Maybe it's a childhood thing. It's what I had as a kid and so I associate it with being the right mac and cheese. I've had the Kraft stuff out of the box. It's crap. I've had the stuff they serve at Souplanation. It too, is crap. I've had mac and cheese at fancy joints and not-so-fancy joints, and sometimes it's been OK. But none of them have ever held a candle to Stouffer's.
Well, I take that back. This last December, I finally had a mac and cheese that I thought was absolutely delicious (as opposed to a waste of my time/appetite, as all the previous experiences had been). It's the side dish they have at Wood Ranch. It's not like Stouffer's; it tastes of real cheese and doesn't have any sauce (Stouffer's is a creamy cheese sauce), but is delicious nonetheless. About a week ago I also had the mac and cheese at Hugo's, and that was pretty good. Worth the calories to eat, at least. Maybe it's a coincidence that after so many years I've found two good mac and cheeses in succession, or maybe I'm getting less picky. I think it's the former, though.
By now many of you are probably thinking, just make your own! Oh I have. I've tried a number of homemade mac and cheese recipes, but they were all disappointing. They used a tremendous amount of cheese, but they all ended up being fairly tasteless. Considering that cheese is getting more and more expensive (and in any case, mac and cheese isn't the healthiest of meal options), I opted not to attempt it over and over again until it was perfected. I figured if I had a craving for mac and cheese, my grocery store's freezer section had the best kind readily available.
Then I came across a mac and cheese recipe that wasn't much of a recipe, more of a guideline. It breezily talked of making a white sauce out of a roux, then adding some seasoning, liberal amounts of cheese, and pasta. Little to no measurements were given. Specifics about the type of cheese were omitted. It didn't mention baking the mac and cheese at all, which in my book is necessary in order to get the crusty bits that I love so much (it also makes the creamy sauce in the end result). And yet, it sounded right. I finally had the chance to make it this weekend, and by golly if it isn't the best mac and cheese I've ever made at home! It's not perfect -- but it has the makings to be so. The method is sound; what needs to be perfected is the blend of cheeses I use.
Don't get me wrong ... it was perfectly good the way I made it. But the cheese I used, while good cheese, may not have been the right blend for perfect mac and cheese. From the depths of my refrigerator I unearthed several wedges of cheese, some that had never been opened, but getting a bit moldy. I went to work slicing off every surface of every wedge of cheese to get to the clean, unmoldy, perfectly good cheese underneath. I then proceeded to use my food processor (bless it) and the shredder attachment to shred much of the cheese, which was a combination of: medium orange cheddar, sharp New Zealand white cheddar, 2 kinds of gruyere, and parmesan. Once it was all shredded I mixed it up. The orange cheddar was just a generic grocery brand -- in future I'll definitely be getting the good stuff, as this was fairly tasteless. However, an orange cheese in the mix is necessary to give the final product that familiar orangey color (if you don't care about that, it's not required, of course). Gruyere is good to use because it melts in a non-stringy way, which is good for a mac and cheese cream sauce. I'll be experimenting with the kinds of cheese I use the next time for sure. Another thing I meant to add but didn't this time was just a bit of white wine. I think that'll make some of the flavor bloom, like a fondue.
The most important part about the cheese is that you shred it yourself. The pre-shredded kind has cornstarch in it, and is also generally not as flavorful as the cheese you buy in wedges and have to shred yourself.
The hardest part of the whole thing was finding elbow macaroni. I was very surprised by this, and maybe it's just my local selection. Maybe people always eat the Kraft stuff and rarely make their own, so stores don't carry macaroni anymore. Who knows?
I didn't do any measuring, but the recipe below is a good general guideline that I've approximated.
"Perfect" Mac and Cheese
- 8oz uncooked elbow macaroni pasta
- 1 small onion, diced
- 3-4 cups shredded cheese, your choice (recommendations above)
- 4 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp flour
- 1 1/2-2 cups milk, cream, or half and half
- 2 dashes garlic powder
- pinch of nutmeg
- salt and pepper
- Make the pasta as directed on the package. Cook to al dente, and if you don't like your pasta softer than that, run cold water over the pasta once it's done to stop the cooking. Otherwise just drain the water and let it sit while you finish making the sauce.
- Preheat the oven to 500°F and put a rack at the highest point it will go and still allow you to fit your baking dish. (Alternatively, broiling would probably work also.)
- In a large pot (or right in the casserole dish, if you have one you can use on the stovetop like I do), melt the butter. Add the flour and mix thoroughly to create a roux. Cook until dark blonde.
- Add the onion and blend well into the roux. Cook a few minutes. The roux will darken a bit more.
- Start slowly adding the milk. Add as much as you need to create a thick creamy mixture.
- Season the cream sauce with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and garlic powder. (At this point, I'd probably also add the white wine, if using.) Stir well.
- Turn the heat to low and start adding the cheese a handful at a time. You don't want the mixture to boil at this point, as it will separate. Keep doing this until all the cheese is incorporated. The mixture will be very thick and may look kind of stringy due to the cheese. Taste it and adjust the seasoning as needed, or add more cheese if you think it needs more.
- Add in the cooked pasta and mix gently but thoroughly. Use your spatula or spoon to press the pasta down into the dish and smooth the surface.
- Bake for 10 minutes in the oven, or until the top is bubbly and brown in spots. Serve hot.