I’m pretty sure there’s nothing more laughable than showing up on a food blog in this, the year of our Lord 2014, to extol the virtues of mac and cheese. The fact that baked, cheesy noodles with creamy sauce and crispy crust is incredible will come as a surprise to just about no one in the modern world. But I’m going to rave about it anyway. This mac and cheese is a bright light during a cold, dark winter; it is as comforting as a warm blanket made of hugs. You will want to eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and every other conceivable meal.
Alex has been traveling a lot this winter, so for about one week every month, I’m on my own. While the temptation to subsist on take-out and breakfast cereal for dinner while he’s away is very real, cooking for myself seems like an important bit of self-care, especially when it’s freezing outside and I’m already prone to feeling blah anyway. During my most recent solo week, I got an intense hankering for mac and cheese– but the real kind of mac and cheese, like my mom used to make on rare occasions, that actually start with a box of pasta and a couple blocks of cheddar. I had always assumed that it must be a pain to make, since it was such a rare thing in our kitchen, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s pretty much the easiest thing in the world; the hardest part is grating cheese. (And yes, I do insist that you grate it yourself instead of buying a bag of pre-shredded cheese. But you probably expected that.)
While the recipe I used called for 10 ounces of plain cheddar, I decided to mix it up a bit while making use of some cheese I got from Fiscalini; I used 7 ounces of their plain raw milk cheddar, and 3 ounces of their Habanero cheddar. It was perfect– the habanero added just a little bit of heat, and some pretty red flecks. The recipe also called for one cup of the grated cheese to be mixed in with the noodles, and the rest to be scattered on top, but I
misread the recipe decided to do it my own way and mixed in all the cheese; then I added fresh bread crumbs to form a crust on the top. The bread I used to make the crumbs was sourdough with pepper Jack, which was a perfect addition, but any fresh bread crumbs would work equally well.
The first step in the mac and cheese process is almost like making a roux; melt a little bit of butter in a pan, and then stir flour into the melted butter and cook for a minute. A true roux must cook until it turns anywhere from caramel to chocolate brown, but in this case, you simply cook long enough for the butter and flour to incorporate.
Once your almost-roux is made, you’ll stir in warmed milk and the cheese; once the cheese is melted, stir in cooked macaroni. At this point in the process, I was worried that I had messed something up (besides the cheese proportions), because the mixture looked like soup. I was just sure I had misunderstood the “8 ounces of pasta” direction, or that I had managed to pick a faulty recipe, but I decided to go with it. I scattered a generous handful of breadcrumbs over the top, popped it in the oven, and hoped for the best.
During the next half-hour, magic happened in my oven. The crust was toasty and crispy, and the noodle soup had formed into the delicious, creamy, almost pudding-like mac and cheese I’d been dreaming of.
I don’t even want to talk about how quickly I singlehandedly polished off this pot of mac and cheese. It wasn’t in one day… but that’s all I’ll say.
And lest you think I’m a terrible person for hogging all this cheesy goodness for myself, I’ll also tell you that I made a fresh batch as soon as Alex got home.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
adapted from Southern Living
2 cups milk
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
7 ounces good-quality Cheddar cheese
3 ounces Cheddar with habanero, Pepper Jack, or other spicy cheese
1/2 package elbow macaroni (about 8 ounces by weight), cooked
1 generous cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Microwave milk for 90 seconds. Melt butter in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat; whisk in flour until smooth. Cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Gradually whisk in warm milk and cook, whisking constantly, 5 minutes.
Whisk in salt, pepper, and shredded cheese and mix until smooth. Stir in cooked noodles. Transfer mixture to a 2 quart baking dish, and top with bread crumbs. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden and bubbly.