favorite mac and cheese

10 January, 2010 at 10:50 pm Leave a comment

This is the complete opposite of a kitchen firsts post: this is nothing other than my oft-repeated, favorite go-to recipe for when I don’t know what to cook, don’t really feel like cooking, or don’t have much of anything in the fridge to work with (or, let’s be honest, when I’m really craving some mac and cheese). It is the most delicious and comforting thing I can make with nothing but staples, and what’s more, it’s about the healthiest incarnation of unadulterated cheesy carbs that I’ve come across (skim milk rather than cream!).  Also, it’s just about as easy as making mac and cheese from a box, but infinitely more tasty, and it’s a one-skillet affair! Can you tell I am attached to this recipe? This is the mac and cheese I grew up with, from some obscure 70s cookbook of my mothers, and I pretty much never get tired of it.

The first time I tried to make this recipe myself (I was about 16, I think), it went horribly awry. You start by sauteeing onions in butter, and then you add some flour and salt to make sort of an oniony roux. No problems there, and if you haven’t had mac and cheese with a subtle oniony backbone before, I think you will be pleasantly surprised! But next you need to add in the milk and pasta and bring it to a boil, and my 16-year-old self didn’t realize that you can’t just put milk in a skillet, crank the heat up, and leave it, so my mac and cheese ended up more like mac and burned milk.  The second time I tried to make it, I kept the heat lower and used a nonstick pan, but still thought I could leave it without stirring, and the milk sort of got filmy and brown on the bottom, and then when I stirred it it became mac and cheese and browned milk skin flakes. Not an improvement! Eventually I discovered that once you put in the milk and turn it up, you simply need to keep stirring very frequently; I wouldn’t say you have to stir constantly, but stir frequently during the stage where you add the milk and crank up the heat. The rest is cheesy history.

This mac and cheese is simple and easy, but it can be persnickety if you try to go rogue with the pasta shape. I don’t completely understand the voodoo behind it, but I’ve discovered (the hard way, and repeatedly) that if you try to alter the pasta shape too much, it will nearly invariably mess up your pasta to milk ratio and cooking time. When the time comes to enjoy a beautifully thickened creamy pasta and sauce, you will either end up with cooked pasta in a milky cheese soup or a dry pan full of uncooked pasta. I have also discovered that even if you do use the right kind of pasta, if you try to double the recipe you need to double everything except for the milk (use about 4 cups rather than a doubled 5 cups), or you will again end up with a cheese soup. Luckily, if you have your wits about you, you can usually correct your mistakes–  if things are dry too soon (you added too much pasta or not enough milk), you can get away with adding more milk at a late stage and just letting it cook a little longer. If you add too much milk and it’s a bit soupy, you can either cook it a little longer and more of the milk will soak in (perhaps to the detriment of your al dente pasta, but that’s probably ok in this gooey cheesy dish), or you could always scoop the pasta out of the milky pan with a slotted spoon (some of the good sauce will cling), put it in a serving dish, and then stir in the cheese. It’s quite forgiving in the end, but I’d suggest going for macaroni noodles or something very similar in size unless you are ready to be a kitchen McGyvver with your milk. Of course, you are totally free to wing it entirely when it comes to the type of cheese(s) to personalize your end result. We usually stick with sharp cheddar, but you could go more quattro formaggio with it and try a combination of parmesan, pecorino, bleu, and fontina, or something along those lines.

Mom’s Mac and Cheese
Adapted from The Auburn Cookbook
Serves 2-4

1/2 stick butter (or margarine if you prefer)
1/2 cup diced onion (a little more or less is fine, this is a subtle flavor)
1 T flour
1/2 T salt
2.5 cups milk (go ahead, use skim! it won’t make it uncreamy!)
2 cups macaroni (or other small pasta)
optional: 1/2 tsp ground mustard or a dash of worcestershire sauce
dash of cayenne pepper and additional salt, to taste
1 – 2 cups grated cheese, depending on what kind you use (with a really tasty sharp cheddar, you can get away with closer to 1 cup, but with medium cheddar I usually use 2 cups).

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat, then add your chopped onions. Cook for 4-5 minutes, or until onions are nice and soft, but not browned.  Then add flour and salt, and stir to make a little oniony roux. Cook out the flour taste for a minute but don’t let it brown.

Turn the heat up to high, add the pasta, and pour in the milk (if you’re using a pasta besides macaroni and think you might need more or less milk to cook it, a good rule of thumb is to add the pasta and then just pour in milk until it just barely covers the pasta with some visible floaters– see left image below).  If you like, add a dash of worcestershire or the dried mustard here. Stir very frequently while it all comes to a boil to avoid burning the milk, and when it boils (generally about five minutes), turn heat down to low so the milk is just simmering. Allow to simmer, still stirring frequently, until pasta is cooked through (about 8-10 minutes).

If you have your milk to pasta ratio right, the pasta should be cooked just as the milk has evaporated enough to leave just a little bit of clinging sauce for the cheese.  If the liquid is gone but your pasta isn’t cooked yet, add some more milk. If the pasta is done but there is too much liquid, continue cooking until enough liquid has absorbed/evaporated, or if it seems like you’ve gravely over-milked you can scoop the pasta out into a serving dish with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the extra sauce. When the pasta is ready and the sauce is the neither too liquidy nor all gone, remove the skillet from heat and throw in your grated cheese, stirring to melt it. Taste, season with additional salt as needed, and add the dash of cayenne for warmth. You can serve it immediately, or you can top the finished dish with additional grated cheese and/or some buttered breadcrumbs and pop it under the broiler for a few minutes to get a crunchy top. Enjoy!

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