Behold the Power of Cheese

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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.

11 Comments

Regarding frozen, have you had Amy's? I find them a big upgrade over Stouffers. No crust but I find delicious. Also like their frozen pizzas and enchiladas.

This was so good! Peter made a gluten free version for me - substituting rice pasta for wheat and leaving out the flour, and it was still fantastic.

Do you think the cubing-vs-shredding part of it is important? Pretty sure I have a pound bag of shredded cheddar in the fridge and it seems silly to get extra block cheese for cubing if I can just use the shredded for everything.

When you're talking about mac and cheese, the cheese is one of the most important elements. For that reason, I wouldn't recommend pre-shredded cheese. It's usually not very good quality, and it's coated with anti-caking agents which will affect the texture of the final dish. I went to Trader Joe's, picked up 13 oz of good extra sharp cheddar, and cubed/shredded it myself. A little extra effort that I think was well worth it, because the tang of the cheese really came through in the final product.

I believe the idea behind the cubing was to create pockets of cheese in the casserole, and in that it succeeded admirably. If you just mix in shredded cheese, you'll lose those ooey gooey pockets. I don't think it'll will ruin the dish, just make it different.

We made this last night and OMG it was so good! It blows our standard mac & cheese roux-based recipe out of the water. Our roux-based M&C is so bland that I have to douse it with Tapatio to make it worth eating.

BTW, we used 12 oz of pasta and it seemed like the right mac to cheese ratio to me. The yumminess to cooking effort ratio, however, was ridiculously skewed toward the yummy side.

When I recommend a recipe, I don't mess around. I go straight to the good stuff. Glad you liked it!

Not only is the stove top Alton Brown recipe my go-to recipe, but it's what I always bring to a pot luck, and has been such a hit every time, that not only am I known for it now - I never claim it to be my own recipe, but most don't ask:) - but people will often check with me in advance now, "Are you gonna bring your mac & cheese?"

Not that there aren't better recipes out there, a LOT of better recipes, I'm sure - I'll bet this one you found is fantastic (OMG, that picture KILLS me) - I'm just surprised the AB one left you flat. But I've only ever made his stove top version, not the baked-in-the-oven one, so maybe that's part of it..?

And yes, I always use "quality" cheese, usually at a 2/3 sharp. 1/3 mild ratio.

Haven't tried Alton's stove-top recipe. It's also entirely possible that the last time I tried his oven recipe, I used low-grade cheese. I'm willing to give him another chance.

In fact, lately I've been kicking around the idea of doing a few exhaustive recipe trials. Pick a dish, gather a bunch of recipes that look promising, make all of them, and establish which one is the best (for me). The two foods on the list so far are mac & cheese and chocolate chip cookies (where Alton's Chewy is the current king of the hill, but I've got some strong challengers including Thomas Keller).

Incidentally, had some leftover mac & cheese tonight to accompany a hot link (Costco), which sliced and pan-fried. Fantastic pairing-- the spice of the hot link cut through the richness of the cheese, which in turn mellowed the bite of the hot link. Recommended.

I tried the Saveur recipe but three cups of cream makes it pretty rich. I think you could incorporate some of the ideas back into the standard cheese sauce approach (Worchestershire, the dry mustard, sour cream) to get some of that flavor back.

For the person who asked about cheese, I don't think you have to go super premium, but it pays to avoid the generic/store brands, since those cheeses tend to break down and become oily in cooked dishes. And you lose a lot of flavor with pre-shredded cheeses, which is particularly important in a dish like this.

If you're interested in deconstructing recipes, you should take a look at the Cooks Illustrated cookbooks. In their pre-recipe write-ups, they tend to talk a lot about the process, so it's fairly easy to see how to adjust things if you want a different result. (For example, adding extra egg yolks to make cookies chewier. They also look at things like high/fast vs. low/slow oven temperatures, whether some ingredients need to be pre-cooked, etc.) The only downside is that their online presence is pretty thin because they're trying to charge for the content.

Cook's Illustrated did do a bechamel cheese sauce some years back, but the very first mac 'n' cheese recipe they did was from maybe 1993 or so, and is a custard-style sauce. It's based on evaporated milk and eggs, with mustard powder and a couple extra ingredients. Then if you like a baked mac 'n' cheese you put it in a pan with buttered bread crumbs on top and bake until the top crisps up. We actually brought this to your (Peter's) house long, long ago for a potluck.

My go-to cheese for fancy mac 'n' cheese is Cougar Gold, though it's a little over the top all by itself. Some jack or mild cheddar can be used to cut down the sharpness of the sauce. And I did once make the aforementioned Cook's recipe with Velveeta, just for the heck of it, and it was surprisingly tasty. No Cougar Gold, obviously, but the mustard and other ingredients help make up for the blandness of the cheese.

uncley, i have a recipe (:
its amazing , even i can make it

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