This could be my most popular post of the summer. We’re talking mac and cheese. Nothing touches the souls of so many inner-children (which is the majority of my readers – that means you Murley) than a nostalgic romp around comfort food. And nothing says comfort food more than mac and cheese. And, nobody can touch my mac and cheese.
Let’s start with a tour around town. I’m expecting comments here people, cause I know you have an opinion. There are so many mac and cheese options in San Francisco it’s mind-numbing. I might venture to say that there is more mac and cheese than pizza. Every chef wants to show his pedestrian sensibilities. Everyone thinks theirs is the best. Many hit the mark. Few fail, simply because the addage applies: mac and cheese (or pizza) is like sex: even when it is bad, it is good. That is why I can’t stop shoveling in my son’s crappy Annie’s Shells and Cheddar (ugh shudder). Here are a few of my favorite versions:
French Laundry: what can I say about Thomas Keller’s reinterpretation using Butter-Poached Lobster with Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo other than it simply elevates the form into something transcendent, Oola: it’s been a while, but I came back time and again for their cheddar mac and cheese (and bone marrow too!), Home: consistently a pleaser – this version is light on flavor and seasoning but nails texture and creaminess, Memphis Minnies: perhaps the opposite of Home – hits hard with flavor yet has a gloppy texture and the pasta is overdone, 1300 on Fillmore: I like the use of spice in this version, Luna Park: versions with broccoli and ham add a hearty twist. I know there are many many others that are worthy of praise, so leave a comment if you have an opinion.
But this is a post about how to make good mac and cheese. I’m going to give you the foundation and you’re going to run with it. I’ve been poking around with this dish as long as any other I can recall. If there is one thing I am confident I do well, this is it. And, as always, it’s about concepts. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get messy….
Pasta: this is probably one of the few times that I will tell you that good pasta (for the sake of being good) isn’t completely essential. Yes, I typically use good pasta, but I’ve had some failures with expensive varieties. I’ve found that a number of my Rustichella d’Abruzzo varieties didn’t work well. A grainy, versus smooth, texture produces significantly different results. What I am looking for is something that holds the cheese in the shape, while also keeping it’s body and not soaking up too much into the pasta itself. That’s why curly works great. Penne is ok. Campanelle, Cappelletti, Cavatappi, Gigli, Conchiglie, Pipette, Riccioli all work very well. Lower-end brands like Barilla are fine, but stay away from Safeway or other generic brands.
When you cook your pasta use heavily-salted water. Cook it 3/4 of the way and pull it from the pot. Run it under cold water to stop the cooking. Try not to let it sit too long and dry out.
The Sauce: Cheese on its own won’t cut it (easy does it inner child people). You need a sauce. To me, the best foundation is a bechamel or other white cream variety. Depending on the type of cheese you are using and desired effect you can use a simple bechamel (note that I do not use the french technique for a proper bechamel in my mac and cheese, but you certainly can for added flavor) or turn it into Soubise with melted onions or leaks for more gumption. To make my simple bechamel melt some butter and add some flour (look it up if you need proportions, but I suggest doing this sauce enough that it’s second nature) which makes a roux. Whisk in some hot milk slowly until a thick sauce forms. You can steep the hot milk with herbs to add other flavors. Salt to taste. Note: if you want a little more depth and nuttiness, you can brown your roux mixture before adding milk. Add your shredded cheese directly to the sauce. After it melts you should have a velvety-thick and glistening cheese sauce.
Cheese: Here is where we get to be creative. I was just telling someone that making macaroni and cheese is really more of an art-form than we give credit. Cheese making is a true culinary art, much like wine making and charcuterie. So, the act of blending cheeses in a sauce is a skilled practice that produces orgasmic results, much like blending wine. Go ahead and challenge me on this one sucka, I dare you!
Where to begin? There is so much room for creative expression here I’m at a loss. Well, no, not really. C’mon! Start at Gruyère. Why? Cause it just works. Never met a Gruyère I didn’t like, especially melted into a bath of hot milky sauce and poured over pasta. The sharpness and age of Gruyère gives you kick of earth with an elegant finish. Toss a bunch into your bechamel and see how it tastes. Always shred your cheese, BTW. If you want some creaminess without compromising the funk, add some Fontina. Want to bring it back home to America, toss in a sharp Vermont cheddar. Go Brit with some English or Irish varieties. Add bite with provolone or parmigiano, pecorino or asiago. Blue? You want blue? You got blue. Go blue! The idea here is that with a white sauce, almost any cheese can be melted and creamy. Go bistro with some goat cheese (or drunken goat for that matter). How about a truffle flavor (Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor is my ultimate fav)? Use your cheesemonger at the market. They’ve been down this road before. Ask them to surprise you. Surprise yourself.
Additional flavors: I’m somewhat loath to push you towards this just yet. Truthfully, not many versions are successful with additives. Stick with the pasta and cheese and you’re fine. But if you’ve got the moxie, here are some suggestions to help you out. Bacon works. Works really well. Smokiness and sweet cured meat, thick – ok. Pancetta = good. Almost any version would work with bacon (truffle excluded, unless you’ve got mad skills). Goat cheese works great with bacon.
Bread crumbs are a solid option. You can melt butter on them and saute some herbs with them to add a nice flavor pop. Try sage or rosemary. Saute the herbs to open them up. Big flavors are the key here. I like to toss some raw green onions into my bacon-goat cheese version just before serving and sprinkle some on top for garnish. Maybe some horseradish, maybe some mustard. If you’re going to put veggies in, make sure they have a lot of flavor and don’t overcook them so they become mush. Broccoli can work, sweet peas (and prosciutto, hmmm), chard or collards – sure. Meats are good too. Sausage could work. Braised meats would be heavenly – think luscious short ribs.
Once the elements are prepped I grab a massive bowl and toss everything together. A lot of sauce is good – don’t be shy with the salt either. If it seems to saucy, it isn’t. The pasta will absorb more of the sauce when cooking and nothing is worse than a dried-out brick of mac and cheese (hello Whole Foods!). Your pasta should be swimming. Toss it into a baking dish. Take a handful of the cheese and put a layer on top. Cook it till the stuff is hot inside. Then hit it with the broiler to crisp up the top. No need to cook the thing forever, just get it hot and get that crust. The longer it cooks, the drier and mushier the pasta gets.
When nobody is looking, take a rubber spatula and scrape the inside of the mixing bowl. Eat it – now. I must confess that I rarely eat my own mac and cheese at a dinner party. This is because the best time to eat it is while your cooking it. A little taste here, another there. I’m often way too full to consider eating by dinner time. Everyone thinks you’re so healthy. Ha!
So kids, with this one I implore you to experiment and be playful. Break free from the traditions and think about how flavors play together. Taste a bunch of cheeses together and see what happens. Macaroni and cheese is an opportunity for an amateur chef to play like a big dog. No risk, no reward.