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Better than from a box — baked mac and cheese

Better than from a box — baked mac and cheese

Posted: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 9:11 pm

For The Associated Press
Don’t tell the children, but macaroni and cheese didn’t always come from a blue and yellow box.
With lineage that can be traced to 13th century Italy, and later the English settlers who brought it to the colonies, baked pasta tossed with a melted cheese has been an American favorite since long before Kraft co-opted the dish.
Even Thomas Jefferson was a fan, bringing a macaroni mold from Paris so the dish could be served at the White House in 1802.
Today, macaroni and cheese generally takes one of two forms — pasta tossed with either a smooth cream and cheese sauce (technically known as mornay sauce) or with a more custard-like blend of egg yolks, milk and cheese.
The former is what Kraft was attempting to recreate with its boxed version launched in 1937, and is the version most Americans associate with this now iconic comfort food. The latter mostly is served in the South.
That’s why New York’s SMAC restaurant, which offers 12 varieties of macaroni and cheese, sticks with the classic approach.
“What most people are coming in the restaurant for is a creamy macaroni cheese,” says co-owner Sarita Ekya. “Everyone has their own kind of favorite macaroni and cheese, but the perfect base for that is a bechamel sauce.”
Ready to capture that classic comfort food? Here’s what you need to know:
Technically, any pasta will work. But for it to work well, a pasta needs crevices in which to trap the cheese sauce.
“That’s why you don’t see spaghetti, because when you lift it the sauce will roll off,” says Ekya.
Elbow macaroni and shells work well, but testing gave the edge to elbows, which hold their shape better under the heavy sauce. Even better are oversized elbows, which combine the best attributes of both.
The way and degree to which the pasta is cooked are equally important. Salted water — and lots of it — are essential for the best flavor and texture. For a pound of pasta (enough to feed six people), you’ll need 2 tablespoons of salt and 6 quarts of water.
And while most guidelines warn against overcooking pasta, this is one time that letting it go a little long is desirable. Ignore the directions on the pasta packaging that explain how to cook it only until al dente (tender but slightly chewy at the center).
The test cooks at Cook’s Illustrated magazine found it essential to cook the pasta until tender, or just past al dente. This produces more starch and makes the pasta more absorbent, allowing the sauce to better adhere to the pasta.
Ekya also recommends sprinkling the pasta with a bit of olive oil once it is drained. This prevents the pasta from sticking together, making it easier to stir in the cheese.
Traditional versions of macaroni and cheese usually call for cheddar, a nod to the dish’s English roots. But plenty of quite good variations are made with Monterey jack, pepper jack and Gruyere, among others.
“You want cheeses that when melted down are creamy,” says Ekya. “You don’t want your mac and cheese to have clumps.”
The key here is a low-moisture cheese, or a semi-firm cheese, something soft enough to melt into a creamy sauce, but not so high in fat that it will separate, as blue cheeses do.
A blend of Monterey jack and sharp cheddar spiked with some assertive Parmesan produces a creamy macaroni and cheese with a sharp flavor with just a hint of pungency. If you wanted a spicier version, you could substitute pepper jack for the cheddar.
To ensure the cheese melts evenly, all varieties should be thoroughly grated.
For a creamy macaroni and cheese, the sauce is key. It acts as the base of the dish, giving smooth body to the cheese (which is melted into the sauce), preventing it from melting into unappealing lumps.
The sauce starts as a simple roux, a blend of equal parts butter and all-purpose flour that is gently heated until thickened. Adding warmed milk (cool will create clumps) and cheese to this thickened blend transforms it into a creamy mornay sauce.
For best results, stick with whole milk. Other milks will work, but you will sacrifice some of the lush flavor that defines this dish. Likewise, any butter will work, but unsalted butters give you the most control over the taste of the finished product.
Age isn’t kind to mornay sauces. For this reason, it’s best to prepare the pasta first, set it aside, then make the sauce. The sauce requires short, but focused, hands-on time, so multitasking isn’t recommended.
Once you’ve tossed your pasta with the cheese sauce, you could dig in. However, there is serious payoff to transferring it to a baking dish, sprinkling it with bread crumbs and letting it do time in the oven first.
Baking produces a cheesier consistency by taking out some of the moisture and allowing the cheese to bind the pasta similar to a casserole. It also allows you to add a crunchy topping, which provides a pleasant contrast to the soft, creamy pasta and cheese.
A 1/4-inch layer of buttered coarse bread crumbs, such as panko, is ideal. To help them brown and keep them from getting too dry, the bread crumbs are tossed with melted butter and a bit of cheese before being added to the dish.
Have a recipe you want investigated? E-mail AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch at

By The Associated Press
A great macaroni and cheese requires a perfect melding of the pasta and the cheese sauce. To get that, you’ll need to ignore conventional wisdom about cooking pasta until just tender (al dente). To help the cheese sauce stick to the pasta, the macaroni is cooked until just beyond al dente, which makes it more absorbent and starchier.
The recipe calls for a 3-quart casserole dish, but multiple smaller baking dishes could be used.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
Servings: 6
1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
2 tablespoons salt, plus more to taste
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided
2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 cup panko or other coarse bread crumbs
Heat the oven to broil. Use 1 tablespoon of butter to generously coat a 3-quart casserole dish.
Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large stockpot. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, stir briefly, then add the pasta. Cook until tender and just past al dente, about 10 to 13 minutes, or slightly longer than package directions.
Drain the pasta, then transfer it to a large bowl. Drizzle the olive oil over the pasta, then toss to coat. Set aside.
To make the sauce, in a small saucepan over low heat, bring the milk to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat.
In a medium saucepan over medium, melt 1/2 cup of the remaining butter, using a whisk to swirl it to ensure the butter melts completely and does not turn brown. If the butter begins to brown, lower the heat.
While whisking, sprinkle in the flour. Continue to whisk until the mixture just bubbles, about 2 minutes. Do not let the mixture brown. While whisking, slowly pour in the milk. Continue whisking until there are no lumps.
Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce heat to low and season with salt and pepper. Continue whisking until the sauce reaches the consistency of heavy cream and coats the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes.
Remove the sauce from the heat. Whisk in 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar cheese, all of the Monterey jack and a 1/2 cup of the Parmesan. Whisk until the cheese is completely melted and the sauce is smooth.
Pour the sauce over the pasta and gently toss to coat. Transfer the pasta and sauce, using a rubber spatula to scrape the bowl, to the prepare casserole dish. Set aside.
In a small microwave-safe bowl, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter by microwaving on high for about 20 seconds. Add the bread crumbs and remaining cheddar and Parmesan cheeses. Toss well.
Spread the bread crumb mixture evenly over the pasta. Place the dish on the oven’s middle rack and broil for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the edges are bubbly and a crunchy crust forms on top. Cool briefly before serving.
Published in The Messenger 10.08.08

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