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Ask Eric: How to make a beautifully smooth cheese sauce

Dear Eric: Please help! I am almost 80 years old and my cheese sauce always curdles when I make macaroni and cheese. It looks terrible and tastes blah.
When making cheese sauce, add the cheese at the end of the process and don't cook it.

Dear Eric: Please help! I am almost 80 years old and my cheese sauce always curdles when I make macaroni and cheese. It looks terrible and tastes blah. Jewel Townsend

Dear Jewel: I wish you had contacted me sooner, because that’s a long time to be having your cheese sauce curdling. But I hope the following advice will ensure smooth sailing, or should I say smooth saucing, the next time you make it.

To review, cheese sauce is simply white sauce, also called béchamel, that has been flavoured with cheese.

To make the white sauce, you start by making roux, a mixture made by cooking in a saucepan a combination of flour and butter or other fat. You cook the roux a short while to get the raw flour taste out of it. For a white sauce, you do not let the roux darken, as you would for a brown sauce or gravy.

Warm milk is slowly incorporated into the roux, creating a smooth mixture. If you add the milk too quickly, use cold milk or simply don’t whisk fast enough, you could get lumps in your sauce as bits of roux will cook and turn into small balls before they’ve had a chance to be smoothly blended into the milk.

Once you’ve added the milk and gently simmered and thickened the white sauce, it’s time to add the cheese.

How and when you add the cheese is critical to making a smooth sauce.

Sauces for macaroni and cheese usually require a hard cheese, such as cheddar. It should be grated, not cubed. Grated cheese will melt in the sauce quickly and evenly. Cubes of cheese, on the other hand, will take longer to melt, so your sauce can overcook before the cheese has melted. It’s that overcooking that can cause the sauce to curdle.

When your white sauce is ready, remove it from the heat. If it’s really hot, let it cool a few minutes. The sauce only needs to be hot enough to melt the grated cheese, which you should stir in gradually until just melted and incorporated into the sauce.

Do not add the cheese to the sauce while is still sitting over the heat, as that can cause the cheese to overcook, start to separate and turn your sauce into an oily-surfaced, curdled-looking mess.

That said, even if you made the finest-looking cheese sauce, it can still taste bland. Yes, you can flavour it with garlic, herbs, spices and other things, but the cheese is the main flavouring. If the cheese tastes blah, so will the sauce.

In grocery stores, you’ll see mild and medium cheddars for sale. They are aged only a few months and thus have a very mild taste and, when whisked into a sauce, that taste becomes even more diffused.

Some people prefer that very mild taste, but if you want a cheese sauce with a more assertive flavour, use a cheese with some gusto, such as aged cheddar, the flavour of which has been allowed to develop and become richer.

Macaroni and Cheese

Pair this classic, cheesy pasta dish with a green salad and call it dinner.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: About 40 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

2 cups macaroni

3 Tbsp butter, plus some for greasing the dish

3 Tbsp all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups warm milk (see Note)

1/4 tsp paprika

• pinch cayenne pepper

• salt and white pepper to taste

200 grams aged cheddar cheese, grated

2 to 3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Boil the macaroni in a generous amount of lightly salted water until just tender, about eight minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 F.

Lightly butter an 8-by-8-inch baking dish.

Melt the 3 Tbsp butter in a medium pot set over medium heat. Mix in the flour and cook and stir two minutes, until well blended.

Whisk and dribble in 1/2 cup of milk. Cook until the mixture is quite thick, then slowly whisk in the remaining milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently so it does not scorch on the bottom, cook one minute to thicken, and then remove sauce from heat.

Mix in the paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper. Now gradually stir in three-quarters of the cheddar cheese until it’s just melted and combined with the white sauce.

When the macaroni is cooked, drain it well. Stir the macaroni into the sauce, and then spoon into the baking dish. Top with remaining cheddar cheese and Parmesan cheese. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until light golden and just bubbling.

Note: The milk can be warmed to just below a simmer in the microwave.

Eric Akis is the author of the hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.