Classic Macaroni and Cheese

March 7, 2009 · 6 comments

I haven’t posted anything in a week, the week from hell, in which I had to launch two web sites. The relative ease of working with one of my clients made the experience with my other client (actually, my other client’s designer) all the more unbearable.

Despite the hellish working conditions and 12-hour work days, I did manage to cook a few meals. Comfort food made the week more tolerable, and what better comfort food is there than homemade macaroni and cheese?

I’ve tried a lot of mac ‘n’ cheese recipes, looking for that ideal combination of creamy cheese sauce, pasta, and breadcrumb topping. Alton Brown’s recipe works in a pinch, but it’s based on an egg custard, which can get heavy and grainy. The recipe I finally settled on is from Cook’s Illustrated.

The recipe couldn’t be simpler: add cooked elbow macaroni to a Mornay sauce, top with buttered breadcrumbs, and toast under a broiler.Expanded from the shorthand, it’s still very simple.

Cheese en place

The ingredients: 1 pound of elbow macaroni, 5 tablespoons of unsalted butter, 6 tablespoons of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of powdered mustard, 5 cups of milk (whole, low-fat, and skim (ick) all work), 8 ounces each of Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese, and 12 ounces of bacon (optional, but why exclude it?).  Not shown is 6 ounces of good quality white sandwich bread and another 3 ounces of butter.

I tore the bread into chunks and pulsed in in a food processor with the 3 ounces of butter until I had fine crumbs:

Crumbs, chief!

I cooked the macaroni in four quarts of boiling salted water until just past the al dente stage. This is critical: the macaroni has to be tender. It’s better to err on the side of overcooking. I drained the macaroni and set it aside in a colander.

Cooked elbows

While the water came to a boil and the macaroni cooked, I chopped the bacon slices into one-inch pieces and cooked until crisp. I put the cooked bacon on a paper towel-covered plate, exercising extraordinary willpower in not snitching bacon pieces as I continued.

Bacon!

In the now-empty pot I heated the 5 ounces of butter over medium-high heat until foaming. I added the flour and mustard and whisked to combine, cooking an additional minute until the mixture became straw-colored. This was a basic roux:

Roux

I gradually whisked in the milk and brought the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. Once boiling, I reduced the heat on the mixture to medium and simmered, whisking occasionally, until it thickened to the consistency of heavy cream. The result was a basic bechamel sauce.

While the bechamel simmered, I shredded the cheese on a box grater.

Cheeses

I turned off the heat on the bechamel and whisked in the cheese: voila, sauce Mornay! I added the macaroni and stirred constantly over low heat for about 6 minutes. I added the bacon at the end.

Bacon makes it better

I dumped everything into a 13 x 9 inch baking dish and covered it with the bread crumbs.

Covered in crumbs

The dish went under the broiler for about three minutes, until the crumbs were well toasted.

Toasted

After cooling for five minutes, it was time to serve.

Final plate

Creamy, crunchy, cheesy, bacon-y: what more can you ask from a meal? This really hit the spot. He Who Will Not Be Ignored complained that it wasn’t orange, but he wolfed it down just the same. (You can use orange cheddar, but since there’s no orange Monterey Jack, the end result is more of a golden yellow.)

This recipe also works well with leftover ham (I always make it right after Easter for just that reason), and I am told that there is a heretical alternative that omits the pork products and adds a cup of frozen peas to the sauce along with the macaroni.

Make this one soon, you’ll thank me for it.

Leftovers? Cut the still-cold mac ‘n’ cheese into rectangles, dredge in breadcrumbs, and pan-fry in a little butter for a perfect snack.

6 comments

Bryan March 9, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Heh. I like to make it with medium shells, which hold the cheese like little scoops. No bacon or peas. I also undercook the pasta and let it finish cooking in the oven. I hate overcooked pasta in mac ‘n cheese. Cheddar and gorgonzola. Or sometimes Stilton, with mustard and paprika. Depending on how I am feeling. Heretical? I don’t think there are too many “wrong” ways to do it, which is part of the fun. Okay, maybe peas is one of the wrong ways.

Hey, I tried those Pomi strained tomatoes you mentioned in a previous post. They were all right, though I was surprised at how finely pureed they were; they’d be good for soup. I think I was expecting whole tomatoes. However, they did work as advertised, no straining, no seeds, no water separating out. So, a bit of labor-and-mess-saving there.

David March 10, 2009 at 9:47 am

If you like shells, you should try orecchiette sometime. It’s important to have two different cheeses – the harder cheeses like cheddar, Stilton, etc. tend to separate when melted, so a softer cheese like jack or fontina keeps everything smooth. That’s why some recipes insist on Velveeta or American cheese slices.

The Pomi tomatoes are great when you need a puree. If I need diced tomatoes, I always go with Muir Glen organic.

Phyllis Bregman March 10, 2009 at 8:50 am

I cook a similar version using bacon & peas sometimes (not when I am cooking for Jamy). If it’s not for little kids, I add in some sort of blue cheese (love it with Stilton), cheddar and gruyere. I also use panko instead of fresh breadcrumbs–I don’t usually have white bread in the house.

David March 10, 2009 at 9:49 am

Since Di has a mild lactose intolerance (but she still loves the mac ‘n cheese), I have to assume that every batch I make will be eaten by MIles. I might try sneaking in gruyere instead of jack next time.

Bryan March 11, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Yeah, gruyere works pretty well. I haven’t had any problem with separating cheeses, except sometimes reheating leftovers in a microwave, which is usually bad news anyway.

I’ll have to make some tonight, now that you’ve made me think of it.

David March 11, 2009 at 2:12 pm

The recipe I used is really a stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese, not a baked version. The broiler step is just for toasting the breadcrumbs. Most of the baked versions rely on an egg custard, which sets up thicker.

The leftovers – had ’em last night – heat up well in a microwave if you go with 70% power (I know, four more buttons to press) and cover the dish.

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