Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

Despite all of the moving chaos still present in my life, I’ve decided that today is the day I take a giant step back towards normalcy.  I cooked my own breakfast (no more Starbucks and cold cereal!), I’m hitting the gym, and I’m firing up this blog.  I haven’t started cooking full-on meals again just yet (thank you, Christopher, for green enchie leftovers) , but I have a few good stories to share from the past couple of weeks.  Let’s start with one of those now…

I’m a macaroni and cheese FIEND.  I’m too well-behaved (from a nutritional standpoint, at least) to eat it all the time, but it’s truly one of my favorite foods.  I even have a cookbook that is dedicated entirely to macaroni and cheese (thank you, Colleen!).

Several weeks ago, my friend Christopher had friends over for a meatloaf dinner with macaroni and cheese on the side.  He said the macaroni and cheese recipe – Perfect Macaroni and Cheese from the February 1999 issue of Martha Stewart Living – was to die for, so I picked up the ingredients.  This was about the time that moving chaos really started to set in, though, so I was struggling to stick with my scheduled menus.  In a comical turn of events, we actually ended up at my place one Sunday finishing up a baking project that we had started at Christopher’s place.  Dinnertime rolled around and I had the Perfect Macaroni and Cheese ingredients (and little else) in the refrigerator, so we decided to make it together while the cakes we had been baking were cooling.

The original recipe serves 12 people, so I had purchased ingredients for a half recipe.  First, we buttered a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish and set it aside.  Next, we took 3 slices of white bread, removed the crusts, and tore them into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch pieces.  We placed the bread in a small bowl, poured 1 tablespoon of melted butter over the top, tossed the mixture, and set it aside as well.

To make the cheese sauce, we started by heating 2 3/4 cups of milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  While the milk heated, we made the roux that would become the sauce’s thickening agent.  In a high-sided skillet, we melted 3 tablespoons of butter, added 1/4 cup of flour when the butter began to bubble, and cooked the mixture (stirring constantly) for 1 minute.

Whisking constantly, we slowly poured the hot milk into the flour mixture.  The next line of the recipe says, “Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.”  It probably should have said “continue cooking, and cooking, and cooking, and cooking…”  The process of thickening this sauce really did take forever.  It’s a good thing I had Christopher there to cheer me on as I whisked, because I would have stopped long before the sauce had reached an optimal thickness.

When the sauce was nice and thick, we removed it from the heat and added 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, 1/8 teaspoon of grated nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon of ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne pepper, 1 1/2 cups of grated sharp white cheddar, and 3/4 cup of grated Gruyere.  We stirred the sauce until it was well blended and set it aside.

Cooking the macaroni was the last step before we could assemble the casserole.  In a large saucepan of boiling water, we cooked 8 ounces of elbow macaroni until the outside of the pasta was cooked and the inside was underdone.  (Normally, this would be about 2 – 3 fewer minutes than the package instructions; at this altitude, it’s more like the exact recommended cooking time or 1 fewer minute.)  When the pasta was adequately cooked, we rinsed it under cold water, drained it well, and stirred it into the reserved cheese sauce.

Finally, we poured the noodles and cheese sauce into our prepared casserole dish.  We sprinkled the mixture with 3/4 cup of shredded sharp white cheddar and 1/4 cup of shredded Gruyere, scattered the buttered breadcrumbs on top, and baked the casserole at 375F until it was browned on top (about 30 minutes).  We let the dish cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes and served it with rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and green beans from the freezer.  There’s nothing wrong with dressing up a gorgeous dish with a few convenience items in a tight situation, eh? 🙂

Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

This macaroni and cheese was *really* delicious.  Truly.  It was creamy, nicely textured, and the breadcrumbs on top were killer.  I couldn’t count it as “perfect,” though, because I’ve been ridiculously spoiled by the macaroni and cheese at The Porch in Dallas, which I consider to be the standard by which all other macaroni and cheese should be judged.  There was something in the flavor profile of the cheeses I used that didn’t quite do it for me, but like anything, a dish is only as good as the ingredients you put into it.  Next time, I think I’m going to try the Pecorino-Romano variation given in the original recipe to see if that yields a flavor that is closer to what I want.  I’ll definitely give this one another shot, though.

TIPS:  I failed to plan ahead in the milk department, so I only had 1% milk on hand when it was time to make the roux.  For maximum creaminess, I should have used whole milk (and will next time).

Also, be sure to plan on grating your own sharp white cheddar and Gruyere, unless you have access to a (probably gourmet) grocery store that sells them pre-shredded.

Recipe link: Perfect Macaroni and Cheese

4 Responses to “Perfect Macaroni and Cheese”

  1. 1 Lisa April 21, 2009 at 1:23 am

    That looks delish — if you’re looking to try another recipe, I recommend this one, which is slightly lighter: It’s relatively rich even with skim milk, though the noodles do tend to soak up the sauce and it definitely ends up drier than your photo above. Also — grating hard cheese is made infinitely easier in the food processor! I swear by it. Happy cooking!

  2. 2 jfochek April 21, 2009 at 1:38 am

    Thanks, Lisa! I’ll give this one a shot. And I’m absolutely with you on grating hard cheese in the food processor… It makes my least-favorite chore much faster and easier.

  3. 3 Colleen April 26, 2009 at 12:04 am

    I always wondered if any of the recipes in said cookbook were good…

  1. 1 Dinner Party Menus: Perfect Macaroni and Cheese « Sweet and Saucy Trackback on November 15, 2010 at 8:57 am

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