Sometimes you just need some starch. Whether you’ve had a hard workout or a hard day, nothing really satisfies like a giant plate of pasta. Sure, there are sophisticated ways of serving it, like with a Bolognese Ragù or a rich Alfredo, but what if you’re in a rush and/or don’t have a lot of high-end ingredients on hand? Or what if you need to satisfy your Philistine children? Well, that’s when you need some good old fashioned macaroni and cheese. I’m not talking about that lowbrow crap from a box, either. I mean the good stuff. In this post I’ll tell you, and show you, how it’s done.
As no other organizing structure suggests itself to me, I’ll give you this dispatch in the (perhaps mythic) who-what-where-when-why-how style of the newspaper reporter. In case you’re an albertnet newbie, I should warn you that I beat around the bush quite a bit on this blog, feeling that this beating is a) kind of the point, and b) something you probably deserve. If you just want the recipe, search within this page on “the actual recipe” which is buried way down in the “how” section.
Who, where, and when
Instead of telling you who makes this excellent dish, I’ll tell you who, weirdly, doesn’t: Irma S. Rombauer. Her Joy of Cooking, that indispensable cookbook no kitchen is complete without, has recipes for everything you could dream of, plus a lot of foods you’d never dream of. For example, it’s got recipes for cooking squirrel, opossum, and raccoon. In fact, the original edition (of which I’m a proud co-owner) shows you how to skin one of these varmints.
I love the boot in that drawing. You know those trendy “nose to tail” restaurants that emphasize using every part of the animal? Well, that’s nothing: how about using every part of the animal kingdom? These modern restaurants have got nothing on Ms. Rombauer.
That’s why it’s so utterly weird that The Joy of Cooking doesn’t have a recipe for macaroni and cheese. It’s so strange: the closest it comes is “boiled macaroni with cheese” and “baked macaroni.” The first is too simple (it couldn’t possibly produce the fully integrated flavor sensation we’re looking for, being basically cheese thrown on pasta) and the second looks like a lot of hassle: it sends you off to a separate recipe for “AU GRATIN III” which includes a lot of nonsense instructions like “the finished result should be neither powdery nor rubbery but ‘fondant.’”
The question of where is surprisingly relevant here: you can make this just about anywhere, so long as you have a couple of flames (one for the pasta water, one for the pan). This isn’t true of just any recipe. Sometimes a foreign kitchen just throws off your game. I’m up at my mom’s place in Oregon, where my brother Geoff’s pizza dough got a bit screwed up the other night by a strange oven that didn’t provide the right yeast-rising climate. I feel my brother’s pain: I once tried to make my Mexican-style rice at a friend’s apartment in NYC where the ingredients at the local grocery came (apparently) from Mars. But this mac ‘n’ cheese recipe is so simple, very few such pitfalls exist. The most basic kitchen tools and pantry will do.
On to when: as I touched on earlier, this is the dish you make when you’re tired, your brain is fried, your kids are disgruntled and in need of simple starchy love, you don’t have time to shop, and/or you lack the brain energy to do anything even slightly complicated. It’s an alternative to take-out, delivery, or a frozen dinner (if you even stock that sort of thing). Through this culinary mac ‘n’ cheese miracle, one moment you’re a burned-out cog of corporate industry ready to put your head in the oven, and the next moment you’re calmer than a mindful yogi, and a hero to your children.
My recipe is for the most basic version of this dish. I know it’s traditional and delicious to bake mac ‘n’ cheese in the oven with a bread-crumb topping, and my brother Max has even made his own bread crumbs for this purpose. A friend, emailing me years ago with a restaurant recommendation, wrote that Nizza la Bella has “the best macaroni and cheese in any restaurant I've ever had (the macaroni gran pere, baked, not that runny slop they serve at trendy macaroni specialty restaurants in utterly hapless Oakland).” Obviously there is ample opportunity to make this dish gourmet.
But I’ve never done that and I won’t start now. First of all, if I had that much energy, I’d make something fancier to begin with, like fettuccine Alfredo, maybe with homemade noodles. Second, pasta + bread crumbs = double-starch, which I’ve never seen the point of. (It’s like potato slices on pizza … what’s up with that?) To go to the extra trouble with bread crumbs, when this mac ‘n’ cheese is so good as-is, would be like putting one of those little cocktail umbrellas in a glass of beer.
