A Simple Formula for Sublime Macaroni-and-Cheese

Just as I had been thinking of simplifying my tried-and-true but slightly too labor-intensive Macaroni and Cheese recipe, I began seeing revisionist recipes claiming to be stunning for little effort. But they all had ingredients or extra steps I couldn’t get with: pureed cottage cheese or American cheese (which adds creaminess but no flavor); or evaporated milk (which gives a strangely sweet flavor and has creepy additives); flavored bread crumb toppings (more work and they just get in the way if the essential flavors); constant checking the casserole in the oven or taking too long to cook; or being so over-the-top with butter, cream and cheese as to be too rich.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

I wanted my new iteration of mac-and-cheese to be as easy to make as possible, use excellent readily available ingredients (preferably organic), be deliciously pure taste of good cheese and pasta, while not being so rich that I wouldn’t feel good. The bottom line: AN ULTRA-SIMPLE, DELICIOUS, FORMULA THAT I COULD TAILOR AS NEEDED WITHOUT USING A RECIPE. 

In this version there is no need to cook and drain the pasta or make a flour-based cream sauce. It uses only one pot and takes only 15 minutes to prepare, 25 if you bake it.  It can be eaten in its just-made, molten, super creamy state or baked into a gratin (an additional 10 minutes)

The essential technique plays on one I devised years ago: the starch from the cooked pasta is used as a gentle thickener that gives a buttery silkiness without butter. Using pasta water-as-sauce-emulsifier has its roots in classic Italian cooking.

The formula:

1) Boil the pasta in an equal volume of salted water (it should just cover it by about 1/4 inch) until the pasta is very al dente, 5 minutes. For example, if 1/2 pound pasta equals a scant 2 cups, cook it in a scant 2 cups water. Do not drain.

2) Add about 3/4 to 1 cup half-and-half or cream per 2 to 4 ounces pasta, bring to a boil and cook 2 minutes (using more pasta yields a firmer, chunkier mac-and-cheese; less pasta yields a silkier, cheesier one. For my money, 3 ounces pasta is about perfect (12 ounces pasta in the recipe below to serve 6 to 8)

3) Remove from the heat and stir in a flavorful mix of grated cheeses in 3 or 4 batches, adding each just as the previous has melted, to make a thick sauce.
Figure 4 ounces cheese per 2 to 4 ounces pasta.
If the sauce gets too thick, stir in additional half-and-half or cream.

4) Stir in seasonings to taste, such as pepper, cayenne, Pimenton de la Vera, dry mustard, nutmeg.
5) Eat right away or gratinee it by topping with additional grated cheese and baking in a 450′ oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

Sally Schneider

Once you know the essential proportions, you can make it in your sleep, or as I did today, as a lunch for one. Proportions for one at bottom.

Notes and Tricks

You can modulate the cheese flavor by the kinds of cheese you choose and the degree of sharpness. My personal favorite: 50/50 aged black-rind gouda and extra-sharp chedddar with the aged gouda and  grated Parmigiano on the top before baking. When making your choice, think flavorful aged grating cheese: Manchego, dry jack, any cheddarish cheese, Gruyere…

Flavorings that boost the cheese without getting in the way include Pimenton de la Vera (sweet smoky paprika), dry mustard powder, nutmeg and black or white pepper.

A pinch of cayenne amplifies the cheese without being hot.

Adding enough salt is essential.

To keep the cheese from getting grainy and ensure a creamy sauce: stir in the cheese in three stages, making sure it melts completely at each stage before adding more.

When baked mac-and-cheese usually separates into delicate curds. If you prefer seriously gooey/creamy baked mac-and-cheese, use heavy cream OR add about 6 ounces American cheese slices to the recipe below. (American cheese is cheddar ground and emulsified with water and some stabilizers. The process denatures the proteins in the cheese so it won’t clump or separate when you melt it.)

The technique of using concentrated pasta cooking water adds a curiously buttery effect so I leave out the butter usually called for, saving hundreds of calories and justifying the use of half-and-half (which itself has the same amount of calories as the once-classic, funky evaporated milk.)

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

 

Recipe: Really Easy Macaroni and Cheese with Sharp Cheddar and Aged Gouda

The amount of pasta you use can vary: more pasta yields a firmer, chunkier mac-and-cheese; less yields a silkier, cheesier one. I find midway — 3/4 pound — to be just right.

