Kevin Weeks of Seriously Good announced late last year that he was hosting a Mac-and-Cheese-Off on his blog today. “After the over-the-top holiday eating I like something something basic and homey,” he wrote. “When CookieCrumb (CC) at I’m Mad and I Eat mentioned she was making mac-n-cheese, I thought it would be perfect meal for the first week of the New Year.”
I’d been thinking about posting my macaroni and cheese recipe on the blog, and decided New Year’s Day was the perfect time to make it. What better way to welcome the new year than on a cheesy, carby sea of goodness?
For my entire life, macaroni and cheese has always been made from scratch. The legacy began with my grandmother on my Dad’s side, who used to bake up casseroles of it when I was a little girl. I remember her standing in her kitchen, stirring the sauce at her stove.
Mac and cheese from a box? It wasn’t even in my consciousness.
I don’t remember when I made mac and cheese for the first time, but I know I requested Grammy’s recipe. It included the basic building blocks: butter, flour, milk, cheddar cheese, pasta. Dad weighed in with a secret: “You have to crumble Saltines on the top. That’s what makes it good.”
That’s what makes it amazing, I’d argue.
I’ve spent my adult life chasing after the perfect macaroni and cheese. It’s not that I wanted to one-up my Grammy, but rather that I wanted to take what she passed on to me and make it even better, even more spectacular than I remembered.
But there’s a tipping point. You add too much, and it ceases to be mac and cheese, and becomes something else entirely.
Over time, I’ve developed a system that starts with cheese selection. I forgo the all-cheddar monarchy for a United Nations approach. Cheddar serves as a base to which I add something Swiss, something smoky, something of the Parmaggiano family, and now, something soft. The exact cheese combination changes depending on what’s available when I’m shopping for the ingredients.
Take my latest batch, for example. I started with local cheddar made in Milton, Iowa. Next, I selected a Swiss Alpenzeller. I already had some grated Parmaggiano at home, so that would work for these purposes.
Next, I looked for smoked Gouda, but didn’t find any in my local co-op’s cheese case. I asked the woman behind the counter whether they had any that I’d missed, and she pointed me in the direction of some smoked provolone made in Wisconsin. “We don’t carry smoked Gouda anymore because we can’t get any that’s actually smoked,” she said. “It’s all injected with flavor.”
Never, ever use anything “injected with flavor” in your macaroni and cheese, people. It’s just wrong.
Last of all, I tossed an 8 oz. package of Neufchatel cheese in the basket. My friend Tammy has recently picked up a new mantra: everything’s better with cream cheese. I hadn’t tried Neufchatel, which is a lighter version of cream cheese, in my recipe before, but my instincts told me to give it a whirl.
In the pasta aisle, I poked around until I found a box of orecchiete. I find this little pasta (“ear-shaped,” in Italian) to be the world’s best for mac-and-cheese. Purists, sit back down. Macaroni is not a requirement, and I don’t call it Orecchiete and Cheese just because I use something different. But trust me on this: the shape is more like little cups than little ears, perfect for catching up the cheesy goodness of the sauce. Try it; then come back and thank me.
From then on, you just follow the basic theory. Make a roux with flour and butter. Add your milk and cook it slowly, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Add most of the cheese and let it melt into the sauce. Mix the sauce and the cubed, smoked cheese with the cooked pasta, top it with a crackery-crumbly-herby topping, and bake it up until the topping is golden. Then eat until you can’t eat any more. I promise…you’ll be amazed how quickly the blue box loses its luster.
Macaroni and cheese (like you’ve never tasted before)
8 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded
8 oz. Swiss cheese, shredded (I like Gruyere or Alpenzeller)
8 oz. Neufchatel or cream cheese, cubed
8 oz. smoked Provolone, cubed
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
4 c. milk
A dash or three of hot sauce (optional)
16 oz. orecchiete, cooked and drained
For the topping:
1 sleeve Saltines, crumbled (I have also used whatever crumbly thing I have on hand, including breadcrumbs, tortilla chips, Triscuits, etc.)
3 Tbsp. shredded or grated Parmaggiano
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir with a whisk, constantly, for about a minute. You want the mixture to be smooth, and you want it to have time to reach a golden-brown color.
- Begin adding the milk slowly, continuing to whisk constantly, until all the milk is incorporated. Settle in for a long, constant whisking process. This has to be done slowly or the milk will scald, so don’t try to turn up the heat and rush this part.
- In about 15 minutes, maybe 20, the milk should be just below a simmer, steaming but not really bubbling, and the mixture should be thickening. That’s when it’s time to add the cheddar, the Swiss cheese and the Neufchatel. Whisk in the cheese until it has all melted and has incorporated into the sauce. Add some salt and freshly-ground pepper to the mix (about 1 1/2 tsp. of salt, and maybe three grinds with a pepper mill), as well as the hot sauce. (A note on the hot sauce: It will not make your mac-and-cheese spicy, but it will add another background flavor note. Trust me on this…it’s good.)
- Pour the cheese mixture into the pasta and stir to mix it all up. At this point, add the smoked cheese cubes and mix it into the pasta-cheese sauce mixture.
- Pour the whole mixture into a greased casserole dish (I use a 9 x 13 stoneware pan for this – this means more surface area for the crunchy goodness on the top.).
- Mix the Saltines, the Parmaggiano, and the sage in a bowl. Sprinkle the combination evenly over the top of the casserole. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the topping is brown and the casserole is bubbly.
Photo credit for image of the stirring of the cheese: Steve McNutt