The Final Word on Macaroni and Cheese

The food trend in recent years is to go back to basics.  We’ve had pizza wars, burger wars and mac ‘n cheese wars.  High end restaurants are more likely to serve ribs (albeit short ribs, rather than BBQ ribs) than Duck á L’Orange.  Comfort food (or variations thereof) is king.

So let me throw my hat into the ring.  I must have made 20 plus versions of mac and cheese in my life.  Not because I am a mac and cheese fiend (I actually rarely eat it) but because the “perfect” mac and cheese has eluded me.  I am sure everyone has a different idea of “perfect”, but here is mine:

  1. The pasta must be hearty and hold the sauce.
  2. The sauce must be creamy and not make the dish a solid brick when cool enough to eat.
  3. The cheese(es) must be flavorful and not bland.
  4. The topping must be crunchy and buttery, but not sandy or burned.
  5. It must reheat and not be rubbery or dry.

Moshulu on the Philadelphia riverfront came close about 10 years ago. They used crushed goldfish crackers for their topping.   Of course, they would not give me the recipe and my efforts to replicate and improve fell short.  Recently, I came across a recipe in a 2015 Bon Appetite and thought it might be “The One”.  I ramped it up bit with some horseradish, but otherwise the recipe met all my criteria for the ultimate Macaroni and Cheese.   Why?  Here are a few very good reasons:

The Béchamel

There’s something magical about making a béchamel sauce, and it’s an integral step in the mac & cheese process. Without it, your mac would lack creaminess; it would basically just be pasta with melted cheese (not that there is anything wrong with that…) Making béchamel is a simple process that produces luxurious results. All you have to do is make a roux with melted butter and flour, and then gradually add warm milk. Whisk to help the sauce thicken, and there you go. We recommend adding grated onion and garlic for extra flavor here; it’s so worth it.  Don’t make this sauce too thick (by adding more flour).  It should be on the thin side. The cheese and baking will thicken it up.

The Cheese

There are four different types of cheese in our mac; each cheese adds something different. First mixed in the béchamel is Fontina, a mild Italian cheese with all-star melting power. It’s a good one to throw in just to round everything out. Then comes sharp Cheddar and Gruyère. The combo of those two cheeses is what makes a mac & cheese really sing. They’re that pair everyone wants as go-to cool couple friends (well, if cheese was a real-life couple and not a dairy product). Lastly, we mix Parmesan with the breadcrumb topping (more on that below) for a mic drop moment.

The Pasta

We would be remiss not to talk about pasta shape here—it matters. We’ve gotten in some pretty heated arguments about the ideal pasta shape.  Certain shapes allow the cheese sauce to cling and stick to the pasta excellently. We’re also fans of gemelli and campanelle. Good ole’ fashioned fusilli or elbows work great too. Avoid shapes that are too noodle-y.

The Topping

There are some people that don’t believe in breadcrumbs as a mac & cheese topping. We are not those people. We recommend lightly toasting panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) on the stove over medium heat with a couple of tablespoons of butter. To give the topping an extra oomph, mix in some grated extra Parmesan and fresh thyme. Top the mac & cheese with the breadcrumb mixture after the dish has been baking for about 10 minutes; that way the casserole starts to cook beforehand and the breadcrumbs get to their ideal golden brownness without burning.

Well, that about says it.  Thank you and Bon Appetite!!  My culinary life is complete.

 

“The Best” Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • ¾ cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
  • ¼ cup finely grated Parmesan
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided, plus more
  • 8 ounces shells, elbows or any short, but hefty pasta
  • 2 ½ cups whole milk, warmed
  • ½  small onion, grated
  • 1  garlic clove, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup grated Fontina cheese
  • 1 cup grated Gruyère
  • 1 cup grated sharp white cheddar
  • ½ teaspoon English mustard powder (such as Colman’s)
  • 2 tsp. of prepared horseradish
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper

 Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add panko and cook, stirring, until crumbs are golden brown, 6–8 minutes (make sure to get them toasty brown; they won’t darken much during baking). Transfer to a small bowl and toss with Parmesan, thyme leaves, and ¼ tsp. salt.
  3. Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente (the noodles will continue to cook in the cheese sauce, so take them out a minute or two before you think they’re actually done). Drain pasta; let cool while you make the sauce.
  4. Melt remaining 2 Tbsp. butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high.
  5. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until onions are fragrant and beginning to soften, about 2 minutes.
  6. Sprinkle flour over and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture starts to stick to bottom of saucepan, about 1 minute. Add warm milk in a few additions, whisking to combine after each addition.
  7. Bring béchamel sauce to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring, until sauce is thickened and doesn’t feel grainy when a little bit is rubbed between your fingers, 6–8 minutes (cooking the flour thoroughly at this stage ensures a creamy sauce).
  8. Add Fontina, Gruyère, cheddar, mustard powder, cayenne, and ¾ tsp. salt and stir until cheeses are melted and sauce is smooth. Remove from heat and mix in pasta; transfer to a 2-qt. baking dish.
  9. Bake 10 minutes. Top with Parmesan breadcrumbs and bake until sauce is bubbling around the edges, 8–10 minutes longer. Let cool in pan 15 minutes before serving

Oh Yum(sigh).

MAC-AND-CHEESE-940x560

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Categories: Main Courses, Sides

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