I love mac and cheese, though I have to admit my heart still belongs to the creamy, saucy, day-glo orange stuff (not Kraft, though—I used to love that stuff in high school and college, but now I think it’s grainy and gummy and doesn’t even taste particularly like cheese). This is real, traditional, homestyle macaroni and cheese, white and cheesy and a bit clumpy, and though it may not be quite what my inner child is crying out for, it’s very good. The recipe is from the folks at America’s Test Kitchen, via my pals the Ackermans, who contributed it to a compilation of favorite recipes we made for P and R’s wedding shower. Usually I avoid America’s Test Kitchen recipes—I like to watch the TV show and read Cook’s Magazine, and I admire their goal of finding absolutely the best recipe with scientific methods and high-quality ingredients, but…honestly, I don’t always need THE BEST of everything, just things I like. Sometimes their recipes are way too fussy. This one is a little tricky, what with making the white sauce and all, but not outlandish. Like many ATK recipes, it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but it’s quite nice once in a while. I like it with mixed greens on the side.
I would not say I have perfected this recipe yet. I don’t have a Dutch oven or really heavy saucepan (I just use my normal pasta pot), so at the high heats called for by the recipe, the white sauce tends to burn to the bottom. If I stir it too aggressively, the burned bits get mixed into the sauce. Anyway, it’s an annoyance to clean the pan afterwards. I think I’ll try a nonstick pan next time and see if that helps…or someone can buy me a Dutch oven for Christmas?
On Sunday night (my second time making this recipe) I faced a new obstacle: my broiler is broken, so browning the bread crumbs in the last step was going to be a problem. I solved this by using panko bread crumbs instead, figuring that they were already dry and crisp, so even if they didn’t get as browned, they were less likely to be soggy. I just melted the 3 tablespoons of butter in the microwave and poured that over a reasonable-looking amount of panko in a medium bowl, mixed well, and spread it atop the macaroni and cheese. And you know, it worked really well—so well I might continue using panko even if my broiler ever gets fixed.
Postscript, December 2009: This may have been an acceptable recipe, but I left it in the dust as soon as I found this easier, cheesier, awesomer one.
6 slices white sandwich bread (good-quality, about 6 ounces), torn into rough pieces
3 tablespoons unsalted butter (cold), cut into 6 pieces
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
5 cups milk
8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1. For the bread crumbs: Pulse bread and 3 tablespoons butter in food processor until crumbs are no larger than 1/8 inch (10-15 1-second pulses). Alternatively, as the Ackermans note, you can break up the bread by hand, melt the butter in the microwave, and mix the two together a bowl. Or, as I mentioned above, you can use panko and mix with the melted butter.
2. For the pasta and cheese: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat broiler. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in a Dutch oven or heavy saucepan over high heat. Add macaroni and 1 tablespoon salt; cook until pasta is tender (just past the al dente stage; overcooking is better than undercooking in this recipe). Drain pasta and set aside in a colander.
3. In now-empty Dutch oven, heat remaining 5 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add flour, mustard, and cayenne and whisk well to combine. Continue whisking until mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in milk; bring mixture to boil, whisking constantly (mixture must reach full boil to fully thicken). Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened to consistency of heavy cream, about 5 minutes. Off heat, whisk in cheeses and 1 teaspoon salt until cheese are fully melted. Add pasta and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is steaming and heated through, about 6 minutes.
4. Transfer mixture to broiler-safe 9x13 baking dish and sprinkle evenly with bread crumbs. Broil until crumbs are deep golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes, rotating pan if necessary for browning. Cool about 5 minutes, then serve.
Serves: 6 to 8, or 10 to 12 as a side dish
Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour