Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel is a very popular and easy to prepare, baked pasta dish. Egyptians are known for their Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel, but Palestinians make it too. Bechamel is simply a white sauce that is thickened with flour.
There are so many different ways people make Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel. I’m posting what I find to be the easiest recipe, and will provide two variations on making the actual white sauce.
For a slightly healthier and lighter version of this dish, try Koosa Bil Bechamel, where zucchini is used as a substitute for pasta. It’s equally delicious, and you won’t feel as bad eating it :)
approx 2 lbs of ground beef or lamb (for ~8 people)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 tsp each of allspice (or “bharat” spice), black pepper
1/2 tsp each of cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric
salt to taste
large package of elbow macaroni (or penne, or any other medium-sized short-cut pasta)
For the Bechamel sauce:
5 cups of cold milk
4 tablespoons of flour
1 egg, whisked
3 tablespoons of butter
Start by boiling your pasta until it’s just cooked. Drain.
In a pan, saute the chopped onion until soft, then add the ground meat. Cook the meat thoroughly, breaking it up so you don’t end up with any large clumps. Season with the allspice/bharat, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, and salt to taste.
Coat the bottom of a large baking dish with a few drops of oil. Using half of the cooked pasta, make an even layer of pasta in the bottom of the baking dish. On top of that, add all of your cooked meat, spreading it out to make an even layer.
On top of the meat, add another layer of pasta using the remaining half.
Set this aside while you make the Bechamel sauce:
Method 1 (easier, less likely to clump):
Pour one cup of the cold milk into a saucepan. Add the flour and egg, and whisk until smooth. Add the rest of the milk, the butter, and salt&pepper to taste, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. After it boils, keep cooking for approx. five more minutes, then remove from the heat.
Method 2 (more difficult and likely to clump, but richer tasting):
In a saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir constantly, letting it cook for about a minute and turn golden brown (basically making a roux). Add the cold milk and whisked egg to the pan slowly, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When it boils, cook for a couple of minutes, then remove from heat.
Pour the Bechamel all over the top of the pasta.
Spread it to even it out, making sure to cover the pasta entirely. Set it aside for a few minutes to let it cool and set a bit.
Finally, bake in a hot oven (~450 dgrees) until the top of the Ma’karonah Bil Bechamel browns. This usually takes about an hour. You can put it under the broiler for a couple minutes at the end to make sure the top is perfectly golden, with some darker patches here and there (the best part!).
Alternatively, when I’m in a hurry, I don’t even bother baking it since all the components are already cooked. I simply broil the top, which takes about ten minutes; this method is good for when you’re in a rush, but the layer of Bechamel will have a slightly runnier consistency. If you chose Method 1 for the Bechamel sauce, I highly recommend you bake the dish thoroughly.
I always like to read menus at restaurants here in Amman and look out for the English typos. It’s funny when you see items like “pananas and milk”, “eggplane”, and my most recent favorite, “salvers”. My lit.- major friend thankfully pointed out that salver is an actual English word, albeit a bit archaic. The item itself, however, is a popular favorite among the people of Amman. The basic idea is to roast any combination of meat and vegetables in the oven to then be eaten with fresh bread. These roasts (or “salvers”! – called sawani in Arabic) are considered lighter to eat and easier to make compared to tabeekh – literally, “cooking.” My aunt Hala always reminds me that she and her husband much prefer these sawani, and as such she is a pro at making them. I’d like to post a recipe for one of her most simple roasts: meat and potatoes.
approx. 500 grams of cubed lamb or beef – you can also use your favorite cuts of chicken instead of red meat
approx. 500 grams of cubed, peeled potatoes
approx. 500 grams of cubed tomatoes
2 red onions, halved and finely sliced
1 green chili pepper, chopped (optional)
1-2 bell peppers (optional)
salt&pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons of allspice
1-2 teaspoons of yellow curry powder
a pinch of cardamom and cinnamon
approx. 2/3 cups of hot water
approx. 1/4 cup of vegetable or olive oil
Preparing the vegetables outside in Aunt Hala’s garden!
Toss with your hands so that the spices combine with all the other ingredients thoroughly.
Arrange the ingredients in the roasting pan such that the meat is on the bottom, and the vegetables are on top.
Pour the hot water and then the oil all over the ingredients in the pan, and then cover the pan with aluminum foil. Roast in a medium oven for approximately half an hour or until the meat is cooked thoroughly. If you want, you can uncover the pan at the end and turn on the broiler for a few minutes, so the vegetables blacken a bit on top.
Serve with fresh bread and a salad.
I excitedly started typing up the first recipe to put on this blog, only to stop abruptly at the beginning of the ingredients list. Chicken. “But how much chicken, exactly?” would be the question. Well, as much as you want to use. “But how much exactly, for this recipe?” Well, I really don’t know. Because when (most) Arab women cook, they never use specific quantities of ingredients. “Use as much as you need,” “put in enough salt” or “add a bit of turmeric” are the kinds of responses I get when I ask “how much [x] do you put in?” There is usually an assumption of everyone having a certain level of basic cooking knowledge. On the other hand, there is the understanding that each person’s different conceptions of good flavor is what dictates the quantities of the ingredients. That is why the same dish can taste very different from one household to the next. “And in the end, cooking is spirit,” my cousin once told me. “The spirit you put into your cooking is what makes a dish successful, even if it’s as simple as making rice!”
I grew up with that style of cooking being the norm, and so that’s how I cook too. I feel that is how cooking should be; I can’t imagine measuring in “a teaspoon and a half” of vinegar for a salad dressing, for example. My experience is that you just need to go with your instincts and what tastes good :)
So here is my warning: I will try as much as possible to use specific amounts for the ingredients in the recipes I post on this blog, but sometimes I will just have to be a bit vague. When that happens, keep up a good spirit and just use whatever and however much makes the dish taste delicious! And sahtain w 3afyeh..