Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mac and cheese, two ways

A couple of summers ago I lived in Sitka, Alaska. My culinary memories of this time mostly revolve around the delicious seafood that was in abundant supply there (if you haven’t eaten salmon or halibut within an hour of it being caught, then I would recommend adding that experience to your bucket list), but the other food that I associate with that time in my life is mac and cheese.

For some reason my roommates and I all developed quite the blue box fetish that summer. Perhaps it can be attributed to the fact that the summer in Sitka was the coldest and rainiest we’d ever experienced and mac and cheese was the cheapest and quickest form of comfort food, or maybe this phenomenon was just a result of it being available in bulk at the otherwise understocked grocery stores. Whatever the cause, the point is you could usually find one of the inhabitants of our apartment preparing a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese on any given day.

I usually reserved my weekly mac and cheese meal for Sunday afternoons after church. I would come home, change into some comfy sweatpants, and whip up some chemically altered cheese and noodles. In this process I discovered that I like my mac and cheese creamy. As in swimming in cheesy sauce. This means that when I prepared it from a box I would usually add more milk and sometimes a little more butter to achieve that consistency. It also means that for years I never had a homemade version of macaroni and cheese that I truly loved.

See, most homemade versions of mac and cheese that I’ve come across are of the baked variety, meaning they are made by making a roux and adding milk, cheese and seasonings to it, then stirring the cooked noodles in and baking the whole shebang in the oven. This approach has never really done it for me, as the outcome tends to be a firmer, more casserole-type dish. And even though some recipes recommend just eating the pasta and sauce before baking if you like a more creamy approach, I find that somehow there is a floury taste that carries over from the roux.

I found my mac and cheese salvation in Alton Brown’s stovetop recipe. This approach produces that creamy texture I love without using ultra-processed ingredients. It’s also super easy and is my favorite way to make mac and cheese. However, I live with a husband whose macaroni and cheese preferences differ significantly from mine in that he actually likes the baked stuff, preferably with crushed ritz crackers sprinkled on top (what the?) So for dinner one night I kept his preferences in mind by making some baked mac and cheese from a recipe that came highly recommended. He loved it, and, while I didn’t really care for it all that much, I can safely blame that on my personal preferences and not any flaws in the recipe. So here are both recipes for your consideration:

Baked Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from the Ivory Favorites cookbook)

I honestly think I would like this recipe if the sauce amounts were doubled. But then the butter and cheese amounts are doubled too so that kind of becomes a hard pill to swallow. Yet chances are that if you’re eating mac and cheese you’re in an indulgent mood in the first place so perhaps there’s no need to worry about it.

1 pound macaroni ( I used spiral pasta instead)
1/4 cup butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Dash of hot sauce (I like siracha)
3 cups grated Cheddar cheese (medium or sharp)
~1/2 cup crushed Ritz crackers (optional)

1) Cook macaroni in boiling, salted water according to package directions and drain.
2) In large saucepan, melt butter. Add flour and stir. Pour in milk and cook, stirring constantly, until thick.
3) Add salt, pepper, and dry mustard, and then add 2 1/2 cups of cheese and stir until cheese is melted. Remove from heat and add cooked macaroni and mix together.
4) Pour into buttered 9" x 13" square baking pan, sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese on top (and Ritz cracker crumbs, if using). Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese (from Alton Brown via foodnetwork.com)
1/2 pound elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
6 ounces evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
10 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded (I prefer medium)

1) In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente and drain. Return to the pot and melt in the butter. Toss to coat.
2) Whisk together the eggs, milk, hot sauce, salt, pepper, and mustard. Stir into the pasta and add the cheese. Over low heat continue to stir for 3 minutes or until creamy.

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