March 30, 2005

Recipe file: Baked macaroni and cheese

As the keeper of the Dregs guessed it would be, my first recipe post is about that childhood favorite, macaroni and cheese. I have always loved cheese, and macaroni and cheese has been one of my favorite foods since I was a child. Unfortunately, it's frequently very bad -- which combined with its relative unhealthfulness means that it's often not worth eating when it's on offer.

Still, I had occasionally had very good homemade macaroni and cheese, and knew that the recipe I wanted had to be out there somewhere. I began without a recipe, just an understanding of what the components should be: noodles, bechamel (turned into mornay with the addition of cheese), and a nice breadcrumb topping. I tried guessing at the correct proportions of noodles and sauce, but always wound up with not enough sauce for the noodles. So I consulted a couple of recipe books, and found that the proportions I'd been using were not wildly off. Unfortunately, these recipes also resulted in mac and cheese that was too dry and tasteless. And the cheeses in the recipes (usually a combination of cheddar and monterey jack) also seemed to result in a rather bland dish. The basics seemed right, but something was missing.

Then I tried Alton Brown's baked macaroni and cheese recipe, and finally experienced mac and cheese nirvana. The key difference between this recipe and others I've attempted: much less pasta per unit of sauce. This recipe calls for 8 oz. of noodles for a sauce made with 3 cups of milk and 12 oz. of cheese, while most of the other recipes I've tried call for a full pound of noodles for a sauce made with 4-5 cups of milk and 16 oz. of cheese. So this mac and cheese turns out much more creamy, flavorful, and delicious than any of the others I've tried. I've made this dish four or five times now, and have fine-tuned it a little for my own tastes:

  • The first thing I changed, right off the bat, was to eliminate the onion. Although I'm not a big fan of onions, I know how much flavor they add. But onions just didn't fit in to my idealized conception of macaroni and cheese. I leave them out, and I don't think the dish suffers.
  • The mustard and paprika really add a lot of flavor and sharpness. I think using a bit more than the tablespoon of dry mustard that's called for helps.
  • In the episode of Good Eats that demonstrates this recipe, Alton Brown stresses that the dish must be made with very good, very sharp cheddar cheese. Having experimented a bit with various cheeses, I can confirm that this is absolutely critical. A mild cheese just doesn't have enough oomph to stand up to the bland pasta and bechamel. We've been using a white English cheddar, which is very sharp and slightly sweet. The brand is Coastal, and it's available for a reasonable price at Costco.
  • The recipe calls for an egg to be added to the sauce, which I assume this is to promote thickening. But I don't like using the egg, because I think it makes the sauce thicken too much: the leftovers are too dry. Cooking the bechamel a little longer thickens the sauce enough that the egg is unnecessary, and the leftovers wind up tasting even better than the mac and cheese does when it's just out of the oven. If you don't expect to have leftovers, or if you like a really firm macaroni and cheese, it's probably a good idea to leave the egg in.
  • Delicious though the unadulterated mac and cheese is, I usually prefer it with a vegetable or two added. One of my favorite additions has always been broccoli. It's necessary to blanch the broccoli for a very short time before combining it with the mac and cheese. After baking in the casserole for half an hour, the broccoli is pretty well done, but I like it anyway.
  • If well done broccoli isn't your thing, you could try my other favorite addition: tomatoes. Out of tomato season (and let's face it, who wants to make a rich, starch-filled dish like mac and cheese during the height of tomato season?), organic canned diced tomatoes are my choice (my favorite brand is Muir Glen). I just drain the tomatoes, and stir them into the mac and cheese just before it goes in the oven.
  • The recipe calls for a breadcrumb topping made from Panko breadcrumbs. After experimenting with regular canned breadcrumbs and crushed croutons, I agree that Panko is the way to go. It produces a fabulously crispy and light topping that isn't matched by anything else I tried.

This clearly isn't health food, but I think I've finally hit on a macaroni and cheese that tastes good enough to be worth its fat and calories. Enjoy.

Posted by at March 30, 2005 5:23 PM