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Mac n' Cheese Progress Report

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Mar. 27th, 2010 | 03:03 pm

For those of you who don't know, mac n' cheese is pretty much my favorite food. That and reubens are what I guage the quality of a restaurant by (if they have either of them). As such, I've been working on my own mac recipe for a couple years, making slight modifications and tests each time, recording progress and edits to commit. Last time I made a big batch, it was the best I'd ever made. Below is the current state of the recipe (note: there are older versions I've posted out there; update your bookmarks, if you have any of them).

Anthony's work-in-progress superior baked mac n' cheese recipe

* 1/2 stick butter
* 1 tbsp minced garlic
* 1 tbsp all purpose flour
* ~1 1/2 pint heavy cream
* ~30-40 oz shredded cheese (see notes)
* 1 box cavatappi pasta (see notes)
* 2 eggs
* 1 tbsp coarse brown/spicy mustard
* salt
* black pepper
* optional garnish (see notes)

Put a large pot of water to boil. Don't forget to salt the water. Boil your noodles until they are done, but not overdone (remember they will also be baking). Pour the noodles into a strainer and use your sink sprayer to quickly rinse them in cold water to halt the cooking process (or pour off the hot water, fill with cold water, then pour off the cold water). They don't have to be ice cold, just not hot. Return the pasta to the empty pot and set aside.

In a sauce pan on medium, melt the butter and add the garlic. When the garlic has caramelized, stir in the flour until it creates a thick roux. Now add half a pint of cream and stir until it thickens. Add a handful at a time of your sauce cheeses until you have a sauce that is as thick as possible while still running off of the spoon as liquid. It should not be stringy. As it becomes too thick, add small amounts of extra cream until it returns. You'll have used about half of your total cheese in this process, and close to a full pint of cream. During this process, you should have been stirring your cheese constantly to evenly melt and bind, as well as prevent any from burning to the bottom. Turn off heat and set aside.

NOTE, SAUCE: If your cheese is too thick and you have run out of heavy cream, you can use regular milk by now...just add sparingly and continue stirring constantly to maintain the binding.

Beat two eggs into remaining half a pint of cream (or 1/3 cup of milk). Season with salt and pepper as you would an omelette. Stir in the mustard. Pour the cold liquid over the pasta and toss.

The hot cheese sauce will have cooled slightly, being removed from the heat, but should still be easily pourable. Give it a stir to get rid of any skin on the surface. Temper the cheese sauce into the pasta and fold to evenly coat all of the noodle and cold sauce mixture.

Combined, the sauced pasta should now be about room temperature, or slightly warmer. Fold in the remaining shredded cheese other than what is reserved for the topping. It should not be melting in this process, though it will soften so take care to not over-stir.

Pour the pasta into your baking dish(es). A large glass casserole dish is the total quantity, so you may use that, or individual-sized ramekins (great for classy dinner parties). Gently pack it down without damaging the noodles.

Top with your remaining cheese. As added bonus, this will keep moisture in as it bakes.

If you are making this ahead of time, now is the point in which you can tightly cover it in aluminum foil and put it in the fridge for up to a week or so before baking.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 30-45 minutes, or until bubbling at the edges and browned on the peaks. If you refrigerated it, you can keep the aluminum foil on for half of the bake time. Your total time may also be closer to an hour before the top is adequately browned and bubbly.

The final dish should be a combination of: spongy casserole with a liquid cheese sauce; duotone strings of cheese marbled throughout; and a bit of crunch in the cheese crust, toasted noodles and/or optional garnish (see notes below for garnish).


NOTES, CHEESE: The cheese is something I am still experimenting with for the ideal combination/ratio. I usually choose one among monterey jack and colby jack, then two among extra sharp cheddar, extra sharp white cheddar and extra sharp New York cheddar.

When choosing your cheeses, remember they will be used three ways: melted into sauce, coarsely marbled in for presentation, and as a topping to retain moisture. The most finicky is the sauce because it needs to bind well with the cream, then remain creamy as the baked macaroni cools (including as leftovers). For example, cheeses to avoid using in the sauce would be mozzarella or hard cheeses like gruyere or parmesan. Mozzarella doesn't bind with the cream correctly, leaving an undesirable soupy/chunky texture in the sauce. Harder cheeses will firm up too much as they cool, again not getting the optimal sauce consistency. Using these cheeses for flavoring, however, would be perfectly fine in the marbling or the topping.

As for flavor, the sharper the cheddar is, the better. Presentationally, it looks nicest to mix white and orange cheeses in the marbling, but to primarily use orange in the sauce.


NOTES, PASTA: Cavatappi is my personal favorite because it holds its form well, keeping the casserole airy (not settling like a solid brick of cheese). As a bonus, it looks fancier than macaroni as well. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to find. Macaroni can be used if this is the case. Rotini looks as though it would work as well, but I've never tried.

Pastas to avoid would be penne, shells or anything odd like egg noodles. Penne are too chewy, which doesn't bode well with the nature of the dish. Noodles not structured well enough, like shells, will not hold up to the weight of the sauce and will simply turn into a solid mass as they chill.


NOTES, GARNISH: It is good to have a crunchy counter-texture. Dropping cubes of bread over it before topping with the final cheese works. Otherwise, I am also experimenting with crumbled Goldfish or Cheez-It crackers sprinkled in the last few minutes of baking.


TIP: This is a great base recipe. Make it a meal by adding steamed broccoli and grilled chicken (e.g.) before baking.


TIP: If you don't want a baked mac n' cheese, simply add the salt, pepper and mustard to the cheese sauce, then omit the cold sauce and cold pasta bath.

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