I don’t think anyone ever taught me how to make a béchamel, just like no one ever taught me to wail into a pillow when I was sad. I guess there are some things you eventually figure out by intuition. Like how to combine flour, butter, and milk into a rich sauce, or that macaroni and cheese can give you big hug when you need one.
In Oxford, Rob and I used to make a ‘macaroni,’ as his Italian grandma called it, in our teeny basement kitchen at number 3 Winchester Road. We would eat piles of pasta in front of The OC at 2pm every Sunday “morning,” after broadcasting to all our friends not to spill the beans on Marissa and Ryan’s love tryst since we were six weeks behind the US air date. Piles of mac and cheese and American TV; it was like we got to pause life and just pretend we were home.
Those little purple boxes of Annie’s mac and cheese got me through snowy days in Telluride when everyone I knew as out shredding the gnar but I had no intention of leaving the murphy bed in my tiny studio for anything less than an avalanche. I got cable for the first and only time in my life and lay in my living room-cum-bedroom-cum-kitchen and watched Friends reruns with a bowl of whole wheat shells in white cheddar with a healthy grind of black pepper.
So when I hear of an illness, suffer the heartache of a break up, or lose someone close to me, often all I can think about is macaroni and cheese. Like there’s a pit in my stomach that only heavy pasta with rich sauce can feed. And not just any mac and cheese, I want to make it. When there are things happening that you can’t control, when things are being destroyed all around you, it helps to create something.
I can’t change what happens, but I can grate cheese, three kinds of it, into heaping piles that I’ll pinch bites from before it even makes it into the pan. I can furiously whisk and whisk flour into the butter, taking care not to brown the roux. I can stir and taste and salt and adjust and pour the béchamel over the noodles and spread them in a glass baking pan. I can look for breadcrumbs in the cabinet and set the timer while the thing bakes, but I can’t promise it will turn out the way I hoped.
The pasta is crispy and prickly on the surface but falling apart gooey underneath, like the facade I project to the world in hard times. The truffle salt is a hint of extravagance, throwing caution to the wind and damning the consequences. I take a heaping scoop of seconds, letting just a little more comfort in to a dark day.
I know Weight Watchers cautions us not to eat our feelings, but think they’re wrong. I’m a firm believer that we should find comfort where it’s given. Sometimes all I have an appetite for is my feelings, and I’d rather eat them than drown them in a bottle of Cabernet. The headache is much less worse from pasta.
There are plenty of things in life I can’t control. I can, however, grate cheese. And that’s a place to start.
Whole Wheat Macaroni and Cheese with Truffle Salt
Makes 4 servings
1/2 pound whole wheat pasta, like rigatoni or shells
2 T unsalted butter
2 T white flour
1.5 cups milk
4 cups grated cheese - I use a mixture of white cheddar, gruyere and parmesan reggiano
Truffle salt to taste, maybe 1/2 a teaspoon
1/4 cup breadcrumbs - make your own or use the store-bought kind
Preheat oven to 350
Heat a pot of salted water to a boil and cook noodles according to package directions.
In a large pan over medium heat, melt butter and add flour a little at a time, whisking the mixture as it bubbles to prevent burning. The goal is to cook the flour so it releases gluten and helps thicken the sauce. After a minute or so, slowly add milk a few tablespoons at a time, whisking to combine each one to avoid any floury lumps.
Once you have a thickened paste, add grated cheese slowly, allowing each addition to melt into the sauce.
Add truffled salt and additional milk if the sauce gets too thick.
Combine cooked pasta and bechamel sauce in a 9” square baking pan. Top with breadcrumbs and additional grated cheese.
Bake in oven for 15-20 minutes. Finish under the broiler to lightly crisp the top.
Serve warm right out of the oven.