In Search of Mac-n-Cheese Perfection, v2.0
In our earlier skirmish with this thread, we waxed philosophical on the gustatory wonder and sundry therapeutic benefits of a classic macaroni and cheese, but made precious little headway toward the dish itself. On our next pass, we thought about actually making the dish, and wondered about the the appropriateness of breadcrumb toppings, cheeses other than cheddar, and the optimal pasta shape. While the end result – ziti baked in a sauce of bechamel, provolone and parmigiano – was good, maybe even satisfying, it nevertheless fell short of transporting. And a truly classic mac-n-cheese must, above all else, transport us somewhere: Perhaps to a time when we were younger, or in circumstances more care-free, or maybe precisely where we are now, but with softer edges, the carbohydrate equivalent of a Snuggly.
With this schmaltzy sentiment firmly ensconced, I decided to try a riff on the undeniably classic, if not particularly gourmet, version from 1937 known simply as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (or, if you’re Canadian, Kraft Dinner). What could be more iconic than a lifeboat-orange, rib-gluing plate of Kraft? The problem, of course, is Kraft from a box basically tastes like crap. Which is not surprising, considering you could probably whip up a box from the original 1937 production run and eat it without getting sick. Hey, give credit where it’s due: I’ve fed it to my kids, more than once, and I invariably sneak a bite, but it’s not exactly a badge of honor here in the Proximal Kitchen. So what I’m after today is the essence of Kraft – a thick, creamy sauce; a blazing orange so rarely found in nature – but with the taste of real cheese, minus the food colorings, some texture to the pasta, and ideally a consistency a bit less like Elmer’s Glue. (The recipe resides on the last page, feel free to skip ahead.)
Right off the bat, I knew the color would be tricky, because even with loads of sharp cheddar, it’s going to be a very pale orange by the time you melt it into the bechamel, and in any case I don’t like how cheddar melts, too grainy. No substitute for primary research, so I took a quick trip down the cheese aisle, and lucked out: Mimolette. Mimolette – the hard, aged, dark-orange French version of Edam – is not one of my favorite cheeses; uninspiring on a cheese plate, and not my favorite texture, a bit too waxy for my palate. However, for our purposes here, it seemed like an ideal candidate: Lots of color (naturally produced using annatto, by the way), a sharp tang not unlike an aged cheddar, and, hopefully, melting properties inherited from its Dutch cousin.
I was worried about its melting properties, but figured to solve that by tempering it into the bechamel and rounding out the sauce with – insert horrified gasp here – processed “American” cheese. (How sad is it, by the way, that the only cheese whose proper name contains “American” is a “processed cheese product”. No wonder the French send us all their Beaujolais Nouveau and wheels of unripened brie.) It turns out that the processed cheese – e.g., “American cheese” – offers some distinct technical advantages to the aspiring builder of a great mac-n-cheese, because processed cheese has been emulsified (with water, whey, and/or milk, typically) and thus melts smoothly without breaking. Try to melt an aged, orange cheddar on its own and see what happens: Fats and solids separate, the melted cheese gets grainy, it’s just plain nasty, and has no place in my mac-n-cheese. Still, I didn’t want to serve a Cheese Whiz casserole, so I kept the proportions 2:1 in favor of the French.
For all this talk of Kraft, I still wanted to dress up the final product, to end up with an all-grown-up homage to the iconic childhood classic that resides in our collective cheesy consciousness, a dish for the 40-something toddler that lurks just beneath the surface of well-adjusted adults everywhere. To that end, I added a few bells and whistles, some of which you could probably do an end-around and not miss too much, but which, when taken together, help raise the humble, baked casserole into a deeply complex, satisfying plate of pasta. And, while it’s certainly several branches removed from where we started – the blue cardboard box on the mac-n-cheese family tree – I think you’ll agree that the family resemblance remains unmistakable. .
- Turn on the oven and set a large pot of salted water for the pasta to boil, and make an onion brulee (for the life of me, I can’t find a link to a simple description, so here’s my own: To make onion brulee, split an onion in half, stud it with several cloves, and make a slit into which you slot a bay leaf. Drizzle with a little oil and put under a broiler until the onion begins to char. That’s it.). As long as you’re working under a broiler, quickly toast several thick-cut slices of sourdough bread. While the onion is in the oven, whisk together 1/2C (each of flour and butter) into a blonde roux.When the onion and the toast are out of the oven, set the temperature to 350F.
- Scald two cups of whole milk with the onion brulee and cook the pasta (I used cavatappi in order to get the classic “elbow shape”, but you could certainly use classic elbows; really, any tube-style pasta will do, it just depends how Kraft-like you want the final look and how you want it to set up for service. Don’t overcook the pasta! If you’re using a basic Italian boxed pasta like Barilla or De Cecco, take the lower end of their suggested cooking range, and subtract 1 minute. Pull the pasta – it will be slightly too tough still – and drain.
- Make the sauce, beginning with a bechamel. This is the key to this particular recipe – it is all about this sauce. Remove the onion and whisk the hot milk into the roux. Bring to a very low simmer and, while it cooks, prep the cheeses: 1lb of Mimolette, coursely grated, and 1/2lb of Kraft yellow American cheese, either cut in strips or grated, depending on the form in which you buy it. Season the bechamel with salt and freshly ground nutmeg and white pepper and add the cheese in batches. Once all the cheese has been incorporated, whisk in 1/4C of beer, 1 tablespoon of dry, ground mustard, 1 teaspoon of paprika (use a decent quality paprika – nice and deep red – or the color will be off), a few dashes of Tabasco sauce (you don’t want a spicy sauce, this is just a background note), and – the other secret weapon for color – a small pinch of saffron threads, ground between your fingers. The saffron is really just there to bring up the yellow in the sauce which, together with the dark red of the paprika and the orange of the Mimolette, will result in an almost impossibly bright and Kraft-like orange. While the sauce comes together, chop the toast slices, whiz them in a food processor until they are a uniform bread-crumb consistency, and gently saute them with some butter, salt and pepper. Remove from the heat, cool, and toss with a handful of finely grated Parmigiano or Romano cheese. Check the sauce for seasoning and adjust – it should be pretty sharp and a little salty, remember it has to flavor all that pasta. It will be very thick – that is fine, and what you want.
- Fold the pasta and the sauce together gently. You may have too much sauce, so reserve a cup or so until you know. The pasta should all be thickly slathered. Pour into a buttered 9×12 (-ish) casserole dish, or pie plate or crock pot or whatever you like, of similar volume. Press down gently to pack it together and get rid of air between noodles. Pour the breadcrumbs over the top, cover with foil, and place in the 350F oven for 20-25 minutes, until it’s bubbling and just starting to brown at the edges. Remove the foil and return to the oven until the top is a deep golden brown and the bread crumbs are nice and crunch, taking care not to burn – 5, maybe 10 minutes tops.
- Let is set for at least 10 minutes and cut in slices. Enjoy!