Macaroni and cheese. ‘Nuff said, right?
It just doesn’t get any better. When I asked you to share your favorite fall comfort foods, macaroni and cheese quickly rose to the top.
I’ve been making it the traditional way for years, starting with a b?chamel, adding various grated cheeses and topping it with a breadcrumb crust before baking it off to gooey perfection. Or at least, I thought it was perfection. Noone had ever complained.
But I was at the library recently and I picked up a cookbook by Cooks Illustrated — The Science of Good Cooking. I tucked it into my bag on a trip to visit Emily at college and while Scott drove, I read.
It drilled down to the chemistry behind why dishes work, why they don’t and how to improve them through alchemy. As a former pharmaceutical rep, who can tell you everything you need to know about the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, I found the science fascinating.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but the section on macaroni and cheese was enlightening. I always figured you could use any kind of grated cheese, but it turns out that certain types can give your silky cheese sauce, a grainy texture. OK, maybe that’s happened to me.
The authors said to cook the pasta, just past al dente – evidently, if it’s cooked less, the pasta releases starch into the sauce, making it gritty. If it’s cooked until soft, the noodles won’t absorb the cheese sauce. Who knew?
And finally, instead of baking the mac and cheese for 20-30 minutes (like I’ve always done), they advise doing most of the cooking on the stove top, then topping with buttered bread crumbs and running them under the broiler for just a few minutes. This allows the cheese sauce to maintain its smooth, creamy texture without drying it out while simultaneously achieving a crunchy buttery topping that feels like it was baked into the casserole.
Of course, I had to do my own research.
The results: theirs definitely had a creamier consistency. The ratio of cheese sauce to pasta seemed like overkill when I was making it, but it yielded just the right gooey-ness. Don’t make this in advance. To get the full benefit of the cheese-y sauce and crispy crumb, make it just before you plan to eat. There will be no leftovers.
- 3 slices bread torn into pieces
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter divided, chilled
- 4-5 sprigs parsley
- 1/2 pound elbow macaroni
- 2 teaspoons salt divided
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/8 -1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper optional
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk warmed in the microwave for 2-3 minutes.
- 4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese about 1 cup, shredded
- 4 ounces cheddar cheese about 1 cup, shredded
Adjust your oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat the broiler.
Pulse bread, 1 1/2 tablespoons chilled butter (cut into small cubes) and parsley in a food processor to coarse crumbs. Set aside.
Fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt. When salt is dissolved, add macaroni. Boil, stirring occasionally until macaroni is tender -- just past al dente. Drain pasta. Set aside.
Meanwhile, melt remaining butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add flour, mustard, remaining salt and cayenne pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly while flour mixture bubbles, about 1 minute. Add milk a little at a time, whisking constantly and scraping bottom and corners of the pan until thickened - about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and add the grated cheeses, stirring until completely melted and incorporated into the sauce.
Add macaroni to the cheese sauce and stir to combine.
Transfer the macaroni and cheese into an 8x8 casserole dish or individual 1/2 or 3/4 cup ramekins (depends on how much you want per serving) set on top of a baking sheet. Top with breadcrumbs and put under the broiler for 3 to 5 minutes, until golden brown. (Keep an eye on this step - you don't want it to get away from you!)
Remove from oven and let cool for a few minutes before serving.
In the past I've made my bechamel thicker than what they've called for here, but what I found by following their recipe, is that even though the white sauce seems thin -- after the cheese is added and then incorporated into the macaroni, it thickens nicely and produces the perfect consistency for the cheese sauce.