Thursday, May 15, 2008

May 15: Cheddar Cheese Sauce

My mother was late a lot when I was a kid. I got so that I could count on her being 15 minutes to an hour late, and I would plan accordingly. I grew up with a lot of resentment toward her, not being able to count on her being where she was supposed to be when she was supposed to be there.

Now that I'm an adult, I know it was mostly not her fault. It was the fault of her having a demanding job and being the sole breadwinner, and also a teensy bit flaky sometimes. But one of the things it did for me is gave me a bias toward a sure thing, things that I could depend on to do exactly what they were supposed to do. There is something intensely comforting about the fact that when you cook flour and fat together and add stock, it will get thick, every single time. It's reliable, dependable, and best of all, it's gravy. And I love gravy.

I don't make sauces a lot, and when I do, usually they are simple pan sauces to go with a chicken breast or a pan-seared steak. But America's Test Kitchen has a recipe for a cheddar cheese sauce that is so simple, so straightforwardly cheesy, so delicious and perfectly balanced and just-right-all-over, that I can't get enough of it. It's delicious over steamed vegetables, and if you drag out your deep-fryer only once a year to make real homemade french fries, you may as well make this cheese sauce to go along with them. You can mix it with a little cooked pasta for easy real mac-and-cheese. It's even great on a hot dog.

But my favorite thing? It's a sauce. I am comforted by sauces, because it is a safe bet how they will behave. I am very seldom left waiting by a sauce that doesn't show up when it's supposed to.

I may need a little therapy.

Okay, so let me say this: use good cheddar cheese, and grate it yourself. Pre-grated cheese is coated with some kind of chemical that keeps it from clumping. Yuck.

Cheddar Cheese Sauce

1 3/4 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
Pinch cayenne pepper

Bring 1 1/2 cups of milk to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup of milk together, then stir into the simmering milk. Continue to cook, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened, about 2 minutes.

Off the heat, stir in the cheese and cayenne until the cheese is melted and smooth. Season with salt to taste.

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