Sunday, March 17, 2013

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese


I have a reputation among my kids' friends as making "The Best Macaroni and Cheese Ever" which is pretty fun, since I can please a crowd of starving teenagers with very minimal effort. Truth is though, I take macaroni and cheese seriously; as the ultimate comfort food I look at it as the kind of dish that holds a family together. Mac-n-cheese is one of those foods kids come home from college requesting because "no one makes it like Mom." In order to get to that status, no orange powder from the box is going to do; real cheese is involved and a tiny bit extra dish washing, but there is no comparison, every second of effort is worth it. 

I can make this mac-n-cheese in the amount of time it takes to bring the water to the boil and cook the noodles, somewhere between 20-30 minutes, only a few minutes longer than the orange powder version - btw, have you checked the ingredients list on that orange powder packet? Oh sure, they make fancy organic, all-natural versions of the orange powder too, but that still isn't real mac-n-cheese, not even close.

Here's the thing about noodles, if left in liquid they continue to soak it up eventually becoming mushy and kind of yucky. So to get perfectly cooked noodles married with a delicious cheesy sauce that stays lovely and creamy to the end, the two need to be introduced to each other immediately before serving. The idea that the noodles 'take on' more cheese flavor if cooked together, even for a short bit in the oven is unfounded in my experience, the only thing that happens is that the cheese gets drier and the noodles get soggy and usually the crumb topping is ruined too since it takes an enormous amount of liquid to keep the dish from drying out if baked together.  

Macaroni and cheese does not need a crumb topping. I make it often just in a stock pot on the stove, no crumb topping needed, however when serving in a buffet line or to adults, I go to the extra effort of adding the crusty top just because people in general think it is more gourmet that way. Funny thing is, the underlying recipe is exactly the same whether I put the crumbs on or not.  Crumbs just look more refined, but its all a simple presentation illusion. 

The bread, cracker, or biscuit that you use for the topping makes little difference. The key is to break it up into fine particles and fry those in butter and garlic powder until browned. My experience with real garlic has not been very good, so I stick with garlic powder because chopped garlic burns before the crumbs are golden.  Once the mac-n-cheese is done, it goes into a warmed pan and the crumbs are sprinkled on, instantly you have created a magazine picture perfect cheesy side dish that looks as though you have slaved for hours. Your guests will be so impressed. 

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

Cheese:
For every 1 pound box of macaroni you need 12 ounces of cheese and 1 cup of milk: I always use 6 ounces of Velveeta, it simply melts best and will never get stringy or globby. However if you are fundamentally against the thought of using processed cheese product in your mac-n-cheese, then use an American or Super-Sharp, these too are processed of course, however that generally means that a mix of cheeses have been melted together and combined in such a way as to make them more stable when melting. Any combination of these work well, but I grew up on Velveeta, so there is a bit of nostalgia in the flavor for me, however when the other 6 ounces of cheese are a mix of Cheddar (Sharp preferred), Gouda, smoked Gouda (delicious addition one of my favorites) Jack, Swiss, Havarti, Colby, or Muenster, the underlying Velveeta flavor is not discernible but that perfect creaminess is unmistakable.

  • VitaMix:  Blend the cheese combination of your choice with the milk. This can be done while the noodles cook. The VitaMix is perfect for cheese sauce, simply throw the chunks of cheese in and start processing on slow, increasing speed gradually until the mixture is perfectly smooth. That's all there is to it, pour it on the hot noodles after draining off the water. If not quite hot enough, turn pot to warm through. Done!


  • Food Processor:  It is a bit trickier without a VitaMix only because the average food processor doesn't have the power the VitaMix has, and don't even think about doing this in a regular blender - I ruined our KitchenAid testing the idea (so I could write about it here as instructions) and we had to throw it out when I was done. Since the food processor is getting dirty anyway, shred all the cheese first, starting with Velveeta, as the other cheeses go through they will do a decent job of getting the sticky Velveeta off the shredding blade. Then switch to the chopping blade and add the one cup of milk and blend the mixture further. When adding to the hot pasta, this mixture needs to melt slowly, so keep the temperature low since there is a small risk of the cheese curdling if melted too quickly at a too high a temperature.

Noodles:
One pound pasta of your choice: I prefer a Campanelle pasta, they have little ruffles to hold on to the cheese sauce and I think they are a bit more festive, but any pasta meant to hold a bold sauce will work, I often use  large elbow or shell macaroni, Gamelli is another favorite. 
  • Cooking Method: Cook as directed on the package just a bit shy of true al dente, since once the pasta sits in the cheese it will cook a bit more, error on the side of just a bit too much bite (aim for a minute less than the package directs for al dente and always set the timer!) Be sure to add plenty of salt to the cooking water. 

Crumb Topping:

  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup crumbs, bread, cracker, or biscuit; crushed or chopped fine
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3-4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan, shaker can style, optional
  • black pepper to taste
  • Parsley, chopped fine optional
Melt the butter in a small skillet, add the bread crumbs of your choice and sprinkle with the garlic powder.  Fry over medium heat until crumbs begin to brown. Remove from heat and add Parmesan, these act more like a dry bread crumb than cheese and add a nice nutty salty flavor, so if not used, sprinkle with salt, add pepper to taste. Parsley adds another color splash, so sprinkle on just before serving to a discerning crowd.
Blend the cheese, add it to the hot pasta, eat as is, or pour it into a warm and buttered/greased casserole dish just before serving and sprinkle on the crumb topping. Initially the mac-n-cheese will appear too creamy, but it sets up quickly, the bit of extra milk compensates for the cool down on the plate. Macaroni and cheese can be held in the oven for a very short period, but longer than 5-10 minutes and the cheese sauce will begin to dry out and that luxurious creamy sauce will suffer.

If serving to a crowd, mix the cheese sauce up ahead (several days if needed works fine) along with the crumb topping and hold in the refrigerator until needed. Bring to room temperature prior to combining, cook the pasta last minute and put it all together as usual.

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