What’s Cooking is a series where I address questions you may have about food and cooking but are too shy to ask.
All across the region, macaroni pie or macaroni and cheese, occupies a place of prominence on our tables. A Sunday or special occasion meal would be missing something if a large Pyrex dish of that signature pie is not a part of the ensemble for feasting.
Each country and each household has their own special recipe for making this Caribbean favourite. The differences include the type of noodles used, the variety of cheese or combination of cheese, the kind of sauce made, added ingredients such as herbs or vegetables, and the type of butter or margarine used for flavour and colour. For example, in Barbados, Mello-Kreem, a cooking spread with a deep orange colour, is used when making macaroni pie. It gives the Bajan pie a distinct colour and flavour when baked. What is put on top of a pie before and after baking also varies – breadcrumbs and cheese are the most popular choices and then there are some places where the pie gets decorated with expertly designed lines of tomato ketchup.
There is also preference in how people like their pie, some like it soft with the noodles falling apart when plated, and then there are those who like the pie somewhat firm, neatly cut into squares or wedges.
The question to be addressed in this edition of What’s Cooking is this: How to get the pie to stay uniform and firm when cut into blocks or wedges?
The cheese sauce and the amount of resting time when the pie comes out of the oven impacts on the pie’s firmness that allows for easy cutting and portioning. Let’s start with the sauce.
Many people believe that the addition of eggs is important to macaroni pie, because the eggs will bind everything. While it is absolutely true that one of the main purposes of eggs when making certain things is to act as a binder, it is not necessary to add eggs to macaroni pie mixture to bind it. If the sauce has been thickened and cooked to a certain consistency and an adequate amount of cheese has been incorporated into the sauce, then the pie will stay firm and whole when cut. Another important thing is to ensure that there is a proper amount of the sauce to cook the pie. If there is too little sauce, then the pie not only lacks in flavour but the noodles will only cling together in the restricted, confined space of the dish and will immediately separate when removed from the baking dish.
With the sauce being the right amount and having the right consistency, and quantity of cheese, then the next key step to keeping it together is to let the pie rest for an extended period of time when it comes out of the oven. This resting period gives the cheesy sauce time to set, settle, and to solidify. You need not worry about the pie getting cold before you are ready to serve it. Because macaroni pie is a compact dish, it holds heat and stays hot for a very long time. Therefore, your pie can sit comfortably for 1½ to 2 hours and be perfect when ready to serve.
White Sauce/Béchamel Sauce
This sauce is considered to be a mother sauce in French cuisine and that is because there are other sauces that can be made from this sauce by adding other ingredients. Béchamel sauce is made by cooking butter and flour together, adding milk, salt and white pepper and cooking over low heat until the mixture thickens. The addition of a dusting of freshly ground nutmeg gives the sauce excellent flavour. Other ingredients such bay leaves are used to infuse flavour into the warmed milk; garlic and fresh herbs can be added to bring tremendous flavour and savouriness to the sauce as well.
It is with the addition of herbs and other aromatics, or finely minced vegetables to the sauce that people put their stamp on a dish of macaroni pie as their special pie. It is how the pie becomes a family favourite. It is how it becomes often requested, and to be made by one person in particular.
To make the white sauce/Béchamel sauce, start by measuring an equal amount of butter and flour (for this sauce, when making macaroni pie, I measure by volume). Below are the sauce ingredients in quantities I use when making a standard dish of macaroni pie. Upscale or downscale the quantities depending on the amount of pasta you will be using to make your pie.
The following ingredients are for a standard (14.1 oz.) pack of macaroni (elbows or bucatini). The pie is baked in an 8 x 8 x 2-inch dish/pan.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups warm whole milk
Salt and ground white pepper to taste
5 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
Added ingredients to flavour the sauce:
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh thyme
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
Minced hot pepper, to taste
1 heaped tablespoon Dijon or grainy mustard
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
To make the sauce:
Add the butter to a saucepan and melt over medium heat, as soon as the butter melts, add in the flour, reduce the heat to low and mix the two ingredients together, cooking for 2 minutes to eliminate the rawness of the flour. The roux (flour-butter mixture) should not develop a colour; remember it is a white sauce.
Return the heat to medium and slowly pour in the milk, whisking so as to avoid lumps. Add the herbs, garlic and other flavouring ingredients to the sauce and keep stirring. Reduce the heat to low and let the sauce simmer until it thickens. It is important to stir constantly to avoid the sauce scorching (or catching at the bottom), or becoming lumpy.
Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.
The sauce is done when you insert a spoon into the sauce and run a finger along the middle of the back of the spoon, the sauce separates and does not come back together.
Immediately shut off the heat and stir in 4 cups of the cheese and mix until it has melted into the sauce.
Mix the sauce with the cooked pasta, top with the remaining cheese and bake according to your recipe instructions. If you do not want to top your pie with cheese, then stir in all 5 cups of cheese to the sauce.
When the pie is finished baking, let it sit/rest for at least 1 hour before cutting in to it. From personal experience 1½ to 2 hours is an adequate time frame for the pie to firm up and still be heated enough to serve.
Tip: Line a baking sheet with foil and then place the dish of macaroni pie on top of it before transferring the dish to the oven. This prevents spillage in the oven in the event that the pie bubbles over. Without the pan, any bubble-spillage will burn in the oven and cause it to become smoky.
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