Home for the holidays a few years ago, I decided to make macaroni and cheese from scratch: roux, béchamel, freshly-grated nutmeg, 5 kinds of cheeses (smoked and unsmoked), 3 different pasta shapes, bread crumbs, the whole shebang.
The reception? After poking the golden pile and perfectly crunchy top with suspicion, my brother declared that he preferred the stuff out of the box.
My heart immediately sank. It was like someone telling you that they liked Tang more than fresh-squeezed. My inner cook shook her useless, cheese-stinking fists at the sky and wailed, “Why?!”
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, and as comfort food it should be instantly familiar, recognizable, and convenient. Warm, soothing, and uncomplicated.
For myself, my first “real” mac and cheese was a revelation. Having grown up with the boxed stuff, I found the fussier version so much more satisfying and have never gone back — even if it means I eat it at home a lot less frequently.
In truth, to make it from scratch really isn’t so much fussier; like anything else we cook, there are complex ways to make something as well as simpler ways. My absolute favorite macaroni and cheese recipe comes from Deborah Madison’s cookbook The Savory Way. That recipe is decidedly a lot of work, but it is so worth it. This recipe from sadly defunct Gourmet Magazine is not nearly as complicated, but it is still delicious. Four cups of whole milk from Milk Thistle Dairy made the sauce exceptionally rich and creamy. For the cheese, we had one last scrumptious wedge of Bier Meck from our CSA that we shredded along with a good chunk of raw milk Colby.
8 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
4 cups of whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons of dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon of cayenne
1 pound rotini
3 cups coarsely grated “melty” cheese (about 12 ounces of different cheeses is always best)
1 1/3 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)
1 cup bread crumbs
How to prepare:
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 3- to 4-quart gratin dish or another shallow baking dish.
2. In a kettle of salted boiling water, cook macaroni until just al dente. Drain well.
3. In a heavy saucepan, melt just 6 tablespoons butter over moderately low heat. Add the flour and cook the roux, whisking, for about 3 minutes. Add the milk in a stream, whisking while bringing to a boil. Continue to whisk the sauce. Add the mustard powder, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer sauce, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 2 minutes.
4. In a large bowl, stir together the macaroni, the sauce, the grated cheeses, and one cup of Parmesan. Transfer the macaroni mixture to the prepared dish and spread it out evenly.
5. Melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in the microwave. In a small bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, the remaining 1/3 cup Parmesan, and the melted butter. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the macaroni.
6. Bake the macaroni in the middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling.