Cheesy Baked Orzo for Grandma

My sister, cousins and I have tried for years to recreate the baked macaroni and cheese that our grandmother nourished us with when we were kids. I have hovered over my grandmom's slight shoulders as she made the big pan of macaroni elbows coated with mozzarella cheese and buttery sauce, all from scratch. I took notes, and then tried to mimic her with a bland pan of drippy noodles as proof of my bad skills. My cousin and sister even went to the extreme of videotaping our grandmom during one kitchen session. My grandmom even put on makeup for her video debut, as if she were The Next Food Network Star. She never used special gourmet ingredients. As the matriarch of an immigrant family, she used things you could get at any grocery store, often with the help of coupons. I never quite figured out how she concocted and mastered the recipe. After all, there is nothing remotely Vietnamese about it at all. But there is one connection to Vietnam's colonial past: the bechamel sauce, which is considered one of the classic -- and essential -- French sauces.

Most bechamel sauce recipes call for adding scalded milk to a roux made from butter and flour. I didn't heat my milk. I did make a roux by adding a couple of spoons of white flour to hot butter.

I then slowly poured the milk into the roux. I didn't measure out the liquid. I eyeballed it so that I would use enough milk to completely dissolve the roux and yield enough sauce to coat one and a half cups of uncooked orzo. I then added more than a cup of shredded cheese. I don't remember the cheese I used. It was actually a blend of four cheeses that I got at Trader Joe's. There was definitely mozzarella and cheddar, and maybe some Monterey Jack. The fourth wasn't that important. I also mixed in some Asiago cheese that I had left over from a previous meal. The eclectic combo of cheeses eliminated any need for salt, which was already added generously to the boiling water that I used to cook the pasta. So I seasoned the sauce with white pepper (black pepper would have been aesthetically unacceptable!) to taste.

Because I wanted to use the box of orzo sitting in my cupboard, I didn't bother to buy elbow macaroni at the store. Plus, I was worried that the relatively bigger elbow macaroni would soak up all the sauce and cheese and turn out dry. I brought all my ingredients, along with my Spanish terra cotta baking dish, from my house to Miguelito's. He was out working all day, so I decided to surprise him with a home-cooked meal. I was cooking by the seat of my pants that night. I measured the uncooked orzo to fill one and a half cups. I had no idea how much that would yield after the water fluffed up the pasta. Would it be enough -- or too much -- for my baking dish? Fortunately, it fit perfectly. To ensure the bottom was just as crispy as the top, I generously buttered the pan.

There was no way to mix the sauce and pasta together in the baking dish. I had to dump the orzo into the pot to coat it with the sauce. Then I poured it back into the pan.

I covered the top with the remaining cheese and bread crumbs.

Et voila! Cheesy baked orzo that I'd proudly serve my grandmother.

To be economical, I made a main dish that could also cook in the oven at the same time with the cheesy pasta: Shake 'N' Bake chicken. It's the culinary equivalent of wearing Payless Shoes with vintage.

A close-up of my family's legacy.

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