Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Search for Perfect Mac and Cheese

I have begun the search for the perfect recipe for Mac and Cheese. Yes, people have recommended Kraft, but that's the kids version of a traditional comfort food. I'd like something more complex, bold, and less sickeningly sweet. Of course the perfect recipe has to be a mix between fabulously flavorful, beautiful to look at, and easy to make.

It seems like the task is simple, but as my wife and I embark on our journey to find that recipe, it seems to be more elusive that I thought. The first recipe I'll post here comes from a recent episode of America's Test Kitchen, a show I like to think of as comfort television. Only Julia Child and Norm Abrams provide more comfort when I'm lying on the couch trying to avoid life's difficulties. I'm a big fan of the Test Kitchen and their recipies, so we tried this one first. Here it is with my assessment below:

It's crucial to cook the pasta until tender-that is, just past the al dente stage. Whole, low-fat, and skim milk all work well in this recipe. The recipe may be halved and baked in an 8-inch square, broiler-safe baking dish. If desired, offer celery salt or hot sauce (such as Tabasco) for sprinkling at the table.

Serves 6 to 8 as a main course or 10 to 12 as a side dish

bread crumb topping
6 slices (about 6 ounces) good-quality white sandwich bread, torn into rough pieces
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces pasta and cheese1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt

1 pound elbow macaroni
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
5 cups milk (see note)
8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)

1. FOR THE BREAD CRUMBS: Pulse the bread and butter in a food processor until the crumbs are no larger than 1/8 inch, ten to fifteen 1-second pulses. Set aside.

2. FOR THE PASTA AND CHEESE: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the broiler. Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil in a stockpot. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt and the macaroni and stir to separate the noodles. Cook until tender, drain, and set aside.

3. In the now-empty stockpot, heat the butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add the flour, mustard, cayenne (if using), and remaining 1 teaspoon salt and whisk well to combine. Continue whisking until the mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute. Whisking constantly, gradually add the milk; bring the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly (the mixture must reach a full boil to fully thicken), then reduce the heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened to the consistency of heavy cream, about 5 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the cheeses until fully melted. Add the pasta and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is steaming and heated through, about 6 minutes.

4. Transfer the mixture to a broiler-safe 13 by 9-inch baking dish and sprinkle with the bread crumbs. Broil until deep golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Cool 5 minutes, then serve.


Cut 8 ounces baked deli ham, sliced 1/4 inch thick, into 1-inch squares. Follow the recipe for Classic Macaroni and Cheese, adding the chopped ham and 1 cup frozen peas to the cheese sauce along with the pasta. Proceed as directed

You can view the recipe at America's Test Kitchen.

We generally liked the recipe, and I'd happily make it again, but I did have a few things I would like to rework.

1) I'm not sure I let the milk-cheese mixture thicken enough. I went past their time recommendation, but it still seemed a bit too thin. Of course I'm partially to blame for not waiting longer because I was really hungry and tired of wisking.

2) I'd like it to have more zip. I could add more pepper, but I think I would start with more cayenne. Not letting the mixture thicken more could have had an impact, but I can't imagine that much. The Tabasco on the table is a good suggestion, too.

3) We didn't try the ham variation, but we did add peas. We liked that, and it is fairly traditional.

I'm open to recommendations. Send me your recipe. I'll be posting more later as we continue to eat our way through the mac and cheese world.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

My brother makes this recipe a lot. I always end up sprinkling it with some salt, pepper, and a hefty dose of Tabasco. I remember the first time he made it, it was a bit soupy. I think he uses less milk now.

I tried the older version of the ATK mac&cheese, before they published your recipe. If you want to take a look, it's on my blog, but I didn't like it all that much. I'd stick with the newer recipe.