food all around us, all the time, just waiting for us to sit down, dig in and sigh with warm happiness.

When the north wind is howling and the drifts have piled up, I want something that will really stick with me. So, here is my favorite secret to surviving the winter: Homemade, baked mac and cheese.

Not necessarily made with elbow-shaped macaroni; any pasta covered in a heavy dose of cheesy white sauce and baked until bubbly, works for the hungry crowd around my table.

I know that a lot of people steer clear of making this dish because they think it's just too hard to make a roux (the cooked mixture of flour and a fat used as a thickener in sauces, stews and soups), but I have a basic formula for cheese sauce - and in fact for roux-based white sauce in general - that is going to change your whole attitude about this potentially intimidating process.

Allow me to explain:

For each cup of dry pasta allow

  • 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon of white flour
  • 1 cup of dairy (milk, cream or a combo)
  • 1 cup of grated, grate-able cheese(s) of your choice (cheddar, gruyere, gouda...)
flour to melted butter
When you add flour to melted butter, be sure to stir and don't let it turn brown.

And this is what you do with it:

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box or bag. Drain it when it's done.

While it is doing its thing put the milk, or cream, in a sauce pan. Add one whole onion, a few bay leaves and perhaps some thyme and pepper, and bring it to the point where steam rises from it just before it boils. (Careful! Don't let it boil! That will be a big mess!) This process is called scalding, in case you want to impress your friends with your kitchen vocabulary. It will infuse the milk lightly with the savory flavors of the onion and herbs, and it will make it much easier to bring your roux to a simmer.

At the same time, melt the butter in a shallow, but wide, sauce pan, and when the bubbles begin to recede, but before it turns brown, scatter the flour over the surface, stir, and cook it until it begins to turn golden. For a white sauce like this, you don't let the butter and flour brown, but in Cajun cooking the nutty flavor of a brown roux is what most dishes start with!

Congratulations! You have made a roux!

Now, here's the magic part:

Gradually add milk.

Strain the milk, and add it, one half cup at a time, to your roux. Over medium to low heat, allow the mixture to come to a simmer each time before adding more milk, while stirring it constantly to remove lumps and to allow it to thicken. What you want is a smooth, creamy sauce. When it coats the back of a wooden spoon thickly enough to hold a line you trace through it with your finger it is done.

This is the base for all sorts of comfort food: rich, thick sauces, clam chowder and even creamy gravy. But those are other things for other days.

The next thing you are going to do at this time is add your grated cheese, and stir it in until it melts. Then adjust the flavor with salt, pepper, Tabasco sauce, garlic or whatever else suits your taste.

Drain the pasta, pour the gooey, cheesy sauce over it, mix it and put it in a baking dish. Now pay attention in particular to this bit, because it is the part my husband says is "the best," even though it has nothing to do with that brilliant cheese sauce I just spent 20 minutes making:

Top the dish with crushed potato chips.

Doesn't matter what flavor, although around my house folks are partial to sour cream and chive Kettle chips. Experiment - follow your heart - find the chip of your dreams and crush it.

Finally, pop your creation in the oven at 350 degrees until it's bubbly, which takes about half an hour. If you want to make it in advance put it in the fridge, and maybe wait to put the chips on top until you are ready to cook it.

Once you've got the hang of the basic procedure, you can go crazy with it. Try scalding cauliflower in the milk, and then adding it back, diced into the mac and cheese mix. You can sauté finely minced garlic along with the butter, or maybe add a touch of truffle oil in the roux? I don't use powdered mustard myself, but lots of people say it is an essential ingredient to baked mac and cheese, so why not?

Let me know what you come up with. Once the snow comes, I can't think of anything better to do than head to the kitchen, boil up a mess of pasta, and keep ourselves warm.

JJ Gonson is a private chef who contributes occasional photos and stories to The Times. She lives with her family in Cambridge.