My whole family is happy when I make macaroni and cheese for dinner. It's the one dish that everybody - both kids and adults - love. Unfortunately the boxed version, complete with orange cheese powder, is what's most familiar to people.
As I looked over recipes for homemade macaroni and cheese, I determined that there were two distinct styles of preparation. The more common variety is béchamel-based, where macaroni is blanketed with a cheese-flavored white sauce, usually topped with crumbs and baked. The other variety, the kind my mother always made, is custard-based. In this version, a mixture of egg and milk is poured over layers of grated cheese and noodles. As the dish bakes, the egg, milk and cheese set into a custard. This recipe is also topped with bread crumbs and baked, although my mom sprinkled crushed saltine crackers over hers.
Although I was in the béchamel-style camp, I couldn't remember the last time I had made a truly exceptional macaroni and cheese. After a few initial tests, I understood why. Most recipes seemed tired, leaden and uninspired. Others attempted to perk up the dish with silly additions like canned green chilies or black olives. And of course, there were the recipes that tried to lighten it. No one seemed to really appreciate the dish.
Temporarily falling under the influence of modern-day recipe authors, I began to wonder if even I loved it as much as I thought I had. Then I came across John Thorne's macaroni and cheese chapter in Simple Cooking (Penguin, 1989). “As it happens,” he begins, “I'm very fond of macaroni and cheese, and keep a special spot in my heart for cooks who genuinely love it: they are not that many.” After reading his four-page essay, I knew I was on the trail of a great recipe.
Thorne's recipe starts with macaroni cooked just shy of al dente. The hot, drained macaroni is tossed with butter in a heatproof pan or bowl. Evaporated milk, hot red pepper sauce, dry mustard, eggs and a large quantity of cheese are stirred into the noodles. The macaroni and cheese is baked for 20 minutes, with cheese and milk additions and a thorough stir every 5 minutes. These frequent stirrings allow the eggs to thicken without setting, resulting in an incredibly smooth sauce. During cooking, the sauce settles into the tubular openings of macaroni, offering a burst of cheese with each bite. I was delighted to get the dish right so early on in the process. This macaroni and cheese was the real thing, all others mere shadows. For once, someone else had done my homework for me.
Just to confirm my findings, I baked the two macaroni and cheese versions I described earlier. Neither the cheese-flavored béchamel sauce nor the custard compared to Thorne's dish. The béchamel-based version was grainy and tasted exactly as Thorne predicted - not like macaroni and cheese but rather like “macaroni with cheese sauce.” Whereas Thorne's macaroni and cheese sauce was light and silky, the béchamel dish was heavy.
Because the custard-based macaroni and cheese was simply an easier version of Thorne's recipe, I thought it might work as an alternative to stirring, but a side-by-side tasting proved the two macaroni and cheeses very different. Compared to the luxuriously smooth cheese sauce of the stirred version, the baked egg, milk and cheese base formed a dry custard that set around the noodles.
Putting It to the Test
Having ruled out the competition, I moved forward to study Thorne's recipe a little more closely. I wondered if the dish really required evaporated milk. Was this an idiosyncrasy of the late thirties when the recipe was first published? Wouldn't regular milk or half-and-half work equally well? What other cheeses besides cheddar would suit this dish?
Though the recipe was virtually perfect, I developed a few refinements. First, I found that at the end of 20 minutes, the dish was hot, but hardly piping. By the time a person had consumed a portion, the cheese sauce had cooled slightly and set. I also missed the contrasting textures of crunchy bread crumbs and soft noodles and sauce offered by the baked versions. Thorne's advice to sprinkle the macaroni and cheese with crumbled common crackers was one possibility, but I was looking for something a little more finished. And although I liked the rich, full cheese flavor Thorne achieves with a full pound of cheddar, I found myself full after only a few bites. I wanted to find out if the dish would be just as good with a little less cheese.
After testing the recipe with whole and low-fat milk as well as with half-and-half, I realized that evaporated milk was not an unconsidered holdover. All the macaroni and cheeses made with fresh milk curdled a bit, resulting in a chalky, grainy texture. The one made with evaporated milk was always smooth, undoubtedly because the evaporation and sterilization process stabilizes the milk.
After making the dish with Vermont, New York and Wisconsin cheddars, I preferred the less sharp Wisconsin variety. Because the recipe calls for such a large quantity, a slightly milder cheese is preferable. Testing other varieties of cheese confirmed this point. Macaroni and cheese made with Gruyère was so strong I couldn't eat it, while milder Monterey Jack was a wonderful alternative to cheddar. To my surprise, highly processed cheeses like American performed quite well in this dish. As with the evaporated milk, more processing produces a more stable cheese and hence a creamier dish. For flavor, use cheddar; for texture, buy American.
A Gentle Warming
To remedy the dish's lukewarm temperature, I tried two solutions, both of which worked. To avoid pouring the hot macaroni into a cold dish, I placed my pan in the preheated oven. By the time the noodles were ready to drain, the pan emerged from the oven pot holder-hot. Warming the milk a bit before mixing it with the pasta also gave the dish a warm head start. (Don't, however, try to make this dish hotter by leaving it in the oven for a longer time: if you exceed the suggested 20 minutes, you run the risk of curdling the eggs, and the dish will start to develop a grainy texture.)
As Thorne suggested, crisp common crackers sprinkled over the macaroni and cheese offer a much-needed foil to the rich, unctuous sauce. As a further refinement, I toasted buttered bread crumbs alongside the heating casserole and put them on top instead.
After I shared this recipe with my friend and cooking colleague Stephen Schmidt, he reported that if you use a heavy-bottomed pot and cook over medium-low heat, you can heat the macaroni and cheese on top of the stove rather than in the oven to save even more time. If you can live without the toasted bread crumbs, then, that macaroni and cheese can be made in the same amount of time it takes to make the boxed version.
For once, the real dish is almost as simple as the convenience product. Just a few dollars more buys you the difference between an institutional experience and the real MacCoy.