I pride myself a bit on escaping from some of the pressures and temptations of processed food. I like to cook, I like homemade food, and I like when my shelves are full of whole ingredients and natural products and grains and all that snobby stuff. If I can (relatively) easily make it from scratch, I try not to buy it premade.
But there are always exceptions, and sometimes they are the very worst kind. You see, most of my life I have hated all but one variety of macaroni and cheese. My mom’s elbow noodles in cheesy bechamel with bread crumbs on top? Can’t stand it. The crunchy baked roasting hot steaming vessel-o-mac from Cornucopia, one of our go-tos? Merely tolerable. But that kind that comes in a blue box? That kind with the chewy, rubbery noodles and toxic neon orange powdery “cheese”? Oh god, I love it. I wait till it’s 10 for $10 at the grocery store and stock up. Sometimes I peek into the back of my cupboard just to check that I have a box or two stockpiled there. I’m not ashamed.
And yet… and yet I always feel like I’m missing something. There must be an element of worth to homemade mac and cheese. People love it! Our friend X is practically a connoisseur. I finally decided I, not the mac, must be the problem. I love pasta with cheese on it, I love fettuccine alfredo, so where, I asked myself, did the problem arise?
In the sauce.
The closest I’ve come to enjoying a bowl of homemade, baked macaroni was a version in which the sauce was made of (as near as I could tell) two things: butter and cheese. It’s the white sauce I apparently take issue with. Thick and creamy but bland, with all the graininess of melted cheese but only 50% of the flavor. Ever notice how a chocolate milkshake has only the palest color and flavor of chocolate compared to a big scoop of rich, fudgy ice cream? Cheese sauce seems to do the same thing to cheese.
So the natural solution seemed to me to tinker around in my kitchen, producing numerous casseroles of ever increasing cheesiness, until I found a ratio I (gasp!) actually enjoyed. Perversely, however, given my strange penchant of creating and serving new food to friends and family without testing it first, I decided to make macaroni and cheese for my in-laws during our visit to their home.
I don’t know what made me think of it. I don’t know what made me decide it was a good idea. But suddenly, there I was in the tiny grocery store in their little town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, buying cheese and elbow noodles and Panko breadcrumbs. Baby, I was makin’ mac’n’cheese.
I must admit to borrowing a bit from Pioneer Woman’s recipe, but I made a few alterations of my own. Here’s the rundown of ingredients, some approximated:
1 pound elbow noodles (1 16oz. box)
¼ cup butter (½ a stick)
¼ cup flour
2 tsp spicy brown mustard
2 cups milk, room temperature
1 egg, beaten, room temperature
3-4 cups cheese? I used an 8oz. block of sharp cheddar, 2 generous handfuls of parmesan, and some already grated leftover medium cheddar stowed in the fridge.
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
2 TB butter
½ cup Panko breadcrumbs
2 TB parmesan
2-3 TB sharp cheddar
- Cook the noodles in boiling water until almost done. They should still be a little underdone on the inside, because they are going to continue to cook when we bake them. Drain well and set them aside until we call for them.
- Melt the butter in a large pot or pan over medium to medium-high heat. As it melts, add the flour and stir in, making a smooth golden paste. This is a roux.
- After letting the roux cook for a minute or two, watching it carefully and stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn, add the mustard. As Pioneer Woman said, this adds a really nice but not recognizable tang to the finished dish.
- Begin adding the milk gradually. I probably added in three or four additions. Stir or whisk well after each addition of milk, until the mixture is smooth and does not have big lumps of flour. When all the milk is added, let it cook, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes until it starts to emit heavy reluctant bubbles and becomes quite thick and rich. Turn the heat down to low. This is a bechamel, or basic white sauce.
- Slowly, stirring constantly, add about ¼ cup of the bechamel to the beaten egg. This is tempering, which starts the egg cooking slowly so it mixes in smoothly in liquid form. If you just tipped the egg into the sauce hot on the stovetop, it would scramble and leave little eggy bits in your smooth wonderful mixture. After tempering, add the egg and sauce mixture, now warmed and safe, back into the bechamel. Season to taste. I used garlic salt and seasoned pepper, because that’s what I found in my mother in-law’s spice cupboard.
- Add the cheese in handfuls, stirring until each addition is melted before adding the next. This way your sauce doesn’t get overwhelmed with clumps of cheese, and if you decide it is cheesy enough without the whole amount, you can stop where you like. I wanted it to start to get stringy and clingy, as the cheese overwhelms the milk completely.
- Add the parsley and the cooked, drained noodles. Stir to combine.
- Pour the sticky cheesy mixture into a buttered 2 quart casserole dish and load it up with the topping (procedure follows), then bake in a preheated 350F oven for about 30 minutes, or until the edges are bubbling up from the bottom and the topping has become relentlessly golden and crisp. Eat.
To make the topping,
- Pinch about two TB of butter into pieces in a bowl.
- Add the bread crumbs, parmesan, and cheddar and mix together as you would a streusel for a crisp. You want small chunky pieces, and you want the cheeses and crumbs to be evenly distributed. This makes a lot for a casserole dish of macaroni, but N. really loves a crunchy topping so I always add a little more than, perhaps, the average person would. Adjust to your tastes.
When the topping was taking on a burnished shade and the combination of butter from the sides of the dish and cheese from the sauce was boiling and bursting up around the sides, I liberated our dinner from the oven and we dug into it anxiously, dropping large spoonfuls onto our plates. The noodles had soaked up a lot of the bechamel during their stint in the oven, leaving the decadent suggestion of creaminess but the overwhelming assault of cheesy flavor holding them together. The topping was the perfect combination of sizzling salty crunchy sharpness and, served beside steamed broccoli and whole wheat focaccia, I must admit, I liked it. I went back for seconds. I had it for lunch the next day. Forget macaroni and cheese. Give me, for the rest of time, cheese with macaroni.