When it comes to macaroni and cheese, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who reach for the blue box, and those who reach for the orange box. I've always been an orange boxer. I can't recall ever seeing the blue Kraft Mac & Cheese box in our house when I was growing up, but there were always two Stouffer's products in our freezer: french bread pizza and mac & cheese. Kraft's version seems like a product that tends to grab people in their childhood. The shockingly bright powder that becomes a gooey cheese sauce on the stovetop feels too artificial to my adult taste. But the contents of that orange Stouffer's box-- fluffy, creamy, with a fabulously browned cheesy crust-- is my Platonic ideal for this dish.
I've tried making baked mac and cheese from scratch a couple of times, but the recipes-- from Alton Brown and Cook's Illustrated, each of whom has produced big winners for me in the past-- left me flat. The results lacked flavor and the unctuous body I was looking for. I always thought that the big choice with mac and cheese is stovetop vs. oven. But yesterday I discovered one even more important: bechamel vs. custard.
Bechamel, made by whisking scalded milk into a flour-butter roux, is one of the five French mother sauces and a basic component of dishes like lasagna, moussaka, and many casseroles. Custard is a cooked mixture of milk/cream and egg, and can become the foundation of anything from pastry cream to quiche. The recipes I hadn't liked started with a bechamel. But now that I thought about it... the Stouffer's mac certainly had the qualities of a custard. Could this be the answer I've been looking for?
Why, yes. Yes it could.
Yesterday I put together this recipe from Saveur Magazine (just look at that photo!), whose story on macaroni and cheese educated me about the bechamel-versus-custard debate in the first place. And aside from an absurdly low quantity of pasta in the recipe-- next time, I'll increase the pasta by at least fifty percent, because there's ample sauce to handle it-- it turned out splendidly. The custard gave the dish exactly the kind of body I'd been looking for, and the hint of onion elevated it even further. I intend to try the Artisanal recipe soon (since the Bellevue outpost of that restaurant just closed yesterday, I lost my chance to just walk in and order it), but for now this custard-based mac and cheese is my new comfort food favorite.