Macaroni and Cheese

I was going to make Welsh Rarebit today. This morning, during a remarkably peaceful breakfast with the three monkeys, I decided to hash out the dinner menus with them so they would know what was coming over the next two days until Martin gets back. I got huge push back on the Welsh Rarebit. Since it’s fencing practice tonight, and we’ll get back late, I decided that this “weird” version of toasted cheese (Welsh Rarebit has beer in it – it’s still the most innocuous dish) might push the carefully orchestrated balance of the household into bedlam. So I am scrapping the Welsh Rarebit idea.

Mac and Cheese. Doesn’t everyone already know how to make this?  Or at least where to look if they want to try?  I’m not sure.  So many people rely on the bunny version. The real thing is what we have around here. When I first started cooking for my kids, this was a once a week habit. Now it’s been a long time since Mac and Cheese was my back pocket dish. With Martin out of town though, familiar dishes are another way of keeping the volume down.

I also make Mac and Cheese when my brother and his family come to visit. My feeling is that visiting children who have taken long plane rides need and appreciate familiar foods. So when my brother rolls his eyes and says”  Mac and Cheese?! Isn’t there like a pound of cheese in that and a 1/4 pound of butter?!”  I just shrug and know that he’s happy that his boys are happily scarfing down plates of gooey pasta and will toddle off to bed without much of a peep. Matt, the mac and cheese is my gift to you!

I serve mac and cheese with hot buttered peas. I will not make excuses for all this butter.

Mac and Cheese

20 minutes of efficient work, 30 minutes in the oven

People get all nervous about white sauce, or bechamel. They are afraid it will be pasty and gloppy or that it will scorch badly and that the pan will be impossible to clean. It’s all about regulating the heat. A heavy bottomed pot does make a huge difference. That being said, before I got married, I made this for years in a old Revere-ware pot with a wobbly handle (that I inherited from my great-aunt) with great success. You just have to watch the heat and keep on stirring so it doesn’t scorch on you.

I love to make bechamel actually. The way the sauce goes from soupy-milky  to velvety-spoon coating in a matter of minutes makes me feel like a scientist. If you’ve never made it before, watching the transformation is very satisfying.

  • 4 tbsp butter + 1 tbsp butter, separated
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 2 1/2 c milk, can even be 1% lowfat
  • 1/4 tsp dry English mustard
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper – gives the dish a just perceptible heat
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • freshly ground pepper
  • 4 ounces grated sharp cheddar – aged no more than 2 years
  • 4 ounces grated Monterey jack
  • 1 end of a loaf of sandwich bread, made into bread crumbs in a clean coffee grinder – or 3/4-1  cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1/2 lb pasta, elbows are traditional but we like shells, farfalle, and penne
  1. Start a large pot of water to boil.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
  3. Add salt to the water and cook the pasta according to the time on the box. Drain.
  4. Mix the flour, dry mustard and cayenne in a small bowl.
  5. Over medium heat, melt the 4 tbsp butter in a heavy bottom sauce pan. Don’t brown the butter, just melt it.  When the butter is melted, add the flour, mustard, cayenne mixture and whisk for about a minute. Timing and temperature are key. If the heat is too low or if you don’t cook it long enough, that’s when you get a pasty, institutional tasting sauce. If the heat is too high, the sauce will scorch. If either of those things happen, you’ll wish you’d left dinner to the bunny mac people. The first few times, just pay attention. This really is the easiest thing. On my stove, and all stoves are different, the heat needs to be just slightly warmer than medium.
  6. Add the milk slowly, whisking all the while. I am right handed and I pour the milk with my left hand, while whisking confidently with my right. Initially this was like patting my head and rubbing my stomach – I’ve come a long way since then. Probably you are more coordinated than I am. Anyway, the milk and flour mixture will seize up at first and look uncompromisingly lumpy. Just keep on whisking – confidently. Get all the lumps.  Lumpy white sauce is another thing people fear – with good reason. You follow the directions and you won’t have to worry about lumps.
  7. Once all the milk has been added and all of the lumps whisked away, you might think that the sauce looks unpromisingly thin. You may wish that you had used whole milk or even cream. Fear not. This is the fun part! (I really do not get out enough – oh well)  Turn up the heat to medium high and continue to whisk. When the sauce begins to simmer around the edges, it will magically thicken – not suddenly, just consistently. You will see that the bechamel has the consistency of melted milkshake or very heavy cream. Some might say to whisk for 10 more minutes, but I say that would be overkill for this dish.
  8. Take the pan off the heat and go check your email. This will allow the sauce to cool slightly and then the cheese won’t become grainy. It’s not the end of the world if this happens, it’s just nicer if it doesn’t.
  9. Add the cheese, salt and pepper and whisk. Taste for salt and pepper and add more if necessary.
  10. Mix in the cooked pasta and pour everything into a gratin dish. Mine is ceramic, about 1 1/2″ deep. The dimensions are 7″ x 10″
  11. Melt the last tbsp butter and stir in the fresh bread crumbs. Sprinkle over the top of the mac and cheese.
  12. At this point you could cool it then wrap the whole thing up and put it in the refrigerator until you bake it. Up to 24 hours later.
  13. Or put it in the oven for 30 minutes, until bubbling

The last time I made this I made the mistake of adding some blue cheese, the remnant of a wonderful creamy French one. It was only fun for the grown-ups though and so I will probably never do that again. The look of sheer dismay, betrayal and utter shock on my oldest child’s face cured me of messing with familiar perfection.

4 responses to “Macaroni and Cheese

Leave a Reply