He’d just been on a brutal bike ride, he wrote, “so I made some celebratory macaroni and cheese with caramelized onions and linguiça sausage and peas. The cheese sauce is a combination of cheddar and Parmesan Reggiano. And I washed it down with the local lager.” Needless to say, I challenged him on that being macaroni at all (trying, alas unsuccessfully, to coax him and the rest of the Beck’st recipients into a debate about the correct translation of “farfalle”). He replied, “Dude, I know that’s farfalle — or ‘laços’ as they’re called here in Portugal — I was just testing you! Making sure you’re not falling asleep. However, if I make a cheese sauce (from scratch, as I do) and pour it over a pasta-like product, I have ipso facto and without question made ‘macaroni and cheese.’ You and your rules…”
Actually, I am not a purist when it comes to this dish. I have made it with macaroni, shells, farfalle, fusilli, cellentani, campanelle, rigatoni, penne, and orecchiette. I’ve used all kinds of different cheeses—whatever’s in the fridge—and I’ve added ham, peas, and even hot dog slices, for crying out loud. The basic recipe is completely adaptable and extendable, as you’ll see if you ever make it to the “how” section of this post. But first:
Why take even this much trouble? Why not just make mac ‘n’ cheese from the box, like in college? Well, for one thing, once you’ve got the hang of this recipe (and really, it’s not hard, trust me), it doesn’t actually take any longer. Meanwhile, the stuff from the box doesn’t give you much yield, and if you scale it up enough to feed a hungry family, that’s a lot of wasteful packaging, and probably costs more than doing it right. Finally, there’s the matter of what you ingest.
When a product has to say, “No artificial flavors or dyes,” we’re into “thou doth protest too much” territory, like being on a first date where your date says, apropos of nothing, “Don’t worry, I don’t have any STDs … I just got tested!” And when you look at the boxed mac ingredients, you see all kinds of stuff you wouldn’t use if cooking for yourself:
The second ingredient is glycerol monostearate, whatever that is. And why couldn’t they get by with regular monoglycerides … why did they have to use acetylated monoglycerides? Okay, I’m sure somebody’s dad is a chemist and could tell us that sodium alginate and oleoresin are totally harmless, but should that be good enough? Here’s a rule of thumb: if an ingredient isn’t in your spell-checker, and/or your kid can’t pronounce it, maybe it doesn’t belong in your mouth.
And that’s just the ingredients the boxed mac manufacturers tell you about. You know the little paper/foil packet with the powdered cheese? It’s not an ingredient, of course, but it’s the reason you ingest phthalates every time you make boxed mac ‘n’ cheese. Just look at that word: “phthalates.” That’s some seriously fucked up spelling, the kind of consonant cluster that just says “dangerous chemical.” This article explains the problem and though it tells us not to panic, I’m still a little put off. Among other things, we’re warned, phthalates “can disrupt the production of testosterone.” Them’s fightin’ words!
“But wait,” you’re saying, “I’ve been boycotting Kraft for years, and only eat Annie’s boxed mac ‘n’ cheese!” Hey, me too, but we’re still not out of the woods. I consulted the Annie’s website and found that although they do address this issue, their answer is disconcertingly more complicated than “no phthalates.” In a nutshell, the level of phthalates in their product is below the European Food Safety Authority acceptable threshold (the US doesn’t have one yet). The Annie’s website states, “We are working with our trusted suppliers to understand where phthalates are coming into our supply chain and how we can evaluate and limit them.” This is all very reassuring, but no match, in my opinion, for good old fashioned home cooking. (Full disclosure: I still keep Annie’s around for when my younger daughter has to fend for herself.)
Okay, on to the actual recipe. The gist is this: you’re going to start with an easy white sauce called a roux. (It’s different from the dark roux used in southern or Cajun cooking. Kind of a Midwest roux, you might say.) This is the base that you’ll grate hella cheese into. Stir the pasta in and you’re done. (Here’s a Tom Swifty on the topic: “‘Ugh, I shouldn’t have eaten so much white sauce,’ Tom said ruefully.”)
