Mac. And. Cheese.

maccheese21I can think of but one response to snow (yes, I said snow) on April 8th – mac and cheese.

There are about a gizillion recipes out there for macaroni and cheese (actually Google informs me that there are “about 1,420,000“); this one is a classic version, with a bechamel-cheese sauce, a little salt, pepper & nutmeg, and not much else.  I like a lot of different varieties of mac & cheese – the Half King in Chelsea makes a great version with broccoli, tomatoes and bacon, and North Star in Pound Ridge makes another winner with three cheese and truffles – so I’m not one to tell you that this classic is the one and only “perfect” version. But I will tell you it is pretty damn good.

I used as a general guide Martha Stewart’s recipe, which I found on Smitten Kitchen.  (Given that we’re neighbors and all, I figure that keeps it local.)  This is not the time or place for low-fat cheese or skim milk; if you must limit fat and/or cholesterol, consider portion-control (make a half, or even a quarter recipe, and indulge in a 1/4 cup of rich, delectable, full-o-fat mac and cheese, washed down with an enormous green salad and some heart-healthy red wine, and then promptly freeze the rest, in 1/4 cup portions, and bury them in the back of the freezer) instead of cutting fat out of the recipe.  It won’t taste as good, you’ll eat more than you should in an effort to be satiated, and really.. it’s just not worth it.

Like all simple recipes, this one is only as good as the ingredients that go in it; milk, butter, cheese and pasta.  That’s about it.  So, if you pick up regular old supermarket milk, Cracker Barrel cheddar and Ronzoni – well, it will be good. Don’t get me wrong – creamy, cheesy goodness over pasta is rarely bad.  But if you get farm-fresh milk and butter from your local dairy, artisinal-quality cheese and quality whole wheat pasta; well, it will be sublime.  And snow in April deserves nothing less than sublime, no?

————————————————————-

Classic Mac and Cheese

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 tbsp (1.5 oz) butter, plus extra for buttering a casserole dish
  • 2 and 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 8 oz (about 2 cups) sharp cheddar, grated
  • 2.5 oz (a generous 1/2 cup) parmesean or Barat, grated
  • 8 oz whole wheat elbow macaroni

METHODS

  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Add macaroni and cook until the outside of the pasta is cooked but the inside is underdone, about 4 minutes (2 to 3 minutes if using semolina or other, softer, pasta).  Drain macaroni in a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold water in order to stop cooking.  Toss to remove water and reserve.
  2. Prepare the mise en place (this ensures that everything is ready and to hand while you are whisking, whisking, whisking your bechamel): grate the cheeses, measure spices & salt into a small bowl, the flour into a 1/4-cup measure, the milk into a small saucepan and the butter into a medium saucepan. 
  3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a casserole (I use a ceramic, 9 and 1/2-inch deep dish pie dish).
  4. Warm the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally.  Watch the milk carefully so that it doesn’t heat too quickly, or get too hot, causing it to curdle and separate (and causing you to swear voluminously and rage around the kitchen, banging pots & pans, scrubbing out the burned milk, measuring more milk, causing your fiance to beat a hasty retreat, etc.).  If the milk starts to boil, remove from heat and stir to lower the temperature.
  5. While the milk is warming, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.  When the butter has melted and is bubbly, add the flour; whisk thoroughly and cook for 1 minute.  While whisking, slowly add the hot milk, in 3 or 4 batches, to keep the mixture smooth, all the while whisking constantly. Continue to cook over medium heat, whisking constantly (I sometimes switch to a flat-bottomed wooden spatula at this point, if I feel like the sauce at the bottom & sides of the pan is burning), until the bechamel thickens, about 15 minutes. (How do you know when your bechamel sauce is “done?”  Well, there is no magic spot as far as I can tell.  It’s pretty much done when you think it is thick enough;  Julia Child cooks her bechamel for 2 minutes; the Free Culinary School folks cook theirs for 30 minutes.  I like it thick & creamy; when the bubbles plop thickly, and the volume has reduced by about half, I generally call it “done.”)2009-04-08
  6. Remove bechamel from the heat.  Stir in about two-thirds of each pile of grated cheese and the spices.  Stir for a minute or two until the cheese is all melted and the sauce looks uniform.  Add the well-drained elbows and stir to coat.
  7. Transfer macaroni & bechamel mixture to the prepared casserole dish.  Top with the remaining grated cheese and a bare sprinkle of cayenne pepper (or nutmeg, if you prefer).  Bake until golden brown, about 30-35 minutes.  Cool the dish on a wire rack (or outside in the freakishly cold April weather) for about 5 minutes (or until it will no longer scald the roof of your mouth with nuclear-hot cheesy goodness).  Serve.  Moan.  Blush.  Eat some more.010

Yields about 6 servings.

OPTIONS

  1. I prefer my mac without breadcrumbs; I’d rather the cheese itself get nice & crispy, and really – a starch with a starch?  So gauche.  But, if you must, Martha’s recipe includes fresh breadcrumbs; see the Smitten Kitchen write-up for a how-to.
  2. Any good melting cheese, or combination of cheeses, will do here.  I’ve tried a bunch of combinations, including some very fancy-pants cheeses from my favorite cheese shop, Plum Plums, in Pound Ridge, but I always come back to a nice, sharp cheddar.  Call me a traditionalist.  (You’re a traditionalist!)
  3. I won’t bother to list the 8 gajillion things you can add to mac and cheese.  Really, when your base is ooey-gooey cheese sauce and pasta, how can you go wrong?  Let your imagination run wild.
  4. You could go all-out local with homemade pasta.

STORE

In the refrigerator for up to one week.

SEASON

April, the cruelest month.

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