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Whether you like it baked or creamy, here's how you can make yours even more magical.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
I've eaten a duck stuffed inside a chicken stuffed inside a turkey. I've harvested wild blueberries and fresh teaberries. I've even eaten snakes, lamb's heart and pork floss.
None of these foods - or any others I've eaten, for that matter - impressed me as much as an amazing dish of macaroni and cheese.
That's right, at the age of 37, my favorite food is still toddler fare. It will never change, and I figure that'll be a bonus if I live long enough to lose all of my teeth.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with macaroni and cheese. It happened over time, the way people who are best friends for years suddenly find themselves lovers.
We bonded as I stood beside my mother at the kitchen counter, grating sharp cheddar onto a sheet of wax paper while she whisked a white sauce. We got closer as I attended potlucks and realized that the table could be a mile long and groaning under the weight of 100 dishes, but I would always head for the macaroni and cheese first.
It isn't a perfect relationship, though. Quite often, macaroni and cheese disappoints me. Like an angelic child who does something uncharacteristically naughty, a bad mac 'n' cheese saddens me because I know full well it's capable of so much more.
From what I understand, the mac may have been born as early as the 14th century. According to Godecookery.com and Medievalcookery.com, a medieval English cookbook called Forme of Cury contained a recipe for a dish called "makerouns."
The recipe went something like this: "Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh, and kerue it on pieces, and cast hym on boiling water & seeþ it wele. Take chese and grate it, and butter imelte, cast bynethen and abouven as losyns; and serue forth."
Translation: Take a thin sheet of pasta, cut it in pieces, cook it in boiling water and drain it well. Layer it with some grated cheese and butter the way you might make lasagna, then serve it.
Sounds good to me.
Another version of history, from the Smithsonian magazine blog "Food & Think," states that macaroni and cheese first appeared in northern Europe during the 1700s. It says Thomas Jefferson introduced it to America and served it at a state dinner in 1802. If true, then that other stuff he did, like penning some sort of declaration, pales in comparison (That's a joke. Please don't write letters to the editor).
If Mr. Jefferson were alive today, I believe he would approve of my quest for the perfect macaroni and cheese recipe. With a dish so simple, one would think this noble mission would be an easy one. However ...
It's not easy being cheesy
The problem with perfecting macaroni and cheese begins with determining which form is best. Let's start by examining the major categories of this dish: the baked casserole variety, the creamy stovetop kind, and the boxed mess with powdered cheese.
Now, let's throw the last one in the trash.
The baked casserole macaroni and cheese was Grandma Nair's style. Hers was moist and custard-like with a hint of sweetness and a golden topping. Mom makes stovetop macaroni and cheese, starting with a basic white sauce and then loading it with freshly grated cheddar.
I'm happy with an excellent version of either style, but too often the baked kind separates into a greasy combination of naked noodles and globs of cheese. The creamy style can be as creamy as the day is long, but if the flavor of cheese doesn't come through, it's a travesty.
My exhaustive research on this topic has unearthed what I believe to be a few priceless tips for making magical macaroni and cheese :
I'm going to share two great recipes for macaroni and cheese - one creamy and one casserole-style. Once you've mastered the basic version, jazz it up by playing around with different pasta shapes, using a variety of cheeses, or adding ingredients such as green chiles, bacon, ham, onions, lobster, sausage, artichokes and other extras.
Turning standard mac 'n' cheese into outstanding gourmet mac 'n' cheese is yet another quality I love about my favorite dish. It's wonderful as it is, but it's ever-so-willing to change in order to make you happy.
Can you say that about a real relationship?
Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
This version, adapted from a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, can be eaten right after making on the stovetop. It can also be transferred to a baking dish, topped and broiled. This recipe serves about 12, but it can be halved. If you halve it, use an 8-by-8-inch square baking dish.
1 lb. elbow macaroni
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. salt
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
6 Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 tsp. dry mustard
1⁄4 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
5 cups whole milk
16 oz. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Optional toppings: Buttered bread crumbs; more shredded cheese
1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Add macaroni and 1 Tbsp. salt, and cook until pasta is tender (not al dente). Drain and set aside in a colander.
2. In the same pot over medium-high heat, melt butter. Whisk in flour, mustard and cayenne until smooth. Continue to whisk for one minute.
3. Gradually whisk in milk and bring to a full boil, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until the sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes.
4. Remove pan from heat and whisk in cheese until it has fully melted. Season with remaining 1 tsp. salt. Stir in pasta and return pan to heat, cooking over medium-low, until mixture is heated through, about 6 minutes.
5. If desired, transfer mixture to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and cover with buttered bread crumbs or additional cheese. To make buttered bread crumbs, place 3 slices of sandwich bread and 3 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter (cut into 6 chunks) in a food processor and pulse 10 to 15 times in 1-second bursts. Broil casserole until crumbs are golden brown or cheese has melted. Keep an eye on it; do not let the top burn.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Supposedly, this was Ronald Reagan’s favorite recipe for macaroni and cheese. Regardless, it is a popular one for people who like an eggy, custardy version. Source: Food.com.
1/2 lb. macaroni
1 tsp. butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 cup milk
3 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/3 cup panko (optional) or 1/3 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs (optional)
1. Boil macaroni and drain thoroughly. Stir in butter and egg.
2.Mix salt and mustard with 1 tablespoons hot water. Add to milk. Add the cheese, leaving enough to sprinkle on top. Pour into buttered casserole, add milk, sprinkle with cheese.
3. Bake at 350F for about 45 minutes or until custard is set and top is crusty.
4. If desired, sprinkle the bread crumbs on top and broil very briefly to make a crunchy top.
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