To up the richness, use all heavy cream, rather than half and half AND /OR up the cheese by as much as 50%.

Grating the cheese in a food processor makes quick work.

You can bake the casserole alongside other things you may have in the oven; for lower temperature, increase the time: 350′ will take about 30 minutes.

 

Serves 6 to 8

 

1/2 to 1 pound elbow macaroni

Water to equal the volume of pasta 

1 teaspoon kosher salt + additional to taste

3 to 3  3/4 cups half and half or heavy cream 

8 ounces extra sharp cheddar, coarsely grated (+ additional if baking) 

8 ounces aged Gouda or dry Jack, coarsely grated (+ additional if baking)

¼ to 1/2 teaspoon Pimenton de la Vera or sweet paprika or dry mustard or a few scrapings nutmeg (optional),

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Scant 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

If baking: 3 to 4 ounces  grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or any of the cheeses above, for the top

 

If you plan to bake the mac-and-cheese, preheat the oven to 450’

Measure the volume of pasta you plan to use. Pour an equal amount of water into a heavy-sided saucepan (approximately 3-quart, 10 inches in diameter) and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the salt. Stir in the macaroni; if it is not covered by the water add enough to cover by 1/4-inch. Stirring occasionally, bring back to medium boil (just strong enough that it does not boil over).  Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not drain.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

Stir in 3 cups of the half-and-half, bring to a medium boil (just hot enough that it does not boil over) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes longer, until the pasta is al dente and the liquid has reduced. Remove from the heat.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

Stir in the grated cheese in 3 batches, adding each just as the previous has melted.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

Season to taste with Pimenton de la Vera, black pepper, cayenne and additional salt, if necessary.

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

You can eat the super-creamy mixture as is, or bake it. If you’re not serving it right away and the mac-and-cheese gets too thick, stir in additional half-and-half by the tablespoon to loosen. You can also keep it warm in a double-boiler.

To bake, pour into a 10-12-cup shallow baking dish. Bake until bubbly and top is browned, 15 to 20 minutes

Sally Schneider

Sally Schneider

 

Recipe: Mac-and-Cheese For One or Two

2 to 4 ounces (1/2 to 1 cup) dry macaroni pasta

1/2 to 1 cup water depending on the amount of pasta

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 to 1 cup half and half or heavy cream 

4 ounces grated cheese (about 1 ½ cups)

Scant 1/8 teaspoon Pimento de la Vera or sweet paprika or dry mustard (optional)

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne pepper

½ ounce (about 1/3 cup) grated Parmesan

 

If you plan to bake the mac-and-cheese, preheat the oven to 450’

Measure the volume of pasta you plan to use. Pour an equal amount of water into a heavy-sided saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the salt. Stir in the macaroni; if it is not covered by the water add enough to cover by 1/8-inch. Stirring occasionally, bring back to medium boil (just strong enough that it does not boil over). Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not drain.

Stir in the half-and-half, bring to a medium boil (just hot enough that it does not boil over) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes longer, until the pasta is al dente and the liquid has thickened somewhat. Remove from the heat.

Stir in the cheese in 3 batches, adding each just as the previous has melted. Season to taste with Pimenton de la Vera, black pepper, cayenne and additional salt, if necessary.

You can eat the mac-and-cheese as is or bake it. If you’re not serving it right away and the mac-and-cheese gets too thick, stir in additional half-and-half by the tablespoon to loosen.

To bake: Preheat the oven to 450’ Butter a small ovenproof dish. Pour in the macaroni and cheese. Sprinkle liberally with grated cheese. Bake until the top is melted and nicely browned, 10 to 15 minutes,

It is hard to stop eating…

 

Sally Schneider

 

2 Responses to A Simple Formula for Sublime Macaroni-and-Cheese

  1. Joan 02.17.2017 at 2:06pm #

    Thank you, Sally. I love your other mac n cheese recipe, but find I resist the messiness of using a blender. This sounds perfect!

  2. Sally Schneider 02.20.2017 at 2:04pm #

    Well, I have to admit even I found the process too much to just get a good mac-and-cheese made. I must have done 6 or 7 tests of this basic process to get it right, and am happy with the results. And that there is lots of room for improvisation still. I’ll be interested to know what you think, since you know the original.

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