Macaroni and Cheese is one of the easiest dishes in the world to prepare and surely one of the most wonderful, which probably accounts for the million-and-one versions that hurried, hungry folks have come up with over the years. (If you read to the end of this post, you will get to my most fabulous rendition, which I promised you a few weeks ago in Quintessential Mac & Cheese, Part 1, a review of the best of all the Mac & Cheese I ate last year in Seattle, Portland, and Boston restaurants, complete with photos.
In case you want more than one fantastic recipe, however, there are fifty or so versions captured for your eating enjoyment in the excellent little cookbook, appropriately titled, Macaroni And Cheese, by Marlena Spieler. Dishes that will make your mouth water just reading the recipes, such as, The Contessa’s Rigatoni, with porcini mushrooms, Italian sausage, pecorino, and fontina cheeses, and a pinch of fennel. Hey, I would even put on shoes for the opportunity to eat this dish; and me with the feet that beg to be free!
Or how about Macaroni and Cheese “Broccolissimo,” with, you guessed it, broccoli, macaroni, and ooey gooey cheese. Should I mention the Macaroni and Double Asparagus Gratin? I have to stop reading.
But! However wonderful these dishes surely are, the one I am looking for, the one closest to what I consider REAL Macaroni and Cheese is titled, Yankee Doodle Dandy Baked Macaroni and Cheese. Yes! It meets purist’s requirements; namely, a well-considered medley of cheeses (Cheddar, Jack, Blue, and Parmesan are among the options listed), small pasta with a hole or crevice to capture the sauce, well-flavored béchamel sauce, and breadcrumb topping. And to show you how well Ms. Spieler truly understands this dish, she even includes onion and garlic, both of which are a necessity in my opinion. If only all Mac & Cheese could be this well considered.
For instance, recently at a popular Seattle restaurant, I stared with bemused amazement as the server set before me a solid, square brick of congealed cheddar cheese and elbow macaroni. I picked at it, and although the taste was not bad, the gummy texture of the overcooked pasta, the chewy, separated cheese, and the total absorption of what must have been a béchamel sauce at some point in the preparation, ruined the dish.
One of the keys to a great Mac & Cheese is a perfect balance between the pasta and the cheese sauce. You don’t want pasta swimming in sauce, and you don’t want pasta that has absorbed all of the sauce. After much trial and error over the years, I can now say with confidence that 12 ounces of dried pasta to 4 cups of medium-thick béchamel sauce is “just right.” Well, usually anyway (some pastas absorb more sauce than others).
Another key to a great Mac & Cheese is the quality and flavors of the cheeses used. Most of the cheeses should be aged for over 6 months to ensure that they don’t separate and turn gritty when exposed to the heat of the sauce or the oven. All cheese used should be premium. Although you can certainly make Mac & Cheese using leftover cheeses from your frig, this dish merits a shopping expedition for the best local artisan cheeses available in your area.
I find combinations of cheeses with complimentary qualities more interesting than a single cheese–although for my taste, a cheddar should dominate, with the other cheeses playing subordinate roles. Also, a small quantity of not-too-sharp blue cheese adds an appealing tang that most tasters like but cannot accurately identify.
This said, there are fine cooks who will disagree. The Heathman Mac & Cheese in Portland, for instance, intentionally features only Fontina and Parmesan (both of excellent quality). So don’t get too hung up on having all the cheeses I list below. Use good melting cheese–one variety or six varieties–and a little care, and you will end up with an exquisite Mac & Cheese.
LunaCafe OtherWorldly Mac & Cheese
12 ounces, short, dried, tubular pasta, such as garganelli, maccheroni, mostaccioli, penne, tortiglione, or ziti (about 2 pounds cooked)
2 teaspoons sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups stale white bread crumbs, coarsely crumbled
2 clove garlic, pressed or minced
Cheeses (15-16 ounces or about 5 cups total cheese)
6 ounces (2 cups) grated, aged cheddar cheese
3 ounces (1 cup) grated Swiss Emmanthaler or Gruyere
3 ounces (1 cup) grated, mild-flavored melting cheese, such as Jack or Asadero
3 ounces (1 cup) grated Italian Pecorino Romano (aged at least 9 months)
optional: 2-4 tablespoons crumbled blue cheese (1 ounce)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups minced yellow onion (8 ounces or about 1 large onion)
2 cloves garlic, peeled, and minced or pressed
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk (or a mixture of half milk and half cream or sour cream, or a mixture of half cream and half chicken stock)
sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Optional Extras (choose one or more)
½ cup, stemmed, seeded, diced jalapeno chilies (add while the onions are cooking)
½ cup cooked, crumbled applewood smoked bacon (add when mixing the sauce with the pasta)
1 cup roasted, peeled, seeded, diced poblano chile (add when mixing the sauce with the pasta)
½ cup roasted, peeled, seeded, diced jalapeno chile (add when mixing the sauce with the pasta)
2 cups sautéed, chopped shitake mushrooms (add when mixing the sauce with the pasta)
Prepare the baking dish
- Coat a 6-cup capacity, ovenproof casserole with vegetable spray or a dab of butter. Reserve.
Make the breadcrumb topping
- In a small mixing bowl, combine the melted butter, bread crumbs, and garlic. Reserve.
Cook the pasta
- Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, add 2 teaspoons of salt, return to a boil, and add the pasta.
- Cook until just barely tender with a bit of chewiness remaining.
- Remove the pasta pot from the stove and carefully pour the water and pasta into a large colander to drain. Run cold water over the pasta to cool it to room temperature. Add pasta to a large mixing bowl.
- Toss the pasta in the bowl with all of the cheeses and reserve.
Make the béchamel sauce
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, add the onions, and slowly cook until onions are softened but not browned. Add the garlic and stir to combine.
- Stir in the flour, and cook without browning for two minutes.
- Slowly pour in the milk and whisk constantly while bringing the sauce to a simmer. Simmer, whisking continuously, for 2 minutes.
- Pour the sauce over the pasta and cheeses in the bowl. With a large spatula, fold to combine.
- Spoon into the prepared casserole, mounding slightly at the center.
- Sprinkle on the breadcrumb topping.
- Bake at 350º for 30-40 minutes until heated through and bubbling. Broil for a minute or two to finish browning the top.
More Pasta Recipes from LunaCafe:
- Old World Spaetzle: The New Pasta?
- Old-Fashioned Creamy Macaroni Salad
- Spicy Penne & Chicken Salad with Chipotle Lime Dressing
- Spinach & Egg Fettuccini with Wild Mushrooms & Pancetta (Straw & Hay)
- Strozzapreti Pasta with Spicy Italian Sausage, Broccolini & Garlic Crema
- World Famous Green Chile Mac & Cheese