Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese is a good thing to know how to make from scratch. It always seems to make people happy and it is really easy yet lightly impressive for some reason--maybe because it involves making a cheese sauce which sounds cool but is not at all difficult. Ho-made macaroni and cheese is especially delicious when consumed with red wine and America's Next Top Model, which is totally not at all what Melanie and I might have done the other night.

First off, you need to make a roux, which will be the base for a simple white sauce to which you will simply add shredded cheese, thereby magically elevating it into a cheese sauce. Melt a couple tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When it is hot, sprinkle in a couple tablespoons of flour. The amounts do not matter too much, just keep the proportions about 1:1 and you'll be OK. Stir around your flour in the hot butter until it is all thickened up and browned lightly--about 2 minutes. There is your roux. Add in about 3/4 cup of milk, slowly in a drizzly kind of way. Stir it in and keep stirring until it is a thick, smooth sauce. If it is thick like paste, it is too thick and you should keep adding milk until it is the consistency of thin yogurt. Now you have made a white sauce--aren't you smart! Add 1 teaspoon of cayenne and dump in a whole lot of shredded cheese. I used about 1/2 cup of white cheddar and also mozzarella and provolone to make somewhat less than 1 cup total. It was tragic, actually--I had gone out on purpose over my lunch break to find special cheeses and pasta to make this for dinner then went and left everything in my fridge at work. So it was lame and I scrambled to make it work with the odds and ends of cheese at my house already. Turned out that I didn't really need to go out and buy any cheese to make mac and cheese--I had plenty lying around. Same with the pasta--I just ended up combining the leftovers from two different packages of pasta shapes. So the moral of the story is actually how ho-made mac and cheese can be very easy, spontaneous, economical, and a good use for leftovers! But I’m still lame for forgetting my ingredients at work. Anyway, I digress. Stir the cheeses into your white sauce until it is melty; you may actually wish to add some more milk if it thickens up too much. When the sauce is done, add salt and pepper, stir it up again and then add into the cheese sauce a little less than a pound of cooked up pasta. I boiled my odds and ends of pasta until they were not quite al dente--they will be cooking further in the oven so it is important not to over boil them at this point. You can use whatever shape you like. Elbows are traditional, I guess, but shells or other fancier shapes are fun too. Mix up your cooked pasta into the cheese sauce, and then pour the whole lot into a baking dish. You could, of course, just stop right here and you'd have pretty good mac and cheese but I think it is the baking step that really elevates it. Take about a cup of breadcrumbs and toast them in 2 tablespoons of butter until they are browned (I used panko because I was making this with leftover packages of things from my pantry and it worked really well, but you can use breadcrumbs made from scratch or from the store or from the depths of hell or wherever, it doesn't matter one bit). Mix the breadcrumbs with a few tablespoons of finely grated sharp, hard cheese--I used more provolone--then cover the cheesy pasta in the baking dish with a nice layer of the toasty, cheesy breadcrumbs. You could even sandwich another layer of cheese of your liking in between the pasta and the breadcrumbs if you really really really like cheese, as I know some of you do. Then put the baking dish into the oven at about 350 for around 25 minutes or so--you want it bubbly, browned and completely irresistible.

Obviously, this is a great dish for additional improvisation. Adding a tablespoon of mustard to the cheese sauce will give a more piquant flavor. Add hot sauce in for a similarly kicky effect. Cut grape tomatoes in half and stir them in with the pasta before pouring into the baking dish. Try mixing in some teeny green peas. You get the idea.


Byron said...

Did you say "Ho-made macaroni"??

j.bird said...

the breadcrumb mixture is also a good place to experiment with herbs. i've been crumbling dried sage into my mac lately. the sage has a nice outdoorsy quality about that really complements the heavy dairy, which allows me to enjoy even more of the mac 'n' cheese since i'm not suffering from cheese fatigue. also, parsley is good for prettiness. and if you have tomatoes, you can slice them into wedges and add them with the cooked pasta for baked tomatoey goodness (drain them first!)