Macaroni and Cheese

Doing It Right

Macaroni and Cheese is unquestionably the greatest pasta dish not to come out of Italy. It is also one of the rarest. You may think that you've wolfed down a ton of it in your lifetime, but the odds are that you're mistaken: what you've been eating would be called 'Macaroni Mornay' if we were to get fancier than that dish deserves: macaroni in a flour-based cheese sauce. Real Macaroni and Cheese is something quite different: macaroni in a cheese custard. It is much easier to prepare than the bastard version, involving only one pot and about ten or twelve minutes. There is no reason on earth to go to the trouble of making a cheese sauce with flour, butter, and milk, and then baking the macaroni in this sauce in the oven for half an hour. What you'll get from the recipe that follows is incomparably better.

Food writer John Thorne, who gives a somewhat different recipe in his collection of essays, Simple Cooking (Penguin, 1980), dismisses 'Macaroni Mornay' thus: "... a casserole universally bland, dry, and rubbery. ... It is awful stuff and every cookbook in which it appears should be thrown out the window.31 He also points out that real Macaroni and Cheese has about four times more cheese in it. Prepare to leave the table the opposite of hungry.

To serve two, simply cut the ingredients in half. My cheese of choice at the moment is Grafton's wonderfully sharp Vermont Cheddar. And as for a sinful variation on the Cook's Illustrated version, which calls for topping the dish with toasted and buttered breadcrumbs, I substitute a handful of microwave-heated French's Onion Rings. (May 2003)

Macaroni and Cheese

Cook’s Illustrated, No. 24, p. 21

For the custard:

2 large eggs

1 12 ounce can evaporated milk

1/4 teaspoon red pepper sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dry mustard, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water

1/2 pound elbow macaroni

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

12 ounces appropriate cheese (Cheddar or American), grated

Bring water in a large heavy saucepan to the boil for macaroni. Salt the water lightly, and add the macaroni, cooking it just shy of al dente, about six or seven minutes. 

While the macaroni is boiling, combine the custard ingredients in a spouted bowl, using only 1 cup evaporated milk.

When the macaroni is cooked, drain it and return it to the saucepan, and toss in the butter. Put the saucepan over low heat (not too low, or the custard will never set), and add the custard mixture, along with three quarters of the cheese. Stir until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and the cheese starts to melt. Gradually add the remaining milk and cheese, stirring constantly until the mixture is hot and creamy - about five minutes. Serve immediately.

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