You’ll need just six ingredients:
- Any variety of short, stubby pasta (and any brand ... De Cecco, Barilla, American Beauty, Golden Grain, house brand … doesn’t matter)
- White flour (though wheat flour will work fine)
- Milk (whole, skim, part-skim, organic, not-organic, pretty much anything but non-dairy “milk” or chocolate milk, which I haven’t tried yet)
- Cheese (sharp, mild, cheddar, Swiss, gouda, just about whatever you’ve got except American/Velveeta, which is not food)
- Salt (Morton’s, iodized, non-iodized, house brand, fancy-pants sea salt, whatever)
- Pepper (basic pre-ground, fresh ground, ground from green peppercorns, ground from a four-foot-long grinder, whatever)
Here’s what I came up with at my mom’s house:
Using a fancy-pants pasta like cavatappi can impress your dinner guests, though classic elbows are, well, classic. I was cooking for a big group so I doubled the recipe, and had to mix pasta shapes. No problem: just compare the cooking times and delay appropriately before adding the faster-cooking pasta.
So here’s what you do. Put a big pot of water on the stove and read albertnet while it reaches a boil. (That’s right, you can wait and make the sauce in the mere 10 minutes required for the pasta to cook!) Salt the water and throw the pasta in. Now, in a large paella pan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium/high heat. How much? I guess something like three tablespoons per batch, a batch being defined as the amount one pound of pasta will yield. Once the butter is melted, gradually add flour, stirring continuously until you get a nice paste.
How much flour? Well, not so much that the paste loses its buttery taste. Just two or three tablespoons for a single batch. You should end up with a ball of paste the color of yellow teeth and about the size of a young mouse. (I realize these aren’t very appetizing comparisons … what can I say?)
Hey, don’t forget to stir the pasta occasionally!
Now you start gradually adding the milk to the paste. The milk might sizzle a bit in the pan, which is fine, but the heat should be low enough that nothing scorches. Integrate the milk and paste gradually, using a whisk. Keep adding milk, gradually turning your paste into a thin roux.
When you’re done the sauce should be about the consistency of paint. Salt and pepper to taste. Now you start grating the cheese in there. You can have your kid grate the cheese into a giant mound on a plate while you’re doing the sauce, or you can have your kid stir the sauce while you grate the cheese right into it. You’ll know you’ve grated enough cheese in there when the sauce is almost as thick as pudding, or when your kid stops yelling, “More cheese!” Give it a taste. The cheesy flavor should be intense. If it’s not, add more cheese. Or add more cheese for no good reason. It’s hard to go wrong … just don’t add so much that it gets greasy. That’s never happened to me, but doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
The cheese sauce should be ready right about the time the pasta is done. (By the way, this isn’t the time to show off how sophisticated you are by undercooking the pasta. This is comfort food, damn it! Cook it all the way.) Strain the pasta, pour it in the cheese sauce, and stir away. The only tricky part about this step is managing not to drool into the pan. Turn off your overhead fan so you can hear the tantalizing sound this stirring makes. It should sound like walking through thick mud. Here’s some video … turn the volume up!
For this last step, you should gather everyone around to “help.” This might be one of the few family activities left that can make your kids literally jump for joy. If one of your kids already went off to college, text her a link to the movie with a heartwarming caption like “HOW YA LIKE ME NOW!?” If all of your kids have left for college, it’s okay to cry into the sauce, so long as you’re not wearing mascara.
Now, if there’s any flaw to this dish, besides its being basically nothing but refined starch and saturated fat, it’s that the color is just a bit on the pallid side. So you’ll want to serve it with colorful, salubrious vegetables, like really good red tomatoes. (No corn, dammit! That’s even more pallid, and it’s just another starch!) Up at my mom’s place, I scrounged up some frozen green beans and dry-farmed tomatoes at the last minute. NOOICE!
Is it responsible parenting to serve this starch ‘n’ fat bomb? Well, probably not. But you can limit the damage by loading your kid’s plate up with vegetables, and not letting him or her have a second helping of mac ‘n’ cheese until that plate is clean. And let’s be realistic: the odds are very high that your kid—yes, your kid!—will become a young adult who makes mac ‘n’ cheese from the box on a somewhat regular basis. If you can teach this basic technique, you might just help your family win the War on Phthalates!
A final note
Here’s a handy tech tip for storing the rest of that block of cheese. When you first cut into the plastic wrapper, start a few inches from the end. Cut it cleanly all the way around. Now you have a “cap” that you can slip down over the brick, and don’t need to waste extra plastic. This short documentary film explains it better.
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