I’ve always thought of myself as a macaroni and cheese lover. Between the ages of, say, 14 and 20, I was a box-a-week Kraftoholic. It took many years for me to notice that it doesn’t really taste like cheese, but as soon as I did, there was no going back. I was slow to find a replacement, though. In the decade since, I’ve mainly made do with restaurant fare—if there is mac and cheese on a menu, I will order it. (Favorites include Hugo’s cheddar-Gorgonzola-Parmesan mac and cheese, Noodles & Company’s Wisconsin Mac & Cheese with spinach and tomatoes—Noodles, if you’re listening, please open a restaurant in Pasadena, OK?—and, in a pinch, the more synthetic creamy mac and cheese at Souplantation.) Attempts to create mac and cheese at home, however, have been sporadic and disappointing. When I started cooking more seriously post-college, I checked out an entire book of mac and cheese recipes from the library, but the few recipes I tried were unsatisfying. In the past year or so, I’ve taken solace in the America’s Test Kitchen recipe, which is pretty decent, but always failed to inspire in me the same ecstasy I remembered feeling for the more memorable mac and cheeses of my life. I tried to rationalize (check out the warning signs of disillusionment in the above posting--"it may not be what my inner child is crying out for," "I would not say I have perfected this recipe yet"). Maybe this was just what you got with homemade mac and cheese. Or maybe I just didn’t like mac and cheese quite as much as I thought I did.
The “Eureka!” moment came last December, as I was reading The Best Food Writing 2006, which contains an essay by Julia Moskin from the New York Times entitled “Macaroni and Lots of Cheese”. In it, Moskin boldly posits that the solution to mac-and-cheese malaise is just…more cheese. What struck me were the following quotations from author John Thorne:
“A good dish of macaroni and cheese is hard to find these days. The recipes in most cookbooks are not to be trusted...usually it is their vexatious infatuation with white sauce, a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk, for this dish flavored with a tiny grating of cheese. Contrary to popular belief, this is not macaroni and cheese but macaroni with cheese sauce. It is awful stuff and every cookbook in which it appears should be thrown out the window.”
“Starting at about the turn of the 20th century, there was a huge fashion for white sauce in America—chafing-dish stuff like chicken à la king, or creamed onions. They were cheap and seemed elegant, and their legacy is that people choose ‘creamy’ over everything else. But I maintain that macaroni and cheese should be primarily cheesy.”
While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call white sauce “noxious,” I was aware of its inglorious history from reading Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad, and I’d long suspected that perhaps it was white sauce that seemed to make my homemade mac and cheeses so bland and gummy. Macaroni with cheese sauce was exactly it—sometimes I could almost taste the flour, particularly in the leftovers. The notion of a better way intrigued me, and I hastily copied down the two recipes included in Moskin’s article. Then I promptly forgot about them.
Lately I’ve been reading more food blogs, and it turns out Moskin’s article was pretty heavily debated in the blogosphere. Most responses I read remained faithful to the traditional white-sauce version of mac and cheese; a few had tried Moskin’s more hard-core cheesy recipe (basically just macaroni, butter, a little milk, and a whopping 1½ pounds of cheese) and pronounced it “gross.” Those who had tried her second recipe, however, including The Smitten Kitchen, were enthusiastic.
You can now include me in those ranks. The recipe sounds a little weird (pureed cottage cheese? a pound of cheddar? uncooked noodles?), but it works beautifully. The cottage cheese-milk mixture provides a creamy binding agent without resorting to flour. The pound of cheddar is enough to envelop the noodles without being too overwhelming. The noodles cook perfectly, absorbing the milk and the cheese flavor while saving you time and dishwashing. This recipe couldn’t be easier: dump ingredients in a dish and bake. And any doubtful visions I had of crunchy raw noodles or oily clumps of cheese were dispelled when I drew the bubbling, rich-smelling, perfectly browned dish from the oven. It was macaroni with baked cheese, and it was perfect—chewy but not dry, creamy but not saucy, toastily crusty on top and bottom. I’ll admit it gets slightly greasier when the leftovers are reheated, but it retains its cheesy flavor and pleasant texture; I enjoyed it nearly as much today at lunch as I did when I made it on Monday night. This is my ideal mac and cheese—if only it weren’t so decadent so I could feel justified in eating it more often.
A looked slightly alarmed when I took one bite and then declared that now that I’ve found this macaroni and cheese, my life is complete. But when the bowls were empty (and we had dutifully eaten big green salads to keep our arteries clear) and I said, “I’m throwing my old macaroni and cheese recipe away right now. I don’t need it anymore,” he didn’t argue. He was happy; his mouth was full of cheese.
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup cottage cheese
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
½ pound elbow macaroni
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Use 1 tablespoon butter to butter a 9-inch round or square baking dish.
2. In a blender, puree cottage cheese, mustard, and salt and pepper until smooth. Add milk and puree until well blended.
3. Reserve ¼ cup grated cheese for topping. In the prepared baking dish, toss together the uncooked pasta and the remainder of the grated cheese. Pour the milk mixture over it and stir well. Cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.
4. Remove foil, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese, and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.
Time: 1½ hours, mostly